When I returned to Beijing after three months of research work in Shanghai and Jiangsu province, I decided it was time to become part of the capital’s foreign community just as I did in Shanghai. I must admit that I missed the convivial Friday evening Planter’s Punch and the Old Jazz Band at the Peace Hotel.
There were no more than a few hundred or so of us long-term Beijing residents excluding diplomats, students and the few foreign correspondents assigned to “new” China.
I got into the swing of things in Beijing through meeting people from the British Chamber of Commerce. They invited me to join them at the British Embassy for a drink at the Bell, a pub that was (and still is) on the actual grounds of the embassy.
It was on a Friday evening and, afterwards, they took me to the Xin Qiao Hotel where, to my surprise, Pakistani curry was being served in a function room. How on earth was this possible? My new friends from the British Chamber of Commerce explained that, on that particular day, the Pakistani Airlines crew was in town.
They regularly brought spices and other ingredients for the hotel chefs to prepare succulent curry. The icing on the cake was chocolate almond ice cream that they also brought almost every week. At that time, the only ice cream available in Beijing was vanilla while curry was not on any restaurant menu so it was an amazing treat.
This is how Xin Qiao became a rallying point for many expats in the mid-1980s. I used to go there at least twice a month and always enjoyed the company and the culinary treats.
At the Minzu Hotel along Chang An Avenue (close to the Forbidden City), the Western restaurant used to offer borsch, chicken Kiev and other Russian specialties. It was rather expensive but quite authentic so I only went there on special occasions, as my research grant did not cover wining and dining in western restaurants.
We also used to meet from time to time on Sunday evenings at a small Chinese restaurant located in Ritan Park for a plate or two of local jiaozi, the traditional north-China dumplings. This was a very inexpensive but nevertheless delicious meal. Nowadays, this particular restaurant has long gone but the park has several well-known eateries including Xi He Ya Ju, serving tasty Sichuan food, Xiao Wang Fu serving Peking Duck, as well as a couple of tea houses and even a Russian restaurant, Moscow.
Steamed and fried jiaozi
By Houhai Lake, on the north side of Behai Park, was another Chinese restaurant that I enjoyed very much and which is still in operation. Called Kaorouji, it used to have one small room just off the main dining room that had a large round barbecue in the centre. Going there in wintertime was absolutely delightful for the heat generated by the open barbecue kept everyone warm. My favourite was a succulent lamb dish spiced up with ziran (cumin). It tasted so delicious that it was impossible to stop eating. Sadly, it has been totally renovated and lost all authenticity and appeal for me.
Kaurouji at Houhai Lake
From Spring to Autumn, expats would often meet on Sunday for “R&R” (Rest & Recreation) and lunch at the Fragrant Hills, west of Beijing. A very nice hotel hidden in the hills had been designed by renowned architect I. M. Pei (The I.M. Pei who had already designed the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and would later create the Louvre Pyramid in Paris and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong amongst many others). Opened a couple of years earlier (1982), it had a distinctive and elegant feel with a four-storey central atrium covered by glass panels, a couple of restaurants, a large swimming pool and a beautiful garden. It was the perfect spot to unwind regardless of the weather and we used to stay until late.
I.M.Pei’s Fragrant Hills Hotel
Our lives in 1984 were very much Yin and Yang. On the one hand we faced many obstacles at a time when telex was only becoming the means of communication with the outside world (no fax yet) and international calls had to be booked at least one day in advance, when access to medical care was “limited” and various supplies were only available from Hong Kong. But, we also had the immense privilege of being trail-blazers as we discovered a fascinating new world going through amazing changes.
Within two decades, it became an economic giant and, thinking about it 30 years later and comparing our lives then and now, I sometimes have the feeling that I am actually living on another planet!