Mr. China

“Soon it was time for dinner, so we trooped out of the meeting room, through the cavernous hallways with thick dusty carpets, and followed the mayor into the private room. There was a huge circular dinner table with a glass turntable in the middle placed at the center of the room under an enormous chandelier.

“I looked at the expanse of white tablecloth in front of me, the perfectly aligned plates, and the flowers and elaborately carved vegetables on the circular glass in the center. I leaned back in my chair and breathed slowly. This, I thought resignedly, promises to be an epic. 

“It started off, as it always does, with a fight about the seating arrangements. At these events there is a strict hierarchical order to the places at the table and there is always a prolonged argument among the middle-ranking Chinese officials about where they should sit, with plenty of jostling and pushing, each person protesting loudly that the others should take the more senior places. Once everyone had settled, during the small talk little glass cups appeared beside each guest’s place and were silently filled with baijiu by waitresses who moved noiselessly through a concealed door in the paneling.

“Baijiu looks like gin but it tastes much stronger. It is distilled from grain and sorghum and there are many famous brands of the drink in China. Wuliang ye or “five-grain liquid” comes from Yibin in Sichuan, and Maotai, the most famous in China, comes from Guizhou, farther south. A really good bottle of Maotai can cost the equivalent of several month’s salary. Baijiu is always taken neat but, thankfully, in small doses. The idea is to knock it back in one go with a cry of “Gan bei,” “Dry the cup!” The problem is that drinking baijiu at a Chinese banquet is compulsory; it is slightly vicious, has a smell like exhaust fumes mixed with a trace of chocolate, and seems both fiery and sickly at the same time. It burns the inside of your mouth and throat and leaves you with a sensation rather than a taste. There is an immediate feeling of heat and tingling that creeps up the back of the neck and radiates out all over the scalp. I always knew that these formal banquets entailed elaborate drinking rituals designed to get the guests hopelessly drunk, so I braced myself for the deluge.

“The starters were served cold. First, there was a dish of duck webs in a thick yellow sauce. It turned out to be the strongest mustard that I had ever tasted. It sent a searing pain up the back of my nose and brought tears to my eyes. Next came “husband and wife” lung slices. He told us that it was Sichuan specialty: cow’s lung soaked in chili sauce. The lungs were followed by goose stomachs, a couple of dishes of pickled vegetables, a plate of steamed lotus root, and a chicken that looked as if it had been attacked by a madman with a machete: its bones stuck out at all angles. Then onward to the hot dishes.

“It seemed as if the cooks had entered a contest to serve up the strangest parts of animals in the weirdest combinations. The pile of smoked plates grew on the table in front of us: fish lips with celery, monkey-head mushrooms, goats’ feet tendons in wheat noodles, ox’s forehead, roasted razor-blade fish, and finally a tortoise in a casserole. There was one dish that looked like a bowl of pasta served up plain and without the sauce, but it was crunchy and almost tasteless. It couldn’t be pasta, so I asked what it was. “A Shangong specialty,” said the mayor. “Steamed rabbits’ ears.”

“At this point there was a minor distraction from the story as a plate of black scorpions arrived. The mayor explained that you eat them whole with a couple pieces of shredded radish and popped in a few to show us.  I said I thought they were poisonous but he said reassuringly, “Not if they’re cooked properly.”

“More toasts, cheers, hoots of laughter, and the grand finale arrived. “Deer’s whip!” said the mayor.

“The waitress had brought in a flat white oval dish and placed it center stage. In the middle, chopped neatly into sections and then meticulously reassembled, surrounded by carefully arranged pieces of broccoli and carrot and with just the faintest traces of steam rising up from the edges, was unmistakably an enormous penis. “Deer’s dick! Oh Lord, how horrible!”

“The mayor, smiling broadly, leaned forward, picked up a piece with his chopsticks, and placed it on my plate. The tip, so it seemed, was the best part.”

One day before my flight left for Hong Kong, I received a copy of Tim Clissold’s Mr. China from a friend in Charlotte. Mr. China is a fascinating memoir of China’s peculiar business culture between 1995 and 2002, highly worth the read if you can find a copy.  With fifteen hours to spend with my friends at Delta, I looked forward to enjoying some entertaining war stories about Chinese culture during the flight. And after four days in Hong Kong, a half-day in Macau, and nearly a dozen cities in mainland China, it would seem that not much has changed since then!

I am extremely happy to report that we were successfully able to avoid the poisonous scorpions during our dinner meetings.  Unfortunately, we were not so lucky when it came to the poisonous river fish!!  After waiting a few moments for everyone to digest this local delicacy, our host laughed and laughed as he explained that the fish’s blood is a deadly nerve toxin that could kill you in minutes if not prepared properly by a highly sought after certified chef. Thanks for the heads up Jerry!

I am back in the office this week just in time for Spring in NC.  Over the next few weeks, I will share my observations and summarize our discussions with government officials, real estate developers and banking officials while traveling through China in March.  The pace of development (i.e. capital misallocation) across the country is simply mind-boggling. Perhaps some second and third tier cities really do need three state-of-the-art high speed train stations?  Perhaps the Chinese people really do just shop on weekends leaving massive furniture malls completely vacant Monday through Friday?  And perhaps spending more than half of your GDP on “investment” (relative to 16% in the US and 40% during other historical emerging market credit bubbles) is not representative of one of the greatest economic imbalances in history?  Or perhaps we are just missing something and the poisonous river fish may have “gotten” us.