What a meal of beef stomach and duck throats taught me about the new China.

Commentary about business and finance.
Nov. 20 2009 10:22 AM

Hot Pot's Top Spot

What a meal of beef stomach and duck throats taught me about the new China.

Customers enjoy Hot Pot in Chongqing, China.
Chongqing's Hot Pot Festival

"So what's that?" I asked, gesturing at a bowl of grayish fleshy ribbons with little spikes. It was one of the many tough-to-identify animal parts cramming the Lazy Susan. Zhang Haiqing, deputy director of the Foreign and Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, Chongqing Municipal People's Government, mulled the question for a minute. A gracious host to a group of journalists who had traveled to Chongqing, Zhang had lived in Seattle in the 1990s. He probably intuited the squeamishness of the visiting Americans.

"Quite frankly, it's beef stomach."

Chongqing, history buffs will recall, was the capital of China during World War II , or, as it's referred to here, "the Anti-Japanese War." Today, it's a massive urban megaplex at the junction of the Jiliang and Yangtze Rivers, the gateway to China's west and the focus of frantic economic development efforts. In contrast to the export-oriented coasts, Chongqing emphasizes domestic demand and heavy manufacturing rather than exports, services, and light manufacturing. At a Chang'an auto factory, workers were churning out cheap minivans intended to help rural farmers move stuff around.

Chongqing boosters like to say that it's the largest city in the world, with a population greater than that of Shanghai. But that's largely because it has been granted a special status: Imagine if you counted everyone in the New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island, and Westchester suburbs as residents of New York City. It covers a vast geographical area, to which Chongqing is trying to bring its urban, modernizing sensibility. The scale of the place is impressive. The Yangtze River carves a deep course through this part of China (it's a few hundred miles upstream from the Three Gorges region), and high-rises are arrayed on the hillsides, plateaus and valleys.

The hot pot is a characteristic cuisine of the region and of its poverty. Peasants who lived by the river, unable to afford choice cuts of meat, would take whatever scraps they could gather and boil them in a shared pot of spicy oil. But my experience with the hot pot suggests that, even at a time when hundreds of millions of Chinese remain desperately poor, urban areas like Chongqing have made sufficient progress in the past 20 years that entrepreneurs can transform a symbol of poverty into an upscale consumer experience. The hot-pot restaurant is like a white-tablecloth soul food joint.

This hot-pot restaurant was in a theme mall perched on a hillside overlooking the Jialing River. The multilevel structure replicated the look and feel of a regional market, with open stalls selling nuts and dried fruit. One facade was topped, naturally, with ads for Subway and Starbucks. In Chongqing, examples of what Westerners like to think of as Chinese architecture are hard to find. There's the People's Congress Hall, and some of the banks feature stone lions outside them. But most of the structures, such as the Hilton Hotel we stayed in, or the many large apartment buildings, are standard-issue Western fare. The striking new buildings in town are designed by foreigners. From our table we had a view of the hulking Chongqing Grand Theater, which replicated a ship. It was designed by a German architectural firm.

The restaurant was a sort of theme treatment of the hot-pot experience. Rather than a communal pot, the table had built-in burners on which each person's small pot could be heated. Deferring to the sensibilities of foreigners, the personal hot pot was divided into two sections, one spiked with red chilies and the other with a bland broth. But the concessions went only so far. There were strips of beef and lamb. But there were also the aforementioned beef stomach, tiny whole fish, quivering pigs' brains, duck throats, and red chicken necks. (I stuck mostly to the vegetables.) Meals staged for foreigners tend to be epic affairs, with far more food on offer than even a famished table of 12 can consume. They seem designed to convey the fact that China can afford not just to feed you but to stuff you beyond belief.

As I surveyed the table, searching for something bland, it struck me that at this meal, as at every other meal we had eaten, there was no rice. This, too, may also be a sign of China's rising prosperity. Serving rice to guests is regarded as impolite and a sign of impecunity. It would be, one Chinese official told me, like serving a guest in America white bread with nothing to put on it.

Our hot pot wasn't the only example I noticed of Chongqing turning what until recently would have been a signifier of poverty into a marker of prosperity. Yesterday, we strolled through the central business district, a large pedestrian mall area with massive hotels, department stores, office towers and apartment buildings. In the middle there's a modest tower, the People's Liberation Memorial Tower. It's a few hundred feet high. Twenty years ago, it was the highest building in Chongqing. Today, it's dwarfed by fancy department stores, a huge Intercontinental Hotel, and high-end consumption. And the clock at the top of the tower is a Rolex.

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