Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Real Beijing

Laure, yesterday, invited us out for tea at a traditional Chinese teahouse. We arrived at Tiananmen West only slightly late due to subway inefficiency (which should take up an entire post by itself). We found our choice of two tea houses outside the west gate of the Forbidden City: one plastered with TEA and COFFEE signs, with four bored waitresses attending eagerly at the door; the other, seemingly closed. We went for the obvious choice, which was in fact open.

We sat down in our own secluded booth, screened from our neighbours (had there been any) by wooden lattice-work. The waitress brought us a tea menu that had been written on a fan. We ordered Longjing Cha - Dragon Well Tea - a famous green tea. After some initial confusion whereupon we were served a plate of deep fried broad beans, we eventually got our platter of pistachios!

Laure remarked about how she felt that she was experiencing the real China, which got us talking. What is the real China? The China that tourists expect waned long ago, or more likely never existed. There may not be a single authentic teahouse left in all of Beijing, a city once famed for its teahouses, where they fulfilled a social function similar to that of a pub. The teahouses you can find today are either over-the-top stark and modern destinations for the nouveaux riches, or twee antiquified places that exist to siphon money from tourists' pockets.

What are we looking for in the real Beijing? Imperial palaces (complete with emperors); whimsical gardens; kungfu experts demonstrating their talents on the street; teahouses filled with businessmen and mah-jong players; pedlars hawking their wares from bamboo shoulder-poles; city walls and gates; temples shrouded in incense smoke; thriving hutong communities; millions of bicycles at rush hour; men in Mao jackets (which are here called Sun Yat-sen jackets) - none of these exist. So why do we keep looking for them?


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