The Revolution is a Dinner Party

It's a steamy Beijing evening, and I'm walking along vast Tiananmen Square. Gaggles of tourists follow guides, children play tag, peddlers sell fruit ice and watermelon, and newlyweds pose for photographs. After passing the enormous Great Hall of the People, I turn in to a narrow hutong, one of Beijing's ancient alleyways, where shirtless men sit in their doorways chatting, a woman in plastic sandals pours a bucket of dirty water onto the street, and a group of boys, munching sticks of fried dough, listen to Billy Joel's "My Life" on a boom box. I turn down a second hutong, which leads me to a gate flanked by stone lions and a uniformed guard. When I duck through, I am transported to another world and another time.

The China Club Beijing is a rare place in China today, a reminder of imperial life in a nation where most cultural artifacts were destroyed by Mao Tse-tung’s marauding Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and where even the Forbidden City, the palace complex that was the seat of Chinese power for 500 years, survived only because the army was sent in to protect it.

Housed in a compound built five centuries ago as the home of Prince Pu Yu, the 24th son of the emperor Kangxi, the club is a precious jewel of design and history, with elements that evoke centuries past layered with some straight out of the second half of the 20th century—like Mao-style velvet chairs with lace antimacassars such as the Chinese bourgeoisie might have owned had there in fact been a Chinese bourgeoisie during those years. And the club’s kitchen serves a thrilling menu of classic Chinese dishes: spicy Sichuan, delicate Cantonese, and rich Shanghainese, with refined versions of Beijing specialties as well.

The detailed renovation of this landmark has made it far more beautiful than even the Forbidden City (which will undergo a complete restoration in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics). The old palace is a "square house", or si heyuan, a grander version of the one featured in the 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern. Palaces of this vintage have a series of courtyards surrounded by ornate pavilions. The more courtyards, the greater the stature and wealth of the palace's occupant; and there are four main courtyards here, framed by gates adorned with crests and gold trim, held aloft by lacquered beams. The larger pavilions connecting the courtyards are now the banquet hall and dining rooms. One pavilion holds the wryly named Long March Bar, resplendent with gleaming mahogany. Another was once the old master's inner sanctum and is now the main dining room, the Tang Room, named for the club's owner, David Wing-cheung Tang. The room is finished in dark wood, with handsome Ming dynasty tables, a polished stone floor, and the club's signature scarlet lamps, shaped like teardrops and decorated with the yellow star of China's flag. The guest suites, and the restaurant there is the only part of the club that is open to the public. It is named after the palace's previous tenant, Sichuan Fan Dian, or Sichuan Restaurant, a favorite hangout of China's former leader Deng Xiaoping. The restaurant is much plainer than the other rooms in the club, but the food—primarily Sichuan, as you'd expect—is from the same wondrous kitchen that serves the members.

I was introduced to the China Club by Bo Feng, a dear friend whom I met a decade ago when he was a student filmmaker and part-time waiter and sushi chef in Marin County, California. In the most improbable career change since Jesse Ventura’s, he is now a venture capitalist, or VC—one of the most important VCs in his homeland, in fact. After being educated in the United States, he returned to China to help lead the latest revolution to sweep the most populous country on earth—a virtual revolution, devoted to bringing free-flowing information and uncensored communication to a nation without either. As a founding partner in Chengwei Ventures, Bo searches out and funds entrepreneurs who are dedicated to building the Internet in China. Compared with their U.S. counterparts, these young people work harder, sleep less, and—as I’ve experienced firsthand—eat better. Far better. The nerdy pioneers of the information revolution in California are known for their devotion to Big Macs and pizza delivered at midnight. But with Bo and his peers, I’ve sampled some of the best fare of a land with a cuisine far more refined than Americans—most of whom think that Chinese food consists of gluey sweet-and-sour pork and greasy egg rolls—can fathom. Chairman Mao once said, “The Revolution is not a dinner party,” but this once certainly appears to be.

Over the course of five years of visits to China to research a series of magazine articles and then a book about Bo and his colleagues, I ate some of the most extraordinary meals of my life. No, I never saw monkey’s brain. Instead, at a Hangzhou restaurant, we dined on an otherworldly “like a picture of spring” soup of local vegetables in clear broth, along with tofu and daikon in vinegar, Chinese squash with bamboo shoots, goose wings, clams in pepper sauce, steamed buns with red bean paste, and small black crabs; the next morning we had tea under a red willow tree in a Qing dynasty teahouse called Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake Pavilion, snacking on yam sticks and olives with our freshly roasted longjing tea. In a private room in Beijing,I sampled an “eye” snake, selected by Bo and his friends from a terrarium, that was then grilled until crisp and served with vinegar-shallot dipping sauce. I returned a dozen times to a stand near Bo’s Shanghai apartment for my favorite Chinese breakfast—fresh wonton in broth, pork-and-cilantro dumplings, and a glass of icy soybean milk.

But the most consistently delicious meals I’ve eaten in China have been at the China Club Beijing, whose antique splendor provides a backdrop for another, very modern kind of elite, the leaders of the country’s ongoing political-economic transformation. While it’s no secret that there’s little that’s “Communist” today about Communist China—a country now “as drugged on business as it was on politics”, as Orville Schell notes in Mandate of Heaven (Touchstone Books, 1995), his history of China in the early 1990s—the China Club would horrify Marx, Engels, and Mao himself. Membership in this private club costs an initiation fee of $15,000 plus $1,200 a year (foreigners pay a flat $7,000). The price would be steep anywhere but is astronomical in China, where the average salary is about $1,000 a year. Nevertheless, the club has some 1,200 members, including Hong Kong and overseas Chinese, high-up Communist party members, and local businessmen.

My first dinner at the China Club, five years ago, was with Bo, whose company had a membership, and his father, Feng Zhijun, a scholar and legislator representing the Ningxia region in the Standing Committee of the People’s Republic. The Fengs, who are Shanghainese, turn up their noses at most Beijing food – they consider it less refined – but find much to appreciate on chef Fung Kai On’s menu for the Tang Room, which offers an eclectic mix of regional dishes (and plenty of Shanghai specialties). “No doubt we eat better than the old emperor’s son who livered here,” said Zhijun, laughing.

The feast—there's no other word for it—began with sips of maotai, a sorghum-and-wheat-based liquor fermented eight times, and lively conversation, with Zhijun and Bo discussing world politics and books (in the course of which Zhijun quoted President Clinton, Mao, the early 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun, and the New York Times). I had already learned that fine dining in China is different from what we know in the West. In China, numerous courses are served, each carefully designed to provide "balancing flavors, nourishing the body with yin and yang", as Bo described it. The ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang—opposing forces that one should always strive to harmonize—translates, in good cooking, into a skillful pairing of contrasts: sweet-sour, light-dark, crisp-tender; a rich, braised meat dish with a stir-fried green vegetable. When one is eating lavishly, custom and prudence dictate that a few bites of any particular dish should suffice.

We had tiny, crunchy Beijing cucumbers, sprinkled with bits of intensely citrusy dried tangerine peel and rice vinegar dressing, and marinated beef sliced paper thin, boiled in seasoned broth and then dried, so it looked like shavings of amber. Next came white fish baked in rock salt, then served in soy broth, and a bracing salad of cilantro and watercress tossed with sesame oil, vinegar, and garlic.

More courses arrived in succession: tender deep-fried prawns with chile oil and fruity Sichuan peppercorns, prawns in mayonnaise sauce, sautéed prawns with lemon and sesame; braised soy-ginger chicken with mushrooms, scallions, fried tofu squares, ginkgo nuts, and chestnuts, a dish from old Canton; and flank steak with long beans, drizzled with chile oil, minced pork, and garlic. I was nearly overwhelmed by the complex flavors of the smoked duck, cooked with camphor and tea leaves. It was served somewhat in the manner of peking duck (Beijing’s most famous dish, an incredibly labor-intensive preparation that is not listed on the club’s menu—though chef Fung usually has a few orders on hand for special requests). This duck was sliced and came with shell-shaped buns meant to be split open, drizzled with hoisin sauce, and filled with the meaty, fragrant duck.

Bo and I used to surf together in the Pacific Ocean. When he was a surfer, he boycotted shark’s fin soup because he worried about what John Lennon called instant karma. Bo’s nightmarish version of that idea was that the shark might seek revenge. Now he’s a golfer, which has no culinary downside. I have had shark’s fin soup in the United States and never understood why it is considered such a delicacy. The China Club’s version converted me. The fin, reconstituted in water for two days, simmered for eight hours, then cooked in a delicious chicken broth flavored with Yunnam ham, ginger, and green onion, is smoky tasting and luxuriously creamy. It is, however, undoubtedly bad for the shark, some species of which are endangered.

Chef Fung, with a staff of 30 cooks, prepares these and hundreds of other dishes (including Western-style food upon request) for the club’s two main dining rooms, the Long March Bar, and 14 private dining rooms. I’ve never seen a résumé quite like Fung’s; it notes, along with his culinary background, that he is “a pleasant, hardworking fellow, contentious but humorous”. No doubt.

Fung created the menu with general manager Tony Chiu and club owner David Tang, who also owns the original China Club Hong Kong, which he opened in 1991, and a China Club in Singapore, launched last year. Tang is a flamboyant businessman with a range of interests, including investment companies of his own, the Pacific Cigar Company, cigar bars in Bangkok and Singapore, and Shanghai Tang, a department store specializing in kitschy but chic items like Cultural Revolution place mats and Mao wristwatches, with branches in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, London, and New York City.

Each of Tang’s clubs is designed to reflect is specific setting. Whereas the Beijing club is mainly about the elegance of the long-ago past, the Hong Kong club, in the old Bank of China building, is sleekly art deco, with marble-topped tables and Tiffany glasswork, but also contemporary Chinese art on the walls and waiters in collared Mao-style jackets—a gentle spoof. The Singapore club, in the Capital Tower skyscraper, has pink chandeliers and silk scrolls embellished with quotations from three Chinese leaders—Sun Yat-sen, Mao, and Chiang Kai-shek—“to be fair”, says Tang. Although the clubs have similar menus, each has local dishes; at the Hong Kong club, for instance, you can get homemade Hong Kong-style noodles, and in Singapore, beef redang, a spicy stew. Tang opened the Beijing China Club in 1996, after spending $8 million on the renovation, with a party that felt more like 1930s Shanghai than stodgy Beijing; movie stars and royals—among them Kevin Costner, Michael Caine, and the Duchess of York—came for the occasion. Celebrities continue to drop in on Tang’s clubs, often in his company; he recently stopped by the Singapore and Beijing clubs (his base remains Hong Kong) with “some of my younger friends from London”, including Kate Moss and Jude Law.

I’ve been back to eat at the Beijing club several times in the past few years. I’ve sampled Fung’s Sichuan chicken with peanuts and whole dried red chiles—a dainty assemblage of small, plump chicken morsels, peanuts, and scallions, with just enough chiles to give it a kick. The club’s steamed carp in black bean sauce, a dish I’ve eaten frequently elsewhere in China, is the best I have tasted. Spinach with fried minced ginger is marvelously light and invigorating. Fung’s pastry shells filled with chunks of soy-marinated beef and pieces of crisp snap peas, decorated with carrot slices cut in flower shapes, exemplify yin and yang in harmony. Of his winter melon, carrot, and seafood soup, Fung says, “This dish is pleasing to the eyes with its red and white colors and pleasing to the mouth with the freshness of the seafood.” I agree. Equally pleasing is my favorite dessert there: red bean cream, a rich dollop of mashed boiled red beans sweetened with sugar. And, recently, after running around Beijing during one of the city’s wicked sandstorms, I soothed my parched throat in the Long March Bar with a drink called Galloping Horse, a concoction of sugarcane, water chestnuts, carrots, almonds, and ginger.

At the conclusion of my first China Club meal, I’d had all that food yet didn’t feel full; instead, I felt elated. Feng Zhijun, Bo, and I walked through the successive courtyards underneath a thin moon. Zjijun had his own car, and Bo tucked him into it and we watched him drive off. I jumped into the backseat of a taxicab, ready for rest, but Bo was heading out to another meeting—more proof that he, like so many of his peers who are urgently attempting to remake China, hardly ever sleep. “I can work hard as long as I make time for a good meal,” Bo told me. “Food is the reward at the end of the day.”