We reclined on the roof of the Keio department store in Shinjuku, quaffing massive mugs of dark beer and shouting over the drums and singing of a ten-person taiko drum troupe providing that evening’s entertainment. I’d never seen taiko drummers perform there before, and I figured it had to be some O-bon related thing.
It was a spontaneous reunion of sorts for we five Café Ole regulars, drawn together that evening by coincidence, proximity and the cool evening air. Each of us had first met the others in a tiny Spanish dive in Kabukicho, a sordid one-room affair wedged between a Filipino hostess club and a transvestite bar. The music was mediocre and the drinks debilitating, but there was always Miguel on hand to entertain you or beat you at poker.
He was our Connector, and even though he’s no longer with us we’re still around, and somehow still together. That said, being Japanese, French, Ecuadorian and American we make a pretty unlikely group. Anyway, there we were, and it was good to see the boyz, especially Hiro, whom I’d fallen out of touch with over the past couple of years as our lives took different courses and we rarely went to the same places.
It was later this evening, sitting in a Romanian hostess club in Kabukicho getting loopy on all-you-can-drinks that Hiro invited me to come to China. His company has two factories there that produce 鎧兜 (yoroi kabuto, or suits of feudal-period armor given to Japanese boys on Boy’s Day, May 5th). They had been having a bunch of problems getting Active Directory and DNS to work properly among the various sites and wanted someone to come in and sort everything out. As I’ve been dying to get out of the country I jumped at the opportunity to go.
I caught a plane to Beijing out of Narita, and the trip was a surprisingly short three hours. Hiro was there to meet me when I arrived, joined by the company driver and his Chinese friend. We headed East out of the city and drove three hours to Qinhuangdao, a medium-sized city classified as a “technology development zone” about 20 km inland from the Bohai Sea.
We got to the hotel and dropped off my things before heading out to get a bite to eat. It was late Sunday evening so there weren’t many options, but eventually we found a 24-hour diner with all of the food on display behind a long buffet-style counter. We perused the selection as we slowly walked past, while a petite Chinese girl took down our order on a small notepad. We pointed at what looked good and she took it down. A couple of stir-fries, some oversized gyoza-like dumplings, marinated pork, sliced ham, a noodle dish, etc., then we retired upstairs to wait for it all to show up.
We were escorted through one large room that had apparently withstood the ravages of more than one dinner party that evening, and more than a few of the tables there were strewn above and below with the detritus some earlier meal. We had to avoid a pile of broken bottles as we continued on to the back of the restaurant and into a private room that was at that moment being prepared by another waitress. The floor had be used as both an ashtray and rubbish bin by the previous guests, and the waitress handily swept everything out into the hallway before inviting us in and closing the door behind us.
The food started coming some minutes later, and didn’t stop for the next half-hour or so. To be sure, everything we had ordered was there, but the portions were all wrong. Although there were but four of us—Hiro, myself, the driver and an interpreter—we were suddenly confronted with a mountain of food that could easily have fed not only us but the other 30-40 patrons as well.
“This can’t be right. We ordered two each of the dumplings,” I said to the interpreter in Japanese, our only common language.
“They come by the plate, so you get two plates,” she explained.
“But, I mean, we can’t, there’s no way…,” I stammered.
“Don’t worry. You don’t have to finish everything. We can take home what’s left or just leave it. No problem.”
I would eventually discover in the coming days that this is a regular fact of life here. You always get too much. Way too much. I never figured out why. I had thought that China was, y’know, kind of, well, poor or something. Low wages, struggling to get by, well-defined rib cages, that sort of thing. At least in Qinhuangdao, or at least among the people I spent time with there, the standard of eating at least is pretty darn high.
During the meal Hiro enticed me to try bai jiu, a potent Chinese “wine” (not) that tastes like petrol might if you sweetened it. I tried it and hated it, but in the coming days somehow grew to enjoy it. Not of my will, of course, but we’ll get to that later.
So we get back to the hotel and call it a night. Up early the next day we have breakfast in the hotel café and head off to work. The factory is a large affair situated in the middle of a run-down industrial complex. (I’m told it’s an industrial complex, but I wouldn’t have known just by looking.) I’m introduced around, and dust off my pidgin Chinese for introductions and answering whatever questions I can comprehend.
Not much to say about work, so I’ll skip that and get on to the main activities of the trip: eating and drinking heavily.
We ate lunch and dinner together in groups of 8-12 each day I was there. They would ask “Do you like (something in Chinese) food?” and I would say, “Sure!” And off we would go for, invariably, Chinese food. It was all different Chinese food, of course. Food from so-and-so province, Chinese seafood, whatever. It was all pretty much the same as far as I could tell, and it was all exceptional.
For lunch the first day we went to a place that specializes in Peking Duck, which was sliced by a well-dressed chef on a cart some feet from our table. I also learned that it’s not only OK to drink alcohol at lunch in China, but encouraged. Thankfully not so much as at dinner, though.
Same drill this time: we order entirely too much food, and it just comes and comes and comes over the next thirty minutes. Me being the guest of honor or something I get served first—usually by the young woman on my left who had been assigned as my meal assistant or something—and so end up eating almost non-stop as more and more dishes arrive.
As a group we look like this: there’s Hiro and one other Japanese fellow, a 40-something chap with near-native Chinese. He’s a senior employee in the company and seems more Chinese than Japanese to me. Then there are six or eight other employees, all Chinese and involved with management or operations. Two Chinese women in the group speak Japanese, one very well and the other not so well. They don’t particularly go out of their way to interpret the conversations we have at these meals, so I spend a lot of time wondering what people are talking about or chatting with one or more of the Japanese-capable people at the table.
All of the dishes are spectacular, notably the Peking duck, which is served in mu-shu-style rice pancakes. The rest of the duck ends up as filler for small, biscuity things with sesame seeds on top.
We go back to work and I’m just wishing I could take a nap. The food and beer and wine have conspired to sap my productive urges, and I do what I can to recover with two cups of strong coffee. It works, and so do I until six or so when I’m told we’re going to dinner. The effects of lunch have just worn off, so I figure it must be time to get out there and start up again.
This time we end up in a Western-looking joint that produces its own microbrews, a hearty Porter and a rich Amber. Both are excellent, but I don’t have much time to consider the taste as I’m being exhorted to down each newly-filled glass by one of our party about every three minutes.
It works like this: strictly speaking, you aren’t supposed to drink by yourself. If you want a drink you toast someone else at the table and drink with them. Not every time, of course, but… often. If you want to down your whole drink, or make the other person down theirs, you hold your glass up at shoulder level and say Ganbei! If you just want to take a drink, you tap your glass on the table.
This being our first dinner together, they were clearly out to get me. They wanted to know what I was made of, I guess, and took turns ganbei-ing me every few minutes. It was merciless.
I made a grave error, not knowing what was coming. I had been eating frantically, trying to keep up with all the food that was put in front of me, or put on my plate by my assistant when some kind of work was involved. For example, a mound of boiled shrimp arrives, shell and feet intact, so my assistant basically peels the shrimp and puts them on my plate throughout the entire meal.
Anyway, I was getting really full by the time the coercive drinking began, and was downing beer after beer after beer on top of all that food. At some point I got still another ganbei invitation from the driver and decided to decline. I mean, I just couldn’t do it. I would puke then and there, I know it, so gave him an open-palmed “no thanks.” If you’ve been to China you know: there is no saying no. The entire table began exhorting me to drink, while the driver sat smiling with his glass raised and ready, as if to say, “If I can, well, surely you can as well?”
I looked at my full glass of beer. I looked around the table. All eyes were fixed on me. I looked at Hiro, who with a subtle tightening of his lips signaled that there was no way out of this one.
I picked up the glass and started drinking. With each gulp I felt my stomach grow tighter and tighter. I could actually feel it expanding to a size it had never known before, stretching more and more until it was completely, absolutely, no-mistake-about-it full.
There were still two fingers of beer in my upturned glass when I knew—knew with full certainty—that I would either stop now or heave. I lowered the glass, the last of the beer swirling within, mocking me, and closed my eyes. My stomach was pounding, fireworks danced behind my firmly-closed lids, and my head throbbed as if it had been stuffed between my laboring heart and bulging stomach.
Ten, fifteen seconds passed while I fought back the overpowering urge to expel the contents of my stomach. That scene played itself out before my eyes: my head jerks forward as I power puke across the table and onto the shirts and faces of the unfortunate few seated directly across from me. Dinner would end abruptly, and there might even be crying. Many years could pass, decades even, and these people would never, ever, I was sure, look back on such an event and laugh with nostalgic fondness.
My mind raced as I thought of how I might somehow make it to the restroom first and then puke. But I knew then that just getting up would induce vomiting, and the vertically superior position would only result in greater collateral damage. I opened my eyes slowly and considered options closer to home. No one behind me, that might work. Under the table? Hmm.
I burped once, then twice. They came slowly because I was fighting to keep my esophagus closed. Then another. I looked up. Everyone was watching closely. No one spoke. I burped quietly again. The tension was releasing, I could feel it, and I eased out another one. I was going to make it. I picked up the glass and downed the last of the beer. The table shouted their approval, and everyone went back to eating and talking.
Hiro gave me a concerned look. I nodded that I was okay, and that I wouldn’t be puking on him just then. I waited a couple of minutes there, still feeling like a vomit bomb that might go off at any second. I rose slowly and went to the restroom, thinking I would just start over from scratch. I entered the stall. Floor toilet. It wasn’t hot but I was sweating profusely anyway. I took deep breaths and decided maybe I wouldn’t heave after all. Instead, a wiped my forehead and neck with some paper towels I found by the sink, composed myself, and went to join the others.
I thought they might take it easy on me, but realized that they probably had no idea how close they had actually come to wearing my semi-digested dinner just moments before. I couldn’t eat, of course, and was only made to drink a couple more times. I guess I got lucky that time around.
Afterwards we went to a game center and played shuffleboard and pool, then tossed in a couple of rounds of bowling as well for fun. I was coerced into playing pool against this some pool shark who completely wiped the floor with me. This seemed a bit anti-climactic for the assembled group of co-workers, who were I suppose hoping for some impressive cue-work from the resident American. Oh well.
The next day went much the same way. Go to work early, have another great lunch (but drink less this time), then back to the factory. We wrapped up early in the afternoon and decided to go have a look at the Great Wall, which begins not too far from there as a large stone barrier protruding into the Bohai Sea. I’ve always dreamed of seeing the Great Wall and was glad for the opportunity to visit it. Understanding the sheer scale of it as most of us do is one thing, but actually setting foot on it and getting a sense of the dimensions—width and height—and then extrapolating that mentally into the staggering length of it is something else altogether. This business about it being visible from space is bollocks, of course, but at over 4,000 miles long it’s still pretty damn impressive nonetheless.
We returned to the city, shopped around a bit, then went out to dinner again. This time it was a seafood restaurant. The first floor of the place was all aquariums where they kept the ingredients in the freshest possible state (i.e. – swimming) while the second floor was divided into countless private rooms dominated by immense round tables.
This was my last evening there, and I think they were planning to do things up right. This was by far the nicest place we had been to so far, and in addition to the ample supply of beverages available from the menu we also had a prodigious selection of Great Wall red wines which we had purchased on the way over. It’s surprisingly good, that Great Wall wine.
I restrained myself food-wise, no knowing what to expect this time and keenly committed to avoiding a repeat of the previous evening. We started dinner with near-full wine glasses of Bai Jiu, which we downed in one shot before having another, then another. I concluded that Bai Jiu is much better gulped than sipped.
We spent two or three hours there, and by the time we left we were all very tipsy and completely sated. I think they knew that I was getting at up 04:30 to catch a ride back to Beijing, and we called it a night there. Hiro was too far gone to do anything but sleep, so I made a quick tour of the night market near the hotel and picked up some things before turning in myself.
The way back was long. Three hours by car, then the airport and the flight and finally Narita before catching a two-hour local train back home. Exhausting, but well worth it. Better yet, chances are I’ll be heading back there again before too long. Hiro, yoroshiku!