Opinion: Culture Feast
Alas, my love, you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously;
And I have loved you so long,
Delighting in your company...
AN agitated version of Greensleeves ricochets the lift to the restaurant. Like many romantics, my father attributes the original composition to King Henry VIII. He claimed, in order to seduce Anne Boleyn, ‘Old Coppernose’ wrote the wistful romanesca on an envelope atop the battlements of Hever Castle. Nearly 500 years on, converted into muzac, and piped in a moving cubicle plastered in garish, gleaming, oversized food temptations including face-for-radio mollusc, abalone, it feels rather less profound...
My first weeks in China, like my last weeks in China, proved hallucinogenic. I barely recall sleep. But Shanghai, where I started, slept (to my surprise). Free from the gluten of exhausting traffic, for a fair fare, I savoured the early morning when a taxi shot me, at exhilarating pace, to the airport. I rolled the window right down, hung my mug out, admired the glittering, mirror-sided skyscrapers. Marvels made possible by the constant stream of barges carving up the Huangpu’s silt and carrying sand to ultimately scratch a bird-less sky.
I was bitten on the calf by a big, black mosquito as I stared, my eyes reflecting laser and LED lit flowers curving up a building’s side. "They can be black, like people can be black," reasoned my then girlfriend. When our taxi scraped the curb of Pudong’s parkway, cicadas, which switch-on at about 18 degrees Celsius, had already begun to itch.
Now I find myself singing "Yesterday” in front of the Mayor of Ordos and his wife. Despite the roads which circle it being work in progress, where a double-width car transporter swaggered centimetres from our bonnet, it is a city massively enriched by cashmere. Sweating, panicking, my words are slurred and cojoined, like some sort of grievous, clownish, swaggering Sinatra.
I feel like the only, über Englishman in many miles. Hours before, I left my hard bed in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, to board a gold metallic minibus. Although I secretly longed for homesickness to be banished by The Archer’s theme tune (even though I rarely seek out the programme ordinarily), builder’s tea and, although a caricature of a stereotype, Big Ben’s gongs, what I received, ensuring sleeplessness, and restlessness, was karaoke, complete with monitor showing prancing ball over Chinese characters. A shady pop star, stroking horse, trippily described a deep-rooted love for the Mongolian prairie as our wheels bounced like the guide ball. Given China’s cities bombastic building programme of analogous residential towers with inflexible layouts, green, clean space must be at a premium.
What I glimpsed instead was the back of the driver’s T-shirt - faux Dior - an eye watering hole in the ground roadside loo, then audacious lunch in a massive, jaunty, make believe Mongolian camp. Chipped, glass-reinforced gold-painted soldiers flanked the path proceeding to the excruciatingly loud matinee where energetic but listlessly-coordinated dancers told, in elegy, the tale of the brutal Genghis Khan, whose body may or may not be at rest. The set was a video backdrop. Parmesan-like crisped curd and lamb innards revolved around the table.
There are stilted bouts of applause after my stilted stanzas. Then it is question time. My then girlfriend translates the request of one of the guests, an official who sets the prices for food in these parts: "What does your song mean?" Clutching my sunburnt chest as tightly as I will clutch my alcohol attacked head throughout the night when lights are off, I explain it away as “a song about eternal love.” The curiously Cantonese waitresses vaguely clap, begging me for more, continuing to clap, ominously over another bout of lyrics. I mischievously consider weaving in McCartney’s substitute working lyric: "Scrambled Eggs/Oh, my baby how I love your legs". A doctor’s husband then describes me as “Statue of David”. I choke.
My eyes fall on a mini golf ramp, useless, abandoned, and inanimate in the corner of this shimmering private room which must have cost someone, somewhere, a fortune to hire. In our midst, a huge carousel tabletop, slowed, near somnambulistically, by the weight of dishes, gyrates. It carries what is billed as special lamb, presented initially almost bleating, and the first puffer fish I have ever tasted. Now robbed of my singing in public virginity, half of me wishes for the latter to deliver unto me a numbing shot of deoxycholic bile, while the other half of me wants to sit down to greedily devour this banquet in the round, arranged like a personal buffet.
God alone knows how many toasts follow, inevitably pronounced with deceptively kindly clear ultra-premium, 50% plus ABV grain distillate, Baijiu. All around, people empty their lungs and command that I knock back shot after shot after shot after shot. When think I can get away with it, I carefully, surreptitiously re-fill my glass from a hidden below the tablecloth water bottle instead of snuff the potent smear. My unaccustomed palate is unrefined in the appreciation of what smells like crazily overripe durian fruit mingled with grappa and fermented pupae. But volumes of it still cling to my every artery, and torture me over the following 24 hours. Head - is - a - mercury - balloon.
Meanwhile, camera flashes occur in my eye line. I have been photographed constantly in China – too many people are taking pleasure in taking a timeline of my ever increasing fatness in eating their country! I wonder what King Henry, whose waist measured 54 inches at its maximum, would have made of China’s delicacies? Aside from oddly ruddy-centred braised swan, would the haute hot pot of crab like terrapin or squid like bull’s penis have stirred his interest as much as they stirred mine? But such speculation is curtailed when one of countless uncles grabs me and threatens me to cherish his special girl, or he will pack a sword and track me down in London...
Sunflowers hastily hang on the wall and plastic flowers form the table’s centrepiece. I am told off for toasting too high up. There are lessons, in this Face-first culture, on how to get drunk. Instead, the young and unimportant must always attempt to clash their glass lower than the toaster with the mostest.
When my eyes are moist with inner heat, we depart, like birds collectively fleeing from a wire. Around the corner, an arrestingly sheer, balletic, thank God, in tune musical fountain proves a soothing spectacle. An ablution of sorts to my homesick, booze-addled brain and sore throat...