Thursday, 19 October 2017

China Again: Two Guys In A TV Studio

So, three weeks later, I'm still brooding on modern China because, let's be candid, the place is as persistent as cheap aftershave in its capacity to keep claiming one's attention. What thought in particular tends to recur? Well, it's an image from a Chinese version of The Shopping Channel or QVC, one of those punishment zones on the TV dial where people scream at you from the corner of a dazzling white studio, urging you to buy things. In this case I was sitting in my hotel room, stupefied after a hard day of cultural encounters, while two hyperactive Chinese guys bounced back and forth across the screen in front of a triptych of bearded faces, nineteenth-century portraits from the look of them, Europeans at that, and shouted tirelessly at the camera that what we, the viewers, most needed right now was a discount case of red wine.

Not having any Chinese beyond Nĭ hăo and Xièxiè, how could I be sure that that was what they were doing? Because it was bleeding obvious: they kept gesturing at ziggurats of wine bottles while numbers and ¥ signs chased across the screen, staggering bargains of only ¥500 for twelve, probably Spanish, hence the beards, accompanied by the sales twins actually crashing deliberately into each other for sheer graphic effect. For a moment I thought they were a Chinese Sediment (Chéndiàn) with a lot of stock to clear; but then, a second later, I found myself asking, Do the Chinese really like wine anyway?

Silly question, surely. Every supermarket and liquor store keeps at least few bottles of red (Merlot, often as not) among the beers, baijius and presentation whiskies; hotels aiming for an international vibe like to put a few wine bottles out on show (full or tragically empty, depends on your budget); the Chinese themselves have taken to wine production with a typical emphasis on scale, coming in as the world's sixth largest wine producer in 2016, building mock châteaux (Changyu winery near Beijing) and Italianate castles (Changyu again, this time near Xi'an) while at the same time buying up French vineyards and vintages as if they were toys. Wine has currency right now.

Except, I don't quite believe it. I'm sure in the faubourgs of Shanghai and the penthouses of Hangzhou (where the Aston Martin dealership abuts a Porsche dealer three times its size and the Ferrari showroom is no more than two hundred metres down the same street) they drink fine wines all the time. Elsewhere, though? Chinese urban society, despite its burgeoning middle class, still has a respectably proletarian feel to it. Most people live in small appartments where they tend not to cook at home - instead eating out at one of their many basic neighbourhood eateries (and some of them are really basic, just a hole in the wall with a middle-aged lady and a two-burner stove), no frills, probably not even a drink: you bring your own bottle of tea or water and simply scarf up the grub, checking the WeChat account on your mobile as you go. Bigger eateries, yes, give you more in the way of tables, chairs and ceiling fans and, yes, whole families will be in there, three generations of Chinese all shouting their heads off as they wrestle with the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table, and, yes, the food can be surprisingly delicious and, no, you don't have to be in Sichuan to get internally broiled by devil spices: we were reliably scorched from Hebei Province all the way down and for that, you, or at least I, need beer and lots of it. So, from the look of it, does everyone else.

Which is as much as to say that neither the cuisine nor the eating culture seems that wine-friendly. You just don't see the stuff being drunk. So why all the fuss about China and wine? I like to think that the very high-end purchases (wines and vineyards) are being made as a bet, a classic investors' bubble, the sort of thing the Chinese love; and that everything else, the hectares of fresh domestic vines (some of which have already been grubbed up in favour of more dependable crops) and the gee-whiz fake châteaux that go with them are part of the greater Chinese experimentation with Western style and taste, a tiny moment in three and a half thousand years of unbroken civilisation, but not much more than that.

Perhaps President Xi Jinping will address the issue at this week's Communist  Party Congress in Beijing; although it may tie in with the larger question, Can a society make genuine progress without liberal democracy? Either way, I think we need guidance from the top on this one.


Thursday, 12 October 2017

Whatever…it's rosé

“Do you fancy some rosé with that fish?”

“Ooh! Yes! Where did you buy that from?”

“Ah… I didn’t. Someone must have brought it.”

“One of our visitors, you mean?”

“I assume so. There are a few odd bottles in the cellar…


"… which people have brought round, and I have just stuck down there. And there just happens to be this rosé.”

“Is it any good?”

“How do I know? I didn’t buy it! I mean, it’s not Domaine Templier or anything, that’s for sure. It’s…Whatever…it’s rosé.”

“You could look it up, couldn’t you?”

“I could, yes, but really, what’s the point? I mean, that fish is nearly cooked. And I don’t have another bottle of rosé. How was I to know there was a sunny weekend coming?”

“Well, I got the fish…”

“Yes, but you got that today, from the posh fishmongers, and if I’d suggested today that we got a bottle of rosé, you’d have given me that look.”

“What look?”

“The one which says ‘All you ever think about is wine, can’t you be excited about the fish?’”

“I thought the whole idea of you having a wine cellar was that you had different wines to suit different meals and so on?”

“To an extent, yes. But that extent sort of stops before rosé.”


“Because people don’t really keep rosé.”

“How long have you kept this one, then?”

“I don’t know. That’s not the point. The point is that if I’d bought it while we were out today, it would have been part of a plan, whereas I have come upstairs with this bottle of rosé, and it’s an unexpected treat. Ta da!

“And it is going to be a treat, is it?”

I don’t know! Look, it’s rosé. And this is probably the last time this year we’re going to drink any, and it’s really not worth keeping until next year. So I’m going to open it anyway. Oh.”

“What’s that face for?”

“It’s got a plastic cork. That’s not good.”

“Worse than a screwcap?”

“Probably. It means it’s got ideas above its station. Like a cartridge pen; it’s neither a proper traditional fountain pen, nor an efficient modern Biro. Whatever…it’s rosé”

“Nice colour…”

“That doesn’t mean anything, really. They’re making them paler and paler nowadays. Having said that, you know you’re in trouble when it’s the colour of bubblegum.”

“And what’s it like, then?”

“Could be colder. Rosé could always be colder. Oh. Oh… Still… it’s rosé.”

“Is it really horrible, then?”

“You try it.”

“It’s pretty horrible”

“Yes. Whatever… it’s rosé.”


Thursday, 5 October 2017

China: Harder Than It Looks

So back we come after a month in China and we are shattered, dirty and overwhelmed by massive colds. We have infected an entire 777 on the return flight from Beijing to London and can now barely talk. All we want to do is die in the quiet of our own home. And it is only at this point that I yearn for my bottle of Three Gorges Wine Company 52% liquor, reasoning that not even the Three Gorges liquor can be worse than the way I currently feel and maybe a shot would actually help. Then I remember that I left it in a fridge somewhere in China and anyway, it's truly undrinkable, dead or alive.

I acquired this awful liquid, this Three Gorges baijiu (I think it's known as) at a place called Yichang on the Yangzi River. I paid too much for it (£1.60 for 125 ml); but then again, Three Gorges Wine Company liquor is so bad that a little goes a really long way. I only bought it in the first place because I'd seen other people (blokes, invariably) tucking into variations of the stuff in eateries and restaurants and reasoned That must be just the thing, taken in small quantities, to round off a hard day's sightseeing.

Could not have been more wrong, of course. I don't think I've ever drunk anything so alarming, not even when I was a teenager experimenting with bucket homebrew and amateur wine and White Shield. The one and only time I consumed Three Gorges Wine Company 52% liquor (Lake North Famous Brand Goods it also said in English in small print as a come-on) I was almost blinded. It started off nice and cold from the fridge before exploding into a horrible stale grappa kind of nose after which all I remember is choking helplessly while tears coursed down my cheeks. I was on fire and I was crying and having convulsions. It was authentically frightening. What was in the bottle? Various ingredients had been suggested to me by people along the way, including wheat, rye, rice, grapes, sorghum and barley, but the colourless, slightly viscous end product wasn't really intelligible on account of the coughing and blinding; and even when I wasn't blind I couldn't read the Chinese writing on the label to get a better idea.

Was it just a terrifying one-off? Hard to say. Higher-end variants are heavily advertised on roadside billboards as well as sold in relatively smart liquor shops, so there's nothing unfamiliar about the basic concept. In fact I watched a bunch of local lads in the great city of Tianjin start off their evening meal with a large bottle of baijiu split four ways, followed by three bottles apiece of dependably excellent Tsingtao beer - and still manage to cope with chopsticks and a cauldron of boiling hot bouillon. So, no, my Three Gorges wasn't entirely freakish. Baijiu is apparently the most widely-drunk hard liquor in the world and I just picked a terrible example.

Would I have been better off with one of the local regular wines? A Cabernet Sauvignon from the Great Wall winemakers? A camel-themed rosé whose label I could not construe, but which the translation app on my phone rendered as Drunk Piece? A Chilean red called Legend of Chilephant with an elephant on the label? Yes, of course: they wouldn't have made me cry. On the other hand, I did drink some Changyu sparkling white which looked like wine but tasted just like the Sprite in a neighbouring glass, so maybe it's not as simple as that.

Either way, the experience was pretty emblematic. I mean, China is an astonishing, hugely impressive work in progress, crammed with energies and achievements and modernities barely forty years after the end of the Cultural Revolution; but it's also relentless, fairly bonkers, extremely hard to decode, hugely unrelaxing for the Western tourist. A modest bottle of bathtub hooch turns out to be not a way of unwinding, but an incredibly challenging thing, a threat, an affront to the sensibilities which this traveller did not even begin to anticipate. That and stewed chicken feet for breakfast: we still have so much to learn.