Polish palates show scant taste for Tianjin

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 August, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 August, 2000, 12:00am

LIU YANG LOOKED gloomily around his empty restaurant and out at the wide boulevard of elegant apartment buildings.

'Business is not good. Poles prefer to spend their money on cars and apartments, not eating out,' he said. 'The economy is in bad shape this year. I'm not optimistic. This restaurant has changed hands several times and the previous tenant closed it after just a month.

'Maybe Poles don't like our cuisine too much. They like food that's hot or sweet.' Mr Liu runs the 'Yangtze' restaurant on Avenue General Anders, named after a World War II Polish general. A native of Shenyang, he arrived in Poland in May after working in the restaurant business in Irkutsk, in Russia.

The 10,000 zlotys (about HK$17,800) rent for his restaurant comes from a state firm in Tianjin that wanted to buy a hotel in Warsaw but couldn't find one. Instead, they settled for this restaurant which they now rent as the owner refused to sell it.

The company chose Warsaw because compared to the capitals of Western Europe, the number of Chinese restaurants is small (there are only nine), and they thought the economy is the strongest in eastern Europe.

But even that is not enough to be a recipe for good business. 'The economy has been going down for two years,' says cook Wang Guomin. 'I've been in Poland for three, and it's time to move on. I don't like Poles because they don't have much drive. It's very tough for Chinese to get visas to come here. This year Poland issued just one non-official visa to a Chinese doctor. I hear that even the vice-mayor of Tianjin couldn't get in.'

This is not by accident. There are only 3,500 Chinese in Poland compared with the 50,000 in Hungary and 20,000 in Yugoslavia.

The difference is Hungary had open borders between 1988 and 1992, while Yugoslavia has close political and economic relations with China which gave it a US$300 million (about HK$2.3 billion) low-interest loan and supported it during last year's war with Nato.

Poland, however, does not see the Chinese people as an asset. 'They invest only minor amounts and mostly for themselves and their own society,' explained one diplomat. 'Some of it may be to launder money. Of the Chinese who have entered Poland, 90 per cent concealed information, such as the fact that they had been refused by other embassies. That's illegal. So far they have not been an advantage to Poland.'

Another reason the Chinese are not welcome in Poland is that the country has its hands full with illegal visitors from the former Soviet Union, the Ukraine and Armenia. Prostitution is a problem with some vice girls touting for business on state highways.

The largest Asian community in Poland is from Vietnam - a legacy of the nation's communist past. About 40,000 Vietnamese speak Polish and 20,000 to 40,000 live in Poland, many illegally.

Unlike many other European countries, which place great emphasis on promoting trade with China, Poland appears less sympathetic to Beijing. In May, Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek had an 'unofficial meeting' with the Dalai Lama during a visit that received blanket coverage in the Polish media. Last year, the Polish Government issued a statement to mark the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown against student-led protests in Beijing.

For Poles, June 4, 1989 has a much happier meaning, as it was also the date of their first democratic election for Parliament since 1945, which brought in Solidarity, the first non-Communist government in the Soviet bloc.

Mark O'Neill is a member of the Post's Beijing bureau