Monuments to excess

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 September, 2004, 12:00am

The catering industry in Beijing is on a perennial quest for novelty. Like waves, cuisine from Sichuan, Hunan and Zhejiang provinces, together with ethnic foods from the Xinjiang autonomous region, wash in and out of the capital. In recent years, restaurateurs have turned to transforming palaces of former Manchu imperial clansman into regal dining experiences, appealing to those eager to flaunt their wealth and foreign visitors looking for exoticism.

The Palace of Prince Li, in Haidian district, is a vast, wooded compound with courtyards connected by covered passageways. Valets clad in long robes park cars for guests, who are greeted by maids in traditional Qing costumes, curtseying with a flick of their silk handkerchiefs.

Prince Li was the second son of Nuerhachi, the founder of the Qing dynasty in the 17th century, and the title was handed down until the dynasty's demise in 1911. In the republican era, the palace housed the Le family, who made their fortune through the Tong Ren Tang traditional Chinese medicine pharmacies.

Thanks to its typical Qing architecture, the palace proved an ideal set for popular television series. Traces of this 'movie-town' feel may be one reason for its popularity as an eaterie. On display are garish red bows around stone lions' necks, while strings of fake firecrackers hang at the entrance to create an atmosphere of festivity.

But the dining experience is anything but convivial in this theme park. The overpriced menu contains pages of shark's fin soup, braised abalone, tortoise stew, swallow's nest, bear's paw and camel's hump, which serve to remind guests of the predatory origins of this barbarian culture (the dynastic founders descended from hunters).

Modern restaurant management has little regard for the past. One friend who recently dined in the ducal palace of Shuncheng (the second son of the first Prince Li) recalled how the waitress attempted to sell expensive items on the menu by extolling their ability to increase lifespan, enhance virility and hold back the ageing process. All this occurs in a place pandering to conspicuous consumption, where wealth is squandered.

Shuncheng palace was moved brick by brick and beam by beam from the West district to the Chaoyang district in the east. Some people say that the relocated and refurbished palace is now a soulless shell of its former self, and the ringing of the cash register has severed its tie to history.

In Europe, dining in medieval castles is proving popular today. Imperial banquets in princely courtyards could be one way of keeping China's heritage alive, if only there was more humility and respect for history.