Recipe for good relations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2005, 12:00am

In a dusty back street near my flat in northern Beijing at closing time every evening, the staff of the Yellow Fruit Tree restaurant bed down on the cement floor of their shop, to spend the night sleeping beside the tables. The next morning, when I walk across potholes and past a long row of grimy brick shacks to get to the restaurant, they are usually taking turns washing their clothes in the cupboard-sized restroom at the back.

The Yellow Fruit Tree's owner, Liu Bocheng, pays his staff 400 yuan a month for an 80-hour, seven-day week. As an Englishman arriving in the capital from Hong Kong four years ago for the first time, I thought this was outrageous treatment. Yet I soon noticed there was one courtesy few British managers would deem appropriate, which Mr Liu never fails to pay his employees.

At the same time each day he makes a special point of sitting down with them all, around a table, for a proper meal. There are always eight or more dishes, and the whole process takes at least an hour.

Britain is infamous for its lack of food culture, so it should not be surprising that an Englishman was so ignorant here. I used to think food culture was only about good or bad cooking; about having delicious, good-looking things to eat. But after a few years in Beijing, I realised there was another, deeper dimension. That is, the everyday enjoyment of food as a form of social bonding.

'It's important because it's the best way to develop my relationship with my employees,' Mr Liu said. 'If we eat together every day, we grow to trust and respect each other.'

White-collar working schedules in modern cities like Beijing are threatening this practice, as is the proliferation of foreign fast-food chains. But pay attention, and you still see it everywhere.

The workmen digging up the road where I live, for example, have erected one tent to sleep in at night and another as a kitchen with pots, shelves and a specially built brick stove. If I am out walking around 11.30am, one of them will always be in there preparing an array of dishes from bags of fresh ingredients - Chinese men love to cook, in my experience. Half an hour later, they all set down their tools and eat together.

So what, and where, is the great food culture of China? To a westerner at home in Europe or North America, the question may call to mind images of chefs tossing woks over furiously hot burners, or grand banquets and a succession of exotic, photogenic courses.

Having experienced life on the mainland, however, I now realise the answer is more than this: it can be found among ordinary Beijing folk like Mr Liu and the workmen outside my flat, taking time to enjoy food - together.