Wealth Blog

Riches to rags – or China's nouveau pauvre

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 12:57pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

It’s a cautionary tale to read why one of last year’s leading mainland Chinese tycoons has been expunged from the second edition of China’s Tycoons. The tycoon in question is Xu Ming, and his tale speaks volumes about the tricky tightrope of China’s business environment, according to the publisher Week in China.

Since March, the founder of Dalian Shide has been detained by the government, in connection with his dealings with the main story of this year, purged Chongqing Party boss, Bo Xilai. It’s alleged, says WIC, that Bo helped Xu make his fortune when the politician ran the northeastern city of Dalian – by ensuring Xu got a lucrative contract. Over the years their relationship is understood to have grown closer, and increasingly mutually profitable.

The Chinese term guanxi denotes a series of favours used to cement a relationship to get ahead commercially. The billionaire’s rise and fall illustrates that guanxi ultimately can cut both ways, and one should beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Or even of charismatic smiling cat politicians who think they walk on water. WIC thinks this cautionary tale will not be lost on the rest of China’s business elite, but history does tend to repeat. Especially where huge piles of dowdily- acquired cash are at stake.

China’s Fat Duck

It had to happen, somewhere in China’s population of 1.3 billion. Sooner or later a wacky experimental chef had to emerge, like England’s Heston Blumenthal, famous for the Fat Duck restaurant. Here he is in the guise of chef Yu Bo and his Sichuan restaurant. The Yu Family Kitchen is at No 43 Narrow Alley, Kuang Zhai Xiang, in the rather tasteful heritage area of Chengdu.

Now I have to admit when I dropped by last year, I wasn’t overly impressed – a bit gimmicky – but now the chef has made it into Fuchsia Dunlop’s book Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, a sweet-sour memoir of eating in China. Everlasting fame and long queues of foreign gourmets are guaranteed as doubtless it will now become a darling of the Western media and a name-dropper for the travelling chattering classes. The signature dish is nothing if not original: edible calligraphy brushes. These are made from fine flaky pastry, concealing a minced beef filling. They are then dipped into an ink dish of sauce. Yu Family Kitchen only has six tables, bookings are for groups of four or more.

Dunlop gives a glowing report, portraying the chef as a true master of his art, a man who takes his food and his ingredients very seriously. Spurred on by the publicity he has already received, Western food adventurers are now beating a path to his door. He chooses not to compromise his art by expanding, so table bookings are like hen’s teeth, even though a cash deposit in advance is the norm. One wonders how many people would jump through such a hoop and then cancel.

The set menu features 31 courses, with 16 cold starters, all exquisitely presented. The hot dishes range from rich chicken soup with spring pea shoots to a fancy tea-smoked duck. Desserts are suitably out there, such as infused apple with Sichuan peppercorn. This guy knows his target market, staffing those conversant in English. If you are into talking-point food, this is clearly the hot culinary ticket of the moment.