So near, yet so feared: Two sides to the pancake
Cecilie Gamst Berg
Over the past couple of years I have noticed a strange dichotomy within my tortured soul. I think and I think on it, willing it not to be there, but it remains. I can only put it down to my innate hypocrisy, perhaps even malice.
To explain, I love the mainland with all my heart and go there as often as humanly possible, sometimes arriving back at the Hong Kong border, at Lo Wu, and deciding just to dash straight back again. (Why not? I have a three-year visa.) In many ways, the mainland is my life; I am as tightly bound to it as I am to my heart, my larger intestine and my (unbreakable) Nokia mobile phone.
So why is it that I - how can I put it? - quite frankly, don't want the mainland to come to Hong Kong? It's as if I want to keep Hong Kong just the way it is, and the mainland likewise; as if I want to keep them … separated.
Take, for example, the Beijing pancake (at least that's what I called it when I first arrived in the capital, back when it was still beautiful - full of bicycles and devoid of traffic jams). Every day, from the early morning - even if it was minus 15 degrees outside - a geezer wrapped in a blue military overcoat would be stood, right outside the gates of the Overseas Chinese Garden Hotel, over a coal-fired hot plate and a large vat full of pancake mix, whipping out pancake after pancake (they're actually called jian bing, or "fried cake").
I would watch for ages as he expertly spread batter in a perfect circle on the hot plate; let it fry, along with an egg, for a few seconds; dropped in spring onion and some crumbs of pickled cabbage, followed by soy sauce and chilli paste; added a fried dough stick; and, lastly, folded the whole thing up and cut it in half. All of this in just a few seconds.
It was the best breakfast I had tasted - ever; so good that I would sometimes have it for lunch, too. The price was one yuan and my first street argument in Beijing was with a pancake seller who outrageously tried to charge me two yuan. Beijing pancake became symbolic for me of my first, happy, carefree months in China.
You'd think I would hanker for this delicacy in Hong Kong - but no. When a fried cake shop, called Mr Bing, opened just around the corner from work - looking tackier than a McDonald's and twice as red-and-yellow - I reacted with dismay. Beijing pancakes belong on the streets of northern China, and in my heart. And they shouldn't be advertised in simplified characters.