Peking Duck

Posted in China, Food, Politics, Travel by Arasmus on April 26, 2007

The best Peking Duck in Peking (or is it now Beijing Duck in Beijing?) is supposedly found at Liqun’s Roast Duck Restaurant on Beixiangfeng Zhengyi Road in the Qianmen district. Walking around with an address written in English in China is like walking around with a sieve to collect rainwater, so I stopped at the front desk in my hotel and asked them to write the address in Chinese characters. Inevitably, there was the five-minute exercise where the words in English are spoken aloud as the translator tries to imagine the sounds to which the English words might refer. Colleagues are consulted and often at least one telephone call is made. I find it’s best to have some tea at this point. For those of us without a tonal language it all seems quite opaque. “Be-xing-feng,” followed by a look of puzzlement. “Be-xiang-feng,” accompanied by a look of less puzzlement and mild satisfaction – no – now consternation. “Be-xing-feng . . .ah . . yes . . . Be-xing-feng.” The final combination is always spoken in a crescendo indicating that the exercise has reached its terminus. Of course, to me, it sounds like the same sound they started with but my role in the exercise is akin to that of an orchestral conductor, that is; to encourage diligence by leaning over the desk and looking perturbed until the end when I am supposed to pass through an appearance of relief to one of ecstasy. Using a wand does not help.

Although the address was at this point written in Chinese, the taxi-driver, the second movement in the logistical symphony, is compelled to repeat the central motif. “Be-xing-feng . . .Be-xiang-feng . . .ah Be-xing-feng.” In my experience, if he is under 40 you must have your look of relief in hand, but if he is over 40 it is unnecessary as he will not look at you but simply return the notebook. We were off. Beijing has broad streets and outside of rush hour the traffic moves swiftly. I sat back and listened to Johnny Cash sing Folsom Prison Blues on my ipod as government office blocks filed past the window.

If there is a train to Mexico you would think that the U.S. Marshals would search it from end to end pretty thoroughly – so I am not sure it’s the best way for Johnny to escape. My taxi came to a stop – because we had no more road. We were barreling down a four-lane concourse five seconds before but then the road just stopped and seemed to gaze up insolently at a huge apartment block standing in its path. The taxi driver looked at me as if I might have the rest of the highway in my pocket. Suddenly, a rickshaw driver appeared outside the window holding a sign with the words “Liqun Roast Duck.” Hmmn, that was a bit too convenient. The taxi driver looked at me and I felt we are both thinking the same thing, different languages but the same tone. The rickshaw driver said the streets of the old hutong neighborhoods where Liqun hung out were too narrow for taxis. It sounded like a classic opportunity to get into trouble and fresh out of Folsom I was seduced. In places the alleys were only about 5-6 feet wide and there were no lights whatsoever. The driver was in his mid-thirties and seemed fit so if it came to it, it would be a fair fight. I tried to keep my sense of direction as we twisted and turned through the warren of tiny lanes. The evening smog hid the stars. I moved my wallet to my right hip-pocket. Eventually we reached a sign that said “Liqun’s Duck.” The rickshaw driver asked for our agreed price but now said that he wanted it in U.S. dollars and not Chinese Yuan. I couldn’t help but laugh at him. I handed him the price in Yuan and told him that when we were in America I’d pay him in dollars. I turned my back on him and walked toward the restaurant with one eye on the shadows.

In the West, Liqun’s would be considered a dive but I like to think of it as authentic and I think they do too. The main room was about twenty by thirty feet and the décor could optimistically be described as shabby chic, but without the chic. There were other rooms too, around the back and apparently up the stairs. In the kitchen bald ducks hung on hooks, their heads bent low. There was an open-faced brick oven and the chef used a long pole to take the ducks, push them through the flames and hang them on hooks at the back of the oven. He does this to order and so when your golden brown duck arrives at the table it is literally fresh from the oven. And that is the trick with Peking duck it seems to me – its got to be piping hot. Duck is fatty and if it’s not hot – you feel the fat as you eat it. If it is hot, then you just taste and feel the succulent juices of the meat. Analysis complete.

My rickshaw driver from the restaurant was much more jovial. Faces of old women sitting on doorsteps emerged from the darkness as we wound our way out of the hutong. He dropped me off at Tiananmen Square. I headed to the Forbidden City, at the north end, figuring that would be the best place to catch a taxi back to the hotel. Ahead a crowd of about 30 Chinese men and women were gathered outside the tourist office and anticipating that they were the usual collection of hawkers and scam-artists I prepared myself to avoid eye-contact. The tourist office was closed and out of the corner of my left eye I could see my reflection in the darkened shop-front window as I moved through the group. Suddenly, there was a shout and half of the crowd turned on the other. In the window-glass I saw the face of a man, his arm in the air reaching for me. I instinctively ducked and turned towards him but he jumped on a neighboring hawker and wrestled him to the pavement instead of me. In an instant there was a sea of black cloth and red faces as everyone seemed to be wrestling with everyone else. Then it all froze. Apparently, this was a police arrest. About 20 plain-clothes police officers held about 15 men and women face down on the pavement. One refused to submit and two officers descended on him. Even though his body was struggling his eyes were vacant, staring and lifeless, as if he had just died. I thought of Liqun’s ducks hanging from their hooks. The officers darted frightened looks around the street as they shouted for the police van – no doubt fearing an escalation beyond their control. Because they were all dressed the same it was difficult for me to tell who was who, which was order and which was chaos. Violence pulsed in the air. The van pulled up. Everyone was rushed inside, the sirens were turned on and they all disappeared into the dark night. I alone was left standing, my orange jacket reflected in the window of the tourist office. The lights of Tiananmen Square appeared as faint and fading stars in the dirty window. New pedestrians soon filled the emptiness all around me. They looked at me standing there. They had no knowledge of what came before.