Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Go to the Furong restaurant in the evening. It’s supposed to be the best exponent of Sichuanese cooking in the city, but what a bloody performance. We sit down at a table with Frean McSwean, the Kiwi; Pat, an Irishman from County Cork and a young American couple who look they’ve come straight out of some Ivy League college, beautifully turned out and with lovely haircuts, and clean clothes. They look so strange in this dusty, dim environment full of yelling, hustling Chinese, and the rest of us look like shambling Flintstones next to them. Still, according to them, they’re fluent Mandarin speakers and know everything about China, on account of studying it for three years in America.
The waitress takes her time about coming, and the young couple, who I’m going to call Bob and Beth, threaten to leave. But when the waitress does come they can’t make up their minds what to eat. Then we have to pay before we get the food. Aeons later some of the nosh arrives.
‘Where’s the rest?’ demands Bob.
‘Mayo,’ comes the inevitable reply.
‘So why didn’t you tell us that when we ordered?’ he demands. The rest of us look at each other restlessly. This is not good. You can’t win an argument in China like this. Pat wades in with some lovely Irish oil, trying to calm the western waters, but Bob ignores him, and Pat sits back and swigs his beer, and digs into what food there is, as the rest of us all do. There is no sense in letting it go cold.
But Bob won’t settle down. ‘Well?’ he keeps on at the waitress. ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’
The waitress shrugs and looks at the ceiling.
‘We’ll have some of this, then,’ he says, pointing at the menu.
‘Mayo,’ that awful reply comes again. ‘Kitchen closed.’
So we eat what there is. And it is really nice, lovely spicy Sichuan cooking at its best; there’s just not enough. But Bob and Beth are not happy, so Bob calls the waitress over and asks for a refund. We all try to stop him, but he won’t listen. He is going to prove a point. And anyway, he reckons we’ve paid for dishes we haven’t had.
When the waitress eventually comes, he talks loudly to her in Mandarin and you can see all her dials begin to show red. When she speaks, her volume goes to 11. She points at each dish, adds it all up rapidly in Chinese and… proves she did make a mistake. There is a little silence. She has now lost face, which is the worst thing you can do to a Chinese person, and Bob then makes the mistake of grinning at her, and saying something that is obviously Mandarin for, ‘I told you so!’ She turns on her heel, marches off to the kitchen and comes back with a dirty plate. She bangs it down on the table and says, ‘There! You ate that, too!’
At this Beth, the shiny Prom Queen, snaps. She stands up, takes the plate and smashes it furiously down on the next table. ‘We didn’t have it, you stupid Chinese bitch!’
The waitress stares impassively at her, marches off to the kitchen, gets another plate and repeats the performance, this time getting the manager involved. The entire restaurant has stopped eating by now and our table is surrounded by yelling, gobbing, gesticulating Chinese people. The waitress yells at the manager, ‘Look, there are all the plates they’ve eaten off!’
Bob is now beginning to look a bit daunted, Pat is very coolly telling him he’s a gobshite and he really doesn’t want to get pasted over a bowl of rice, and Cheryl, Elspeth and I are trying to work out where the nearest exit is. Not that we stand any chance of reaching it through all these people. Every single person in the restaurant is now counting the plates and then, suddenly, just as we think the whole place is going to erupt, they all seem to melt away. Why, I don’t know, except they have probably realised it’s not best policy to get violent with a group of westerners. Maybe the non uniformed gendarmes have arrived. Who can tell? It’s as if we suddenly don’t exist.
Anyway, the waitress, still absolutely furious, stomps over to our table and bangs down two kwai in front of Bob. It’s less than a pound. He looks round apologetically at us. ‘I know it wasn’t much,’ he says. ‘But it was the principle of the thing.’
Woken up in the middle of the night by Elspeth putting her boots on and running down the corridor to the bogs. She sounds like an entire regiment of Panzer tanks. Hours later she trails back.
‘Are you feeling sick?’ says Cheryl. ‘Shall I get you some water?’
Elspeth looks at her as if she’s doing long division in her head. ‘Yes. No. I’ll get it.’ And suddenly she’s off again, galloping down the corridor as if all the waitresses from hell were after her.