Sunday 21 September 2014

China Flash: Even afternoon tea says something about modern, monetised Beijng

Afternoon tea at The Opposite House, in association with Jo Malone

This is a greatly expanded version of a short write-up which first appeared in Time Out Beijing where I did a brief stint as Deputy Editor. To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here.

Finally, an afternoon tea that smells as good as it looks. Opposite House, the chic Sanlitun hotel, is launching a month long celebration of perfume and pastries, scent and scones. In association with British lifestyle brand Jo Malone, the hotel will be serving an afternoon tea inspired by Jo Malone’s Peony and Blush Suede collection at 3pm every day from 22nd September until 24th October. Hosted at their sleek, warm-toned Mediterranean restaurant Sureño and designed for elegant ‘ladies’ who care as much about fashion taste as food taste, the experience includes a vial of Peony and Blush Suede perfume and a voucher for an arm and hand massage at Jo Malone’s Beijing boutique. 

Obviously it feels nice to spend a couple of hours slotting flavour-bomb pastries into one’s mouth in a flatteringly lit restaurant at a hotel full of attentive staff and beautiful patrons while a shoot for an international fashion magazine goes on upstairs, as it was the day I went.

The tea itself is as classy and considered as the fragrances and scented candles Jo Malone is famous for. I am treated to delicately sliced sandwiches whose bread is baked on-site, filled with tender crab, gutsy smoked salmon and creamy mozzarella; a colourful assortment of miniature cakes including a delicious macaroon that melts into a crush of crumbs and strawberry goo and a bright drum of citron tart; a soft peony-infused cream pot that comes with its own little bone china teacup and edible flower; and best of all, the golden, home-baked scones sitting like a line of tanned knees, rugged on the outside, soft on the inside, served with strawberry rose jam (again made on-site), organic acacia honey and Devonshire clotted cream. My cream was as runny as petrol, but never mind. The whole thing was fab.

“Everything is imported,” the Chinese person I’m with assures me. That is the new China: everything is imported. The country which is famous for its manufacturing and export for foreign companies has absorbed and internalised the value those brands place on themselves. What is considered good in China is foreign.

Afternoon tea is part of a Beijing trend for dainty, English-style pastimes. Or not so dainty: I am considering running a campaign against the cheap, sugar-reeking patisserie and bakery places that have opened up across the city, their displays piled with breads, brioches, biscuits, cakes and tarts all of exactly the same beige carb colour. Like the rest of the world, China’s youth are taking on an American style processed diet of over-refined, high carb, high sugar, high corn syrup, sponge-textured junk that’s making them fat and giving them heart disease and diabetes in the space of a single generation, assisted by an increasingly sedentary lifestyle plugged up with video games, Net surfing and mobile phone chatting.

Back to the tea.

“The hotels don’t [usually] do bilingual flyers,” says my companion, showing me a leaflet for the afternoon tea, which is in both Mandarin and English. “In Beijing it used to be the foreigners that had the money. Now it’s the Chinese that have it. Beijing has the richest people in China.”
“Where does the money come from?” I ask.
“A lot of it’s new money. There are provinces with coal.”
“You’re talking about land sales and the licensing of mining rights.”
My companion nods.
“They make money like water flowing,” she says.

The afternoon tea sits alongside a relatively recent fad for heavily iced multi tier cakes and Disney princess wedding dresses, usually combined with plasticky perfect, unwittingly kitsch Stepford photo shoots to prove that an immaculate investment – I mean a momentous sacrifice – I mean a loving union – is taking place. The era and customs these trends reference never existed. It’s all a cartoon, an inauthentic, retrogressively feminine, Americanised fantasy about a historically hazy England where decorum ruled and social rank was set, stable and (in reality) stifling.

There is also a roaring trend for highly trained ‘English butlers’ over here. That’s one of the most lucrative of these ‘lifestyle’ jobs. I quite like the idea of the rich Chinese employing Little Englanders (ordinary Joes from bog standard Brit towns) to apparently confer some class and style but actually to be their dogsbodies.

“You have to understand that even ten years ago, Beijing was completely different,” says my companion. “These malls you see are being built after the hutong [traditional neighbourhoods with narrow lanes and black curved-slate tiled roofs] were demolished. I was here when the last family was evicted to make this development. That’s happening all over the city. It’s not a question of whether the hutong are beautiful, or characterful, or not. This development is ‘progress’.”

The Opposite House opened six years ago, the same day as the Beijing Olympics. It’s part of the new Beijing, the one that will probably become a single huge mall with internal streets and its own subway system. The hotel is in what is known locally, with heavy euphemism, as ‘the village’ – an enormous luxury shopping, food and lifestyle complex whose formal name is Taikoo Li. There are Balmain, Alexander McQueen, Carven, Balenciaga, Versace and Miu Miu boutiques. All empty. A 24 hour Starbucks. Beautiful girls everywhere, clicking on their phones, wonderfully dressed but with nothing to say, sugar daughters waiting for sugar daddies.

“I find the sight of these girls so depressing,” I say. “They’re so wonderful, so beautiful, so well-dressed. But I don’t see them laughing or joking. They don’t look like they’re having a good time. I don’t get it. And what do they do all day?”
“You only have to look at China’s history. Concubines.”

I say nothing. The Orientalist obsession with forbidden cities, palace compounds and the concubine system of institutionalised sexual exploitation neatly skips over the ‘revolution’ that was designed, deliberately, to break down the idea that women were objects to be bought, reared, sold, used and exchanged for sexual labour. Instead it put forward the idea that women could be used for any labour whatsoever.

“A lot of the girls in universities are being kept,” says my companion.

Again, I say nothing. It is not true that “a lot” of female university students are being sexually used, dressed, accessorised and paid for by the exploitative men they believe are their boyfriends and providers. But there is certainly a minority of younger women, highly visible around Sanlitun in particular who are like beautiful, precious-breed strays sniffing around melancholically for a new owner. The fact that they are visually striking makes them seem more numerous than they really are. The truth is that the majority of Chinese girls and women study and work and work and work, while withstanding pressure to court and marry and breed. And then they work and work and work at being a wife and mother and daughter and daughter-in-law, in addition to their other work.

“You know the new trend is for etiquette classes?” says my companion. “Even three week courses at finishing schools in Switzerland? Because the new Chinese rich are not sophisticates. They have to learn it all. They have no manners. They don’t know how to do anything.”

In this new world anything, even social skills, can be monetised and sold back to you. I have a (Chinese) friend whose cruel but lucrative side business is to give extremely over-priced wine and gourmet food tutorials to her newly wealthy compatriots, who believe anything she tells them.

At Taikoo Li there’s an Apple store whose glowing Old Testament apple logo (Eve bit the apple of temptation and iPods poured out, damning humankind and blighting the earth) is so aggressively huge, hanging heavily over the complex, that I often mistake it for the moon when I’m walking home. Opposite Taikoo Li is a stretch of nasty-looking bars with skinny young men outside, hair spiked, dressed sharply in Korean pop style shrunken suits, trying to entice people inside. Next to the bars is a mammoth zone of international embassies with fierce young guards keeping watch, clicking their heels together, chests out, buttocks taut. This morning I saw just three of them marching down a regular street in odd-numbered formation, silently, left, right, left, right, legs straight and high and in time, eyes ahead, like automata.

There’s also a Soviet era diplomatic residence compound that’s like a suburb in itself, housing the families of the diplomatic staff attached to all the different countries’ embassies. It’s built along classic Chinese/Russian communist-chic lines: huge boxy living room, high ceilings, oddly thick walls between the master bedroom and the adjoining room, either for sexual discretion or to contain the bundled wires and strategically threaded mics needed for clear tapping and surveillance.

“The place is enormous,” says my friend from [Feministania], “yet whenever there’s another family also from Feministania they put us in the same tower of the same block. They want us to talk to each other. With the families from all the other different countries, we are polite, we talk about the weather. With other people from Feministania of course we talk about politics.”

“Assume everything you’re saying is being heard. That’s what I was told when I arrived at my office,” said another friend, who works across politics and global finance.

To walk through Beijing today is to negotiate an ever-spreading grid of malls filled with Western European and Scandinavian lifestyle brands, nearly all of them associated with making over the body in some way. They offer clothes and jewellery, scent and makeup, all priced painfully high to accommodate the luxury goods tax. Nearly all the creams and body lotions, including underarm deodorant, contain whitening products and are called Lunar Glow or Pearl Shine or Moon Caress or somesuch. It’s best to look pale, untouched, dewy, delicate: a conflation of racial and gender judgements. Darkness is ugly, it means hard unfeminine work in rural areas, it means you’re not the preferred Han ethnicity but one of China’s many racial minorities from a far-off region, here to do menial or manual labour, having zipped everything you own into a checked plastic cube-bag and brought it on the train from one of the western border areas that bleeds into India or Nepal or even one of the mysterious barbarian –stans.

“You’re dark and you have tattoos,” said someone to me when I arrived. “Here, that means you’re poor. Provincial poor.”

Before I get to the Apple store in Sanlitun on my way home I pass one of the slickest buildings near my office. When I first saw it I thought it was a nightclub or a karaoke place. It’s a plastic surgery clinic called My Like. Its logo is the outline of a mermaid swimming up the side of the white building, with big bazongas and flowing hair. China’s one of the largest markets for plastic surgery globally, alongside Brazil and Korea. When the sun sets the gleaming white clinic lights up with lines of blazing neon pink.

Back to the tea.

Those aspects of the afternoon tea experience which were not directly within The Opposite House’s immaculate control fell short. To be blunt: the Jo Malone fragrance was laughably small. It was exactly the same as a sample you can beg from any woman at any beauty counter at any bog-standard outlet from Chengdu Airport to an Idaho mall. When I got home, me and my roommate – a lifestyle photographer who has a wine fridge filled with rare perfumes worth tens of thousands of dollars – screamed with mirth when inside my ribbon-tied Jo Malone bag we discovered….another, much tinier ribbon-tied Jo Malone bag, which contained….what looked like a Jo Malone matchbox… which contained what could only be called a ‘vial’ of perfume if looked at through rose-tinted binoculars by a pathological liar.

I had been a longtime admirer of Jo Malone, both the woman and the brand she built single-handed. I am shocked that a marque of such apparent sophistication would do something so unstylishly tight-fisted that my disgust is superseded by ridicule. The lavish booklet that accompanies the ‘vial’ (written, tellingly, all in Chinese apart from its headings, to court that new young rich generation of capitalist aspirants) actually has an entire page entitled ‘The Art of Gift Giving’, showing a male model holding an abundance of normal-sized boxes filled with goodies. If only someone at Jo Malone had followed their own advice.

My favourite Jo Malone scents are Pomegranate Noir, 154 and Red Roses but everyone will have their preferences. I would suggest that any fragrance brand wanting to match the culinary skill and presentational dedication of the Opposite House offer either a genuinely medium-sized wardrobe of multiple scents or a single large perfume of choice to customers who have paid for something special. They – we – are not to sign up, pay up and then be palmed off with something a princessy toddler would get in a novelty gift bag at going-home time.

Looking at the insultingly small offering, I wonder if there is some cultural disdain behind it. Do companies think they can fob off the Chinese with these minuscule trinkets because the Chinese will be happy to get their hands on something, anything, a Western brand gives them, no matter how meagre? Do they think the Chinese are so stupid and so desperate for a little acknowledgement by an English-branded company (which is actually American-owned: Jo Malone was bought by Estée Lauder in 1999) that they’ll be grateful for this pathetic sop? Equally, is China so in thrall to a fantasy version of the Western ‘lifestyle’ that it will overlook homegrown enterprises, no matter how nascent, to court an established brand that does not reciprocate its interest or its appreciation?

The Opposite House are already in talks with a range of (Western) brands to work on collaborations for 2015, while gearing up for a second major pairing this autumn: from October 13th to October 24th they partner with Brit designer Paul Smith for a business set lunch, also at Sureño, with a menu devised by prodigal chef Laia Pons Gonzalez. Paul Smith will be giving away a typically quirky notebook patterned with musical notes, a key motif in the label’s collection at this year’s Paris Fashion Week.

It’s a good idea for The Opposite House to host experiences alongside fashion and beauty brands who match their standards and style. However, those brands will have to step up instead of donating some samples they found in the back of the cupboard and putting them in fancy bags with a ton of marketing material thrown in to add insult to injury. The people who come to The Opposite House are chic and wealthy enough to have entire shelves of properly packaged, full-sized products by brands even more elevated than Jo Malone and Paul Smith. Those same people are well-connected if not outright famous in the very sectors in which the brands wish to maintain prestige; if an experience fails to live up to promises or expectations, they’ll walk. 

The Opposite House host a non-branded afternoon tea throughout the year. Although the flavours are slightly different it’s just as sumptuous, just as delicious, just as stylish and just as affordable as the Jo Malone collaboration. Western lifestyle brands who want to get in on the 21st century capitalist China act must match The Opposite House’s quality and generosity or risk looking commercially cheap and culturally nasty by comparison.