I'm sitting on a plane that is about to take off for Hong Kong. Looking out on the tarmac at Beijing, I can't quite believe my first two weeks here are already over, and Hong Kong International Film Festival is just around the corner.
The past week has been a whirlwind of food, work and discovery, not always in that particular order, but always an interesting combination of sorts.
Let's start with my favorite indulgence while traveling: Food. Fresh food, persevered food, homemade food, street vendors food, gourmet food... you name it, I love it. Gastronomic adventure is, in my opinion, one of the greatest pleasures in life, and I've never shied away from its waters. I don't just dip my toes, I jump in headfirst and splash around like a five year old.
I've had some of the best food in Beijing this past week. Monday brought lunch at a Mongolian restaurant with family. Mongolian cuisine mainly consists of meat and dairy products because of the extreme climate. Compared to other China local cuisines, vegetables and spices are much less used in Mongolian cuisine, where camels, yaks and sheep raised by them are the main food of the daily life. The restaurant would not catch a second glance from the street, and its interior décor is similarly average and Asian - lots of wallpaper and white porcelain dishes - but it was the dishes that really caught my attention. If I've ever had better lamb skewers, I have not known it. Same goes with the veggie dishes, which were simply arranged and cooked to the perfect succulence and flavor.
Another highlight is the long-awaited Peking duck, which I first had as a child but was too young to recall fully its charm. Funnily enough, I had turned down an earlier invitation in the week for Peking duck due to a persisting cold. However, a second invite a second night in a row made it seemed like a call from fate, and on that fateful night I ventured out to "Made in China" at the Grand Hyatt Beijing to check out this imperial dish.
Make no mistake, Peking Duck is one of the last imperial dishes being prepared today in China. Its heritage goes back to the Yuan dynasty in 1330, where it was first recorded in the imperial kitchen. Through the centuries, the dish survived and thrived, and now still flourishing in the numerous Peking duck restaurants around Beijing. BianYiFang, the first restaurant specializing in Peking Duck, was established in the Xianyukou, Qianmen area of Beijing in 1416 and still operates today.
Of course, such a particular taste requires a particular preparation. Duck of a particular kind is well fed to a particular weight, slaughtered, dressed, pumped, hung dry and honey mixture coated, roasted in a wood-fired oven. Peking Duck is known for its thin, crispy skin, with authentic versions of the dish serving mostly the skin and little meat, sliced in front of the diners by the cook. The skin is usually served first, dipped in sugar and literally melts on your tongue.
The meat is eaten with paper-thin pancakes, doused in hoisin or sweet bean sauce, sprinkled with plenty of spring onions and other options like shredded cucumber, radish, mango, etc. The carcass of the consumed duck is boiled with vegetables to make a light and savory soup that perfectly cleanses the plate and prepares you for some tea and dessert.
Though no matter how great an imperial cuisine can be, nothing beats a home-cooked meal from scratch that is simple and fulfilling, just like the emotions carried by their creators.
Sometimes, food and work intersects...and the result can be quite fantastic. One of those occasions took place when Cameron Bailey arrived in Beijing last week for the first of his numerous visits to China this year, and met Lixin Fan (director of "Last Train Home") and I for dinner at a great Chinese restaurant. The cuisine is northern and tasty, and the conversation flowed from the current state of Chinese documentaries to Confucianism to travel to the future of Chinese cinema. Together at that table there were probably enough frequent flyer miles to run a small travel agency.
The next couple days consisted of TIFF meetings with some of the top film people in Beijing, whose perspectives ranged from the academic (Beijing Film Academy) to the commercial (China Film Group) to the governmental (State Administration of Radio, Film & Television) to the individual (producers). As a translator, coordinator and programming associate, I was fortunate to be thoroughly present for them all. It has been, to put mildly, an eye-opening experience. The people differ and personal interests vary. However, there is an uniform opinion across the board that Chinese cinema is still yet to be fully appreciated and understood on the world stage. The gap between what non-Chinese audiences are able to access and appreciate and what Chinese filmmakers have been trying to communicate is visible and standing, and all agree that more efforts are needed to bridge that gap both culturally and commercially. A word mentioned many times is co-production, co-production, co-production. If you're reading - China is awaiting.
On an unrelated note, if you happen to be in Beijing, a gem to check out is the Today Art Museum (www.todayartmuseum.com) in the ChaoYang District. It not only has a great exterior design of some giant sculptures out front and on roof, whose metal sheen sentimentally contrasts against the smoggy Beijing sky and the skyscraper constructions that tirelessly whirl behind it, but also boasts some unique programmes. I was rushing on time and only managed to see one exhibition on Chinese Painting Style (March 6 - 21), which looks at ways contemporary Chinese artists express ideas and techniques that lie within the unique painting style of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. The result is epic: scrolls that hang from 30 feet ceilings and span the entire width of an exhibition hall. Walking across these giant canvases and scrolls, I couldn't help but feel like in a way, those ink carried shreds of history within their carvings, and I was merely a grain of dust caught within one passionate stroke.
There are still much left to write and no time to do so. Many firsts: First time ordering custom-made Chinese gift boxes from a Korean woman in English by a French store in a Beijing mall; First time watching a Canadian band in Beijing with a fellow Canadian. First time directing a clueless cab driver with mobile GPS from the backseat while paying him to do a job that we're doing; First time going to a book reading by an American travel writer in Chinese, on China, in China; First time meeting a new filmmaker as one of us packs and another unpacks in a room that belongs to neither of us, paths crossing. And indeed paths are crossing all the time, everywhere, miniscule and serendipitous, it is a small and wonderful world after all.
As this entry comes to an end I am already in Hong Kong, starting the second day of Hong Kong International Film Festival. Film festival is not a normal world and comes with a matching schedule. I haven't been able to get more than 4 hours of sleep a night since landing, and don't expect that to change until I leave. However, perched now by open windows tucked into a corner high above Nathan road in Tsim Sha Tsui, the never-sleeping neon district of HK, as morning fog/smog hovers in the distance and incessant traffic roars below, there is an indescribable peace. The sheets are white. The curtains a washed-out apple green. The room tiny. The wifi predictably unreliable. I tap a key and Los Indios Tabajaras seeps through the air, soundtrack of "Days of Being Wild" hanging onto every drop of soulful humidity that soaks through this bubble of calm, painting the walls a rolling deep bluish-green. I look out through the metal-barred windows: in between stretches of skyscrapers, a piece of cloudless sky looms close, and my thoughts flutter through the cracks toward it to smoggy, foggy freedom.