When I first stepped foot in Beijing 20 years ago, it was a big city with a perfect blue sky and most of its inhabitants did not know how to drive. Traffic was pleasant with the exception of thousands of bicycles either on roads or parked like sardines in open spaces near offices or metro stations.
I still remember my customer then Mr. Jia Wujun (贾武军) who had come to pick me up from the airport. While it was a perfectly normal day for me, it was his first day behind the wheels. He was as stiff as a stick as he handled the steering wheel with full concentration moving at the speed of a snail. He and his five brothers were farmers before but decided to take a leap of faith to dabble in a small seafood business when China opened its doors to the international market.
Today, Jia is one of the leading seafood importers in China who owns a factory in Thailand importing big volumes from all over the world in order to satisfy huge local demands. Not remotely a surprise, considering his connection with Thailand, he took me to one of the three Thai restaurants he now proudly owns. Thai Mei (泰美) is a new venture that serves authentic yet not-too-spicy Thai cuisine.
The Chinese have become a lot more well-off although the capital of China today is choke up with traffic jams and hazardous environment where sometimes one will find it difficult to see and breathe. If one would prefer to spend some quality time with fresh air and a ‘peace’ of mind, then award winning hotel Sunrise Kempinski Beijing where I was invited to speak in the China’s Business Family Heritage Forum 2016 (2016中国家族企业传承) would definitely be a good choice to stay. Although the Chinese wealth is exploding and with the expectation of its second generation to continue this fairy tale, many families are facing issues of successions as children inheriting the family business face difficulties in differing cultural upbringing and being raised in a total comfort and well-protected environment. The forum’s primary focus was to bring together foreign companies that have succeeded in passing the baton through generations; to share researches done by local academics; and to explore the success stories of Chinese companies that have performed well in both domestic and international platforms.
Although distantly located away from the city, the hotel offers a near perfect environment for those who wanted to be free from noise and air pollution as described by hotel manager Sebastian Thomas. Its interior has an impressive architectural design served with immaculate facilities especially the fitness centre and the hotel pool. The breakfast menu provides a delicious spread of choice ranging from the East to the West. The hot Chinese soup noodles and healthy yogurt were simply my choice to start the day. One should also try the signature in-house grilled fish and the braised sea cucumber with rice (小米煮辽参) in the Magnolia Chinese restaurant. The double-boiled hasma in papaya (木瓜炖雪蛤) dessert would be an excellent choice to call it a day. The welcoming dessert presentation in my room, I must say, was the best I have seen so far.
Beijing is a big city conveniently connected by its subway system taking away most travellers’ nightmare of being stuck in traffic. Walking around Wangfujing, this famous shopping area no longer gave me the feeling of old China that it once used to be, but rather disappointingly modern Western brand outlets now occupy the traditional Chinese buildings. Perhaps one of the most interesting scenes for tourists is the street food where exotic creatures such as live scorpions, sea horses, centipedes and worms are offered as snacks to those with strong stomachs. There is also another pedestrian shopping area in close proximity to Tiananmen Square: Beijing Qianmen Street located directly behind Zhenyangmen offers visitors a glimpse of buildings from the late Qing dynasty. Although the main street is filled with typical big brands one could find in any city, restaurants located at the side lanes provide an interesting selection of, said to be, old, traditional and authentic Chinese food.
身为首都大城市，北京交通方便且有完善的地铁系统，使大部分游客免除困在道路交通的恶梦。走入王府井，这个著名购物区浓浓的怀旧感已消失，取而代之的是现代西方名牌占据了传统的中国建筑物，让人有点失望。或许对于游客来说，比较有趣的场景是街头小食包括 ： 活蝎子，海马，蜈蚣和虫子等猎奇小吃。至于天安门广场附近的另外一个购物区：正阳门后的北京前门大街景区，也有许多清朝末期的建筑物。主街道充斥着一般餐饮大品牌，但侧边小巷的小餐馆倒是有着传统与老式的中餐。
Mary Goh, manager of the hotel and also a Singaporean, is not only capable but also full of experience from spending most of her adult life in the hospitality industry in China. When we met for lunch, I must admit that I was a little sceptical when the restaurant served us Peking duck especially after tasting the Signature Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant (全聚德）the night before. However I was pleased to congratulate Mary that the roast duck served at her restaurant was nothing but exceptional. The duck meat was not fatty and the crispy skin was simply delicious especially when the meat is wrapped with freshly made soft pancakes. Another interesting dish immaculately presented and nicely cooked was their God Mother’s Traditional Fried Rice (老干妈炒饭).
Although the Temple of Confucius located on Guozijian Street may not be as popular as the other sites such as the Imperial Palace, nonetheless, it is a well preserved heritage site that pays tribute to the greatest scholar and philosopher of China – Confucius. It is interesting to know a little more on how Confucius influenced the world through his teachings and are still very much respected to this very day. Furthermore, one can just walk over to the Beijing Imperial Academy located next to the temple where some of the top officials were educated in the olden days. Wu Dao Ying Hu Tong (五道营胡同) nearby, typically known for its small lane is popular for its interesting curio and coffee shops.
Within walking distance is the newly built Overseas Chinese History Museum of China. It is a museum dedicated to collecting and showcasing the history and current status of Chinese immigrants. The museum provides important information about the Chinese people who are scattered all over the world contributing to the politics and economies in countries where they now live in.
Hunting for antiques in China used to be an exciting affair. Nowadays, genuine Chinese antique pieces are scarce and predominantly either too common or new reproductions that are purposely made to look old. Beijing Curio City (北京古玩城), covering an area of 5.8 acres, is Asia’s largest antique trading centre and also probably the best place to venture if you are looking to add to your antique collection. Within walking distance is the famous Panjiayuan Antique Market where most sellers display items for sale on the ground. A typical Chinese visitor will not only have certain knowledge of what he/she is buying but also exceptional skills in bargaining. Nevertheless, this is an interesting place to be where one will find life-sized Buddha, porcelain, books, paintings, stones, jade and many more. Don’t be anxious or stressed if you’ve bought pieces that are not within the period claimed by the sellers. One must remember the saying of ‘Good things do not come cheap!’
The 798 Art District would be a perfect choice if one wishes to dab in modern and contemporary creations and innovations. Formerly an industrial site that housed many state-owned factories, this area was eventually converted into a place for artists and cultural organisations in 2002. Today, 798 is a holy place for art and cultural lovers where museums, art galleries, cultural centres, themed cafes and boutique restaurants are housed under one single roof.
Beijing is a large city with limitless attractions. While its biggest attraction such as the Great Wall and the Imperial Palace remain the stars of the city, there is a sense that the original attitude, experience and culture of the Chinese people are gradually diminishing. Hopefully it will not end up as a Chinese body with Western souls.