Lickee Lickee

Last Friday I was sitting in a rooftop bar in Beijing, the night sky gunmetal grey, with a light rain coming down over the twinkling outline of the Forbidden City. Behind me, the speakers were playing a hip hop song called Licky, featuring a U.S. artist with the unlikely name of Princess Superstar.

Although the name screams of teenage angst, our princess turned forty this year, and in real life is actually the more prosaic Concetta Kirschner, originally from Spanish Harlem, NYC. She is responsible for pearls such as Do it Like a Robot and Kool Keith’s Ass. Deep shit, if you’ll excuse the pun.

A stone’s throw from Tiananmen square, the combination of hip hop lyrics and young Chinese executives drinking red wine seemed totally incongruous. As we were collectively instructed to “licky like a mobile phone”, or “licky like a postage stamp”, only the whiff of drains that occasionally rose from the hutong below reassured me that, at the core, the China I know and love hadn’t disappeared altogether.

The Middle Kingdom (中国) is a social animal, and the three guys and the girl sitting nearby never drank their wine without a communal toast. Hong putao jiu ( 红葡萄酒), or red grape wine, is a novelty of a few years in China. Or at least half-way decent stuff. Back in the old days, the mainstay was called Great Wall, and the next morning you understood why.

I had come back from Yantai, the wine capital of China, where a bottle of Changyu cost about 700 yuan in the hotel bar.  That’s the regular stuff, not vintage.

The airport duty free sold the same bottle for 490, and in my hutong in Beijing, the local supermarket sold it for 29 renminbi, or people’s currency. 29 元 (yuan) is around five dollars. At the lowest price, it is still far worse value for money than a good Douro wine which you can pick up for five bucks in Lisbon.

At the moment I’m deeply into something called Meio Queijo, which literally means half-cheese. I think the name’s great, and you can’t beat it for five bucks a bottle. Oh, I forgot to say it’s made by Churchill Estates, one of the big port wine houses. Problem is, you can’t get it outside Portugal, it’s too nice to export. And the production is too low.

Enter Chinese wines, where the current production stands at just under 11 million hectoliters. You wouldn’t normally think in hectoliters, but it’s two up from a liter, so 1,100,000,000 liters. Since (at least for water) a metric ton is one thousand liters, we’re talking about a production of over one million tons per year. Wikipedia gives a figure of 370 thousand tons for 2004, that’s 200% growth. If we do our sums like we were taught at school, and like the banks calculated compound interest before they forgot how to count, the annualized compounded growth rate is in excess of 18% a year. Yikes! That’s more than double the Chinese GDP growth rate.

So Chinese production is currently about 20% of French and Italian, which hovers at around five billion liters. The CEO of one of the largest Portuguese wineries told me a couple of years ago that they were frightened in earnest of the so-called “yellow wine.”

But in 2004, if we do a few more sums (sorry), annual per capita wine consumption in China stood at a mere 0.35 L. To quote the old saw, I spill more than you drink. So, one third of the population in liters, that’s how I learnt to do my sums. 1.2 billion divided by 3, to make the math easy, that’s 400 million liters. Right? 400 thousand tons. So back then China drank what it grew. They have my sympathy, because what they grew back then was pretty awful.

But what about now? In 2009, according to the Wine Institute, China was at 1.15 L per capita, a minnow to Portugal’s 42.5. Portugal comes in at number five in the world, and the other four are worth discussing. At number four is France, reasonably enough, but at number three is an unlikely nation called Norfolk Island. I’m ashamed to confess I had never heard of this place, a small island that apparently is not really a nation, somewhere between Australia and New Zealand. Wikipedia shows a commemorative postage stamp (licky licky) of the first plane to ever land there, in 1981. The locals were probably in an alcoholic coma.

Number two is Luxemburg, easily explained by the fact that it is home to a large contigent of Portuguese immigrants, the colder climate enhancing the physiological need for hong putao jiu.

And at number one, to my amazement, the Vatican! Ah well, it’s all that religion.

An irresitibly bad joke would be that what China and the Vatican have in common is that they both provide wine for the masses.

So back to the sums. At an annual per capita consumption of 1.15 liters, 1.3 billion Chinese consume 1.5 billion liters every year. All their own product, and then some. But when production ramps up for export, as I suspect it will, we can expect to see a little yellow wine going into our Cabernet and Chardonnay.  Dilution is no solution for pollution, but… it’s the economy, stoopid.

A stallholder models my recent purchase at Panjiayuan market in Beijing

In between glasses of red wine, an old Chinese friend from back in the mid-nineties was asking me what people in Portugal thought of China. I told him that people don’t think about it enough, except for the notion that everything is made there. I told him about the graffiti in one of the restrooms at work.

In the beginning, God made the earth. Everything else was made in China.

I also explained that people in Europe didn’t really understand China, and they didn’t try.

I asked him what the Chinese thought of the U.S.

“In China, people think America is the boxer,” he replied.

I was thinking vaguely of Ali, or Tyson, but he explained that to the Chinese, the U.S. was the policeman, ever ready to hit you over the head with a billystick if you misbehaved.

In my quest for the unusual, I stayed clear of the “markets” on the corner of Donganmen Dajie, where the only real attractions are the food stalls. U.S. and European blogs are full of photos of scorpions and other Chinese delicacies, complete with shrill cries of OMG! Scorpions are crunchy, with no distinguishing taste, and certainly not worth screaming about unless you’re about to get stung.

 Speaking of delicacies, here is a primer for ordering beverages in China. First time I’ve seen a drinks menu written by a Ph.D. My favorite on the list is Ma-ge-lit-e. I would be careful when ordering the grasshopper, bearing in mind the old Chinese proverb:

Be careful what you wish for, it may come true.

The Silk Market, further east, is just another gigantic mall for Western eyes. My preference was for the flea, or dirt, market of Panjiyuan, about forty-five minutes south of the center by taxi. If you’re lucky, which I was, particularly for a Friday afternoon. You need to go on the weekend, when 4 a.m. is the starting time, but I was on a schedule.

I’m not sure there were three thousand stalls, as advertised, but there were lots of them. And I saw maybe four other round-eyes, hidden among hordes of locals. But it was the first time I ever bartered in Chinese, which was a special treat. My rabbit mother was an inveterate negotiator, my father loathed it. I’m with the Rabbit.  The market was a walk through history, from dynastic China to the Cultural Revolution.

On the way home, strangled in the evening traffic, as the Chinese glitterati headed for their red wine, the cab driver kept trying to peek into my bags. Finally I showed him my People’s Liberation Army cap.

How much did it cost, he asked.

A very reasonable price, I explained, quite reasonably.

“But how much?” he insisted, obsessed with knowing how the foreigner had been cheated.

“I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you afterwards.”

Fortunately, that was lost in translation.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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