YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A Slice of History in China's Most Famous Duck

The story of a legendary Beijing restaurant, Quan Jude, opened in 1864, reflects 14 decades of the nation's political and economic fortunes.

July 07, 2004|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — George H.W. Bush. Yasser Arafat. Fidel Castro. Kim Jong Il. These are only a few of the luminaries who have eaten at Quan Jude, China's legendary roast duck restaurant.

Far less known is Yang Zongman, a compact, serious 54-year-old woman who is an assistant manager at the government-owned culinary landmark. Standing next to the restaurant's tall, animated hostesses in their slinky evening dresses, she might be mistaken for a midlevel manager hopelessly behind the times.

But Yang isn't likely to leave the restaurant anytime soon. She is the great-great-granddaughter of the man who opened Quan Jude in 1864 as a tiny family restaurant.

"Many guests ask to see the descendant of the original owners," said Yang, whose business card includes the word "descendant" as if it were a job title. "I work almost 365 days a year. A lot of our steady customers come because of me. So I have to be here."

Yang's story, and the story of Quan Jude, in many ways reflects the ups and downs of China's business enterprises over the last 14 decades.

Yang's great-great-grandfather Yang Quanren was a small-time peddler who sold live poultry in the market at the foot of the walled city where Chinese emperors lived. One day, a store selling dried fruit went out of business. Yang Quanren seized the opportunity to open a small restaurant.

He soon added roast duck to his repertoire.

When he died, his children took over. They put new dishes on the menu, perfected the open-pit roasting style and turned Quan Jude into a full-fledged restaurant and one of the best-known names in old Beijing.

Business ebbed and flowed as China made the transition from centuries of imperial rule to a wobbly republic and plunged into years of civil war. By the late 1940s, the economy had collapsed and the streets were all but empty of potential customers.

According to official accounts, it was the communists who saved Quan Jude from extinction.

After Mao Tse-tung's army took over China in 1949, his new government abolished all private property. Restaurants were no exception, although initially, officials called Quan Jude a "joint venture" between the public and private sectors.

In 1952, Yang Zongman's father, Yang Fulai, became the assistant manager in charge of Quan Jude's daily operations. His boss was a communist, who monitored the activities of his new partner and the political leanings of the staff.

Business started to increase. But then the radical Cultural Revolution started in 1966, and Quan Jude became a target of the all-out attack on traditions. Red Guards yanked down the restaurant's century-old hand-carved marquee and tossed it out as firewood. A museum worker risked his life to hide the plaque until the end of the chaotic decade.

A crazed mob then plastered the main halls of Quan Jude with posters of Mao and his sayings. In place of a large landscape painting, the mob put up a banner that read, "Unite People of the World. Down with American Invaders and All Their Running Dogs!"

Yang's father was branded a capitalist and was banished to the countryside to raise pigs. Guilty by association, Yang, too, was sent away. Her destination was the frozen northwest, the Chinese equivalent of Siberia.

"I was only 17," Yang recalled. "I dug ditches, planted rice, herded horses, fed pigs, ducks, geese, you name it. We did the dirtiest work and slept in a pigsty. I saw no hope in sight."

That life lasted 10 years. Thinking she might never again go home, she married her brigade leader and gave birth to two children on the farm.

As the Yang family languished in obscurity, Chinese Premier Chou En-lai was turning the roast-duck restaurant into his own unofficial political banquet hall.

In the early days of the People's Republic, the Chinese capital lacked sophisticated restaurants to service the catering needs of its new leaders. Ever the graceful host and charming politician, Chou saw the diplomatic potential in the traditional Peking duck.

According to official accounts, Chou often took specially prepared duck from Quan Jude to entertain guests on his overseas trips. Comedian Charlie Chaplin was said to have tasted the Chinese delicacy in Geneva in 1954. Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh received a special delivery of the dish in the 1960s while recovering from illness in Hanoi.

And then there was Henry Kissinger.

President Nixon's special envoy went to China in 1971 to begin secret discussions that eventually led to a detente between the United States and China. According to a Chinese tale, a 12-course lunch featuring duck from Quan Jude helped put Kissinger and fellow Americans at ease during the first encounter with Chinese leaders at the colossal Great Hall of the People. Chou personally showed Kissinger how to wrap the Chinese crepe around the thinly sliced meat and lavished his guests with his classic hospitality.

The next year, Nixon made his historic trip to China to normalize relations.

Los Angeles Times Articles