The Truth About Peking Duck and Other Beijing Reflections: A Guest Post

Earlier this week, Nathan Myhrvold gave us his thoughts (and photos) from a visit to Shanghai. Here, as promised, is the second installment of his China trip, which takes him to Beijing. You will probably never look at Peking duck — or the Bird’s Nest — quite the same way again. His earlier posts on Iceland and Greenland can be found here.

Beijing was my second stop in China after Shanghai. We flew for a couple hours across the bulk of China, seeing a mixture of agriculture and industrial cities. Someday I need to visit the rest of China, but this trip was all business, so Beijing was the next stop.

In contrast to Shanghai, Beijing is a great forest of mostly drab, mostly medium-sized buildings stretching off into the horizon. There are a few tall buildings, and a few strange ones that would fit with Shanghai, but Beijing seems relentlessly practical by comparison. It is also much more Asian.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONChinese boys in Beijing.

Everybody warned me about the one great drawback to Beijing — the air. “Your throat will be burning, your eyes will be red and tearing, and you won’t be able to see the tops of buildings across the street,” one of our people based in Asia put it. Having grown up in Los Angeles in the bad old days before the Clean Air Act, I thought I could brave it, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. As luck would have it, a rain and wind storm the night before I arrived deprived me of experiencing typical Beijing smog. Instead, it was crystal clear the whole time I was there.

I kept dropping references to “Beijing, the clean air city” throughout my visit, much to the annoyance of the Beijing habitués with me who swore they had never seen it like that.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONSelf portrait at Tiananmen Square.

No trip to China would be complete without Chinese food, which I ate with great abandon. Beijing had the edge here; perhaps my choice of restaurants in Shanghai was poor, but I think there is much better Chinese food (even Shanghaiese food) in Issaquah, Washington. Beijing was another story; we had great Sichuan and Cantonese food, but the crowning pinnacle was Peking duck.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONA restaurant kitchen in Beijing.

After intense discussion with chefs and restaurant critics, a uniform opinion emerged: the best Peking duck in all of Beijing, and perhaps the whole world, was to be had at the restaurant in the Grand Hyatt hotel. The Hyatt!?! How could it be that an American hotel chain could have the best traditional Peking duck? But that is what they all said. Some partisans stuck up for Da Dong, a more traditional restaurant, but most found that it was an inconsistent, over-touristy shadow of its former self.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONPeking duck being put into an oven.

I didn’t try them all, but the Hyatt restaurant, called Made in China, is damn good! The head chef showed me the whole process. They the gut the duck through a hole in the side, rather than out back the way they are done here. That lets them fill the internal cavity of the duck with water (with a bamboo plug up its butt). This prevents the meat from overcooking while the skin roasts crisp (the evaporating water cools the interior of the bird).

INSERT DESCRIPTIONCarving the duck.

Days before cooking, the skin of the duck is inflated and dried — first in the refrigerator, then in a freezer. The duck is roasted in a wood-fired oven, using peach wood. It is quite a process, and the result is delicious.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONPeking duck in the oven.

No trip to China is complete without visiting the great triumvirate of Chinese mega projects: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and its recent equivalent, the Olympic stadiums. Each is breathtaking in its own way.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONInside the Bird’s Nest stadium.

The Great Wall is nothing short of amazing. There are many sections one can visit; the one we chose involved a two-hour drive, then a cable car ride, then a tram ride. As it turns out, they stop the trams in the afternoon — and we didn’t make the last one. So I got to walk down, but that let us stay for sunset. The clear air meant we could see the wall snake across the hills for miles into the distance.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONThe Great Wall at sunset.

And I really mean snake. It is amazing how twisted the path is, turning back on itself again and again as it fades off into the distance. In the section I visited, the wall is in such rugged terrain that it begs the question of what hordes it could possibly be stopping. Troops of Mongol mountaineers perhaps? Herds of nasty mountain goats?

Besides, what enemy could be terrifying enough to concern a society with the economic might to make such a wall? Climbing over it, although not easy, is surely many orders of magnitude more simple than building the wall. The judgment of historians is that it played an important defensive role, and perhaps that is true; but at the same time, it must have been very expensive to create. It is a very strange state of affairs that would make it worthwhile strategically and economically.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONThe Great Wall through a tower.

Of course, that said, my own country has been contemplating a giant fence to try prevent impoverished Mexicans from pursuing the American dream. How hard should we work to repel the people who harvest our food and do a thousand other necessary tasks that our own citizens don’t want to do?

Terrorism is cited as a non-economic reason for the wall; this from the same government that renewed the visas of the 9/11 hijackers months after they died, and the same government that protects us by confiscating nail clippers at the airport. Perhaps we need to be jealous of hard-working restaurant dish washers, or worry about mad manicurists running amok, but neither seems to me to be the top priority. If the U.S. builds a border fence, it will be due to internal politics and the perception that “we need to do something.” Perhaps that sort of thing is a rule of human nature rather than an isolated peccadillo of American politics. Maybe the Great Wall was more about internal politics or perceptions in Imperial China than the product of any rational calculus.

The Forbidden City is another mega-marvel. When you first enter, it is tempting to think: “Wow, look at that palace! Those emperors really had something!” But then you find out that, no, the amazing building you see isn’t the palace — it’s just the front gate. The palaces are out in back and even bigger. One thing is certain, Chinese emperors weren’t modest about their digs — whether in size or the amount of red and gold decoration, the mother of garish Chinese restaurants everywhere. Hip-hop has nothing on them in the bling department; the emperor and his homeys were quite a crew.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONThe exterior of a Water Cube wall.

The final member of the Chinese architectural triumvirate is the Olympic park, particularly the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube National Aquatic Center. They are just as impressive up close as they seemed on TV, and in the case of the Water Cube, perhaps more so.

There are two inspirations for the design of the Water Cube. The exterior surface is a bubble-like skin of translucent plastic, arrayed as Voronoi polygons drawn from seemingly random points. Gregory Voronoi was a 19th-century Ukrainian mathematician who studied what we now call computational geometry. Voronoi studied what happens when you throw points at a plane and then break the plane into regions where each region is the area that is closest to its point. This creates a natural polygonal division of the plane. You see this pattern very clearly in the polygonal patterns of light, known technically as caustics, that play across the bottom of a well-lit pool or pond. Voronoi polygon patterns are also found on giraffes and in the veins in leaves. I made a recursive Voronoi fractal for one of the staircases in my house.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONThe exterior of the Water Cube.

That’s the two-dimensional interpretation, but the obvious external pattern is not the extent of it. In three dimensions, the pattern mimics the closest packing of bubbles. Believe it or not, there is a tremendous amount of mathematics and physics behind bubbles. A set of bubbles packed with each other into a foam will naturally try to minimize the surface tension that arises in the bubble’s skin. If they are two-dimensional, this is described by the Voronoi polygons from Poisson-distributed random points. What about three dimensions? What structure minimizes the surface area of a set of equal-volume shapes in three dimensions?

INSERT DESCRIPTIONThe interior of the Water Cube.

Lord Kelvin, the great British physicist proposed in 1887 that the answer lay in a foam of truncated octahedrons. It has a small surface area, but Kelvin couldn’t prove that it was optimal. In 1952, Hermann Weyl concluded after much work that he couldn’t prove it either, but he asserted that Kelvin’s structure had to be correct. Yet in 1994, two Irish physicists, Denis Weaire and Robert Phelan, found a structure that is about 3 percent better than Kelvin’s. It is made of two polyhedrons — an irregular dodecahedron and an irregular tetrakaidecahedron. Irregular in this case means that the sides are not all the same size.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONThe view through the Water Cube skin.

Arup, the engineering firm that designed the Water Cube, decided to use the Weaire-Phelan structure as the basis. When you look through the skin of the water cube, the Weaire-Phelan structure is quite evident, but not how one may think. Despite the fact that the design repeats the same two polyhedra over and over again, it has a property that makes it look random and organic. This is especially true on the inside and outside walls, where flat planes slice through the structure. It is brilliantly conceived.

The bad news is that this sort of architectural glory comes at a price: the skin is already streaked with stains. The translucent plastic is taking a beating from UV in sunlight and the Beijing atmosphere. I wonder how good the Water Cube will look in another five years. Permanence may be a churlish thing for me to ask of a structure built for the events of a single month, but I couldn’t help it. In the context of the Great Wall and Forbidden City it seems a relevant thing to ponder.

One thing that struck me about the Olympic architecture is that, unlike the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, they were not built to exclude, but rather to embrace (and impress) the rest of the world. It is an interesting and positive new twist on China’s obsession with grand architecture. Rather than us commoners and foreigners being forbidden, we’re all invited.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONA chain of guards.

This is the New China, which at least in the major cities has all the trappings of a modern, developed, capitalist country. But of course, it isn’t new at all; this is still the China of Chairman Mao, at least technically. The current government is the direct lineal descendant of Mao’s rule. No official retraction of policy has occurred. Indeed, one young Chinese professional, without a trace of irony, asked me to share my impressions about visiting a communist country. As he said this, we drove by an Armani store.

Mao’s huge portrait still looks down at Tiananmen Square, although these days he stares across a street choked with S-Class Mercedeses and Buicks.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONMao and Mercedes.

Yes, I said Buick. One of the most irrelevant brands of the soon-to-be-bankrupt General Motors happened, by some good fortune, to gain a new lease on life in China. Some underappreciated genius at Buick created a joint venture with the Shanghai Motor Car company to manufacture Buicks in China. My guess (and only that) is that Cadillac was probably too proud at the time; being the top of the heap (even of a dubious heap like G.M.) makes it hard to “stoop” to some opportunities. Maybe it will hurt our brand equity. It will be a distraction. There are dozens of reasons. It may simply have been beneath them — like bending over to pick up a penny on the sidewalk.

Chevrolet, on the other hand, wasn’t quite high-end enough to be an aspirational brand. There are too many Asian brands that would compete for that part of the market. Oldsmobile was too far gone. So, as I imagine it anyway, the opportunity fell to the obscure and irrelevant Buick, the Cadillac wannabe car for small-town dry-cleaning shop owners and their ilk.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONSigns with smiling police in Beijing.

There’s an old saying in diplomatic and political circles that “only Nixon could go to China.” I think, in a strange way, that something parallel happened here: only Buick could go to China. As a result, it became the dominant luxury car brand, by far, in China. Everywhere you look in Beijing there are Buick cars or mini vans. When I first saw this I was amazed, then amused. While being hustled about Beijing in a chauffeur-driven Buick Park Avenue, the refrain of a TV-ad jingle from my childhood kept running through my head: “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Beuuuu-ick? A Beuuuu-ick? A Beuuuu-ick?”

The number-two luxury car brand is Audi, for a similar reason. Mercedes is in evidence, but is a distant third. BMW and others are, hard as it may be to believe, hardly there at all, playing catch-up in a market dominated by Buicks. How strange is that? Indeed, I suspect that Buick may outlive G.M. at this rate. Or maybe it will re-enter the U.S. market years hence as a Chinese brand.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONA “gothic punk” jacket.

Down the street from Tiananmen are dealerships for Ferraris. The shops nearby sell suits by Brioni and Zegna, rather than Mao’s trademark collarless gray tunic. Young Chinese follow trends like those anywhere. A Pepsi billboard showed the archetypal (or perhaps aspirational) young Chinese: handsome young men and a girl with blue hair and a blue patent-leather bra. There are Chinese goths, and even Chinese hip-hop aficionados. After seeing several Chinese hip hoppers walking down the street — replete with plenty of bling accessorizing their velour tracksuits — I asked a Chinese person traveling with me whether hip-hop is popular. The answer surprised me: “Yes, but R&B more popular!” Chinese R&B; imagine that!

INSERT DESCRIPTIONA hip-hop clothing store.

What would Chairman Mao say to Shanghai’s buildings, the Water Cube, and streets choked with Buicks? What about R&B, hip-hop, or the female comrade in the blue leather bustier? I asked a number of people in China that question.

The best answer was an older Chinese person who said, with some bitterness, “He’d head back to the countryside, and we’d have another cultural revolution.”

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  1. Luke says:

    When I was in Beijing three years ago, the streets well full of crappy 70′s era station wagons and ecnoboxes, with the occasional modern executive sedan (with all windows tinted black like that minivan) thrown in. Are the beaters all gone or did you just decide not to mention them? The idea that China is actually shipping in thousands of crappy old cars from all over the world is intriguing to me

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  2. Watah says:

    nice tour of china u take

    thks for the notes u make

    as i am traveling with u

    with everyword u scribe

    the desire arises

    to make the trek

    to china myself

    taste the duck

    wall to walk

    what a trip it will make for me

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  3. Abhay says:

    Funny I was in Beijing a little over a year ago and heard the same line about the air quality. “Never been like this before…”

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  4. Brian says:

    Your photos of this trip are fantastic. Any chance you’d mind telling us what camera you were using?

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  5. Danielle says:

    I have to disagree about the food – I found Beijing style food (with the exception of Peking Duck) to be bland and much less tasty than Shanghai style food. Maybe you didn’t go to the right places in Shanghai. Actually, given that you talked about Pudong and the Bund pretty exclusively, it’s pretty obvious you didn’t go to the right places in Shanghai. On the other hand, you mention great Sichuan and Cantonese food in Beijing, and those definitely aren’t northern styles of cooking. Did you ever try true Beijing food?

    I have Chinese rap songs, and they are really interesting. Overall, though, I think Chinese people like to listen to American songs as well as Chinese R&B, so don’t jump to conclusions! I’ve found my cousin in China to be much more aware of American music than I am.

    Fantastic pictures. I really liked the piece on the Watercube.

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  6. Josh says:

    You should title this series “Lefty on Parade”, then pick a country that appeals to your sense of “equality above all else” and stay there.

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  7. Chuck says:

    I had the same thought as Brian! The pictures are terrific and I’d love to know what camera is being used.

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  8. Chris says:

    Buick’s success wasn’t just luck– the groundwork was established much earlier by some Buick exports to China pre-WWII.

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