17 They’re Serving Beef Today!

Regular readers of this blog will remember our exciting week in the countryside in October 1975, when we did a tour of Open Door Schooling.

Early March it was announced that we would spend another week in the Dongfeng Bazar, the department store in Beijing’s top shopping street Wangfujing, in which Chris had found his Cuban cigars. It has been taken over and completely rebuilt by a Hong Kong investor in the present century and is now known as Sun Dong’an Plaza.

The teachers who had organized this were thrilled about this arrangement, which they regarded as a big experiment. Our group would be the first to have Open Door Schooling in an urban location.

. . . Monday, March 22, 1976, the School opened its doors again for us to learn about Chinese life in practice.

The first day was bound to start with a huge introduction by a leader of the Market. Dong’an Market had been established in the early 20th Century, before the end of the last dynasty. It had begun as a real market, a collection of stalls, as all big cities in the world needed, to provide the unproductive citizens with food, clothes and other daily necessities, but also with stuff that the same unproductive city dwellers need to keep themselves occupied in their spare time, like stationary, musical instruments, or sewing kits.


The stalls gradually became fixed selling spaces for the vendors and further evolved into tiny shops. In a similar fashion, some food stalls grew into restaurants. To shelter the shops, and their patrons, from the harsh Beijing climate, the place became roofed. The foreigners in Beijing who liked the place as we did, started to refer to it as the Dong’an Bazaar. In its heydays, the Dong’an Market counted more than 900 users. . .

. . . During the 1950s, the vendors had to comply with more influence from the invisible hand, when the government promulgated a system of ‘public private partnership (gongsi heying)’. In the following period, the ‘private’ part of the operation gradually faded away, and the Dong’an Market was in reality a state operated store, divided in many small shops. The former shop owners were no longer owners, but employees. . .

In hindsight this week was my first encounter with business administration, and I am sure that it has been at least one factor influencing my later switch from the academic world to business. My diary shows that I certainly got a remarkable interest in figures.

. . . The store employed 2164 people at that moment, 1166 men and 998 women. Their average age was 37, but approximately 800 employees were younger than 30.

A salient detail of the employee statistics was the number of ‘capitalists’: 65. You see, I was right. Those capitalists, despite their incorrect background, were the ones with the valuable product knowledge and business acumen. I bet that their young revolutionary colleagues had learned more about running a business from them than in school. . .

We spent that entire first day listening to introductions by several leaders of the store. Almost half of my notes are concerned with employee benefits. The advantage of doing this bout of Open Door Schooling in a store with such a long history was that it allowed the people doing the introductions to compare the ‘old society’, the standard term for pre-1949 China, with the then current situation.

. . . we were also given a look, however restricted, in the human resource problems the leaders occasionally encountered. . . Cultural Revolution or no Cultural Revolution, Chinese consumers retained all characteristics of consumers. They were exigent, and expected quality for their money. . .

. . .Therefore, buying anything slightly more valuable than a daily necessity was an undertaking that required time and attention. When you needed a new pair of trousers, you did not only look for the right size, material, and color, but you also needed to inspect every other detail.

Chinese customers would check all stitches. Had the pockets been sewn on the proper places? Were there no loose hems? Their comments on perceived problems could make you split. I had observed such interaction between customers and sales people numerous times before our week in the store. Although I was not a sales person, even as a neutral observer I could often feel an urge to punch the buyers on the nose, for their unreasonable comments. . .

The Head of the Personnel Department confided that new employees were trained to deal with that phenomenon, but that quarrels still occurred occasionally. Some people originally assigned to sales positions had to be transferred to a back office function, where they did not have to deal with customers anymore. This was a real human interest story, one that was credible and not a standard revolutionary narrative.

The staff also seemed to benefit from our presence.

. . . It was arranged that we would share lunch with the staff of the store in the employee dining hall ‘to mix with the workers’. We welcomed that, of course. It would not have felt right, if we had been fed on specially prepared food in separate rooms. The dining hall was a smaller replica of the one in the Language Institute. The staff worked in shifts; so there was a constant, but moderate, flow of eaters. There were no rush hours like in our school. The main difference was that the choices of the day were not exhibited on a table, but written on a blackboard. The employees of the Dongfeng Market were all assumed literate.

When we lined up with the employees that first lunch, the Big Boss who also was a big boss physically, was standing in line next to me. He started scanning the blackboard to make his selection while gradually approaching the counter. I suddenly heard him say, visibly pleased: ‘Hey, they are serving beef today!’

Apparently, the kitchen staff had been told to pay extra attention to the fact that a group of carnivore Western students would be taking lunch that week. I appreciated the gesture; I ordered a helping of beef as well. I was enjoying the little extra care, with the Big Boss of the Dongfeng Market. . .

We spent the following days in a similar way as during our Open Door Schooling in the commune earlier: half a day working and half a day visiting. As for the working part, I was assigned to the counter selling Halal pastries.

The photograph in the banner of this blog shows me at work behind that counter. China has a considerable Muslim population. The is not restricted to the Western regions of China. There are also ethnic Chinese Muslims. Beijing alone has more than 70 mosques. Halal restaurants and food shops can be found everywhere.

To function properly, I needed to acquire a few new skills.

Lesson 1: how to operate the scales.

If you think that my work there was a piece of Halal cake, you are terribly mistaken. Then, almost all food would be purchased by the weight in China. We are used to buying a pack of biscuits, but Chinese would buy a few ounces or a pound. This meant that you had to put a handful of the biscuits ordered on the scales and keep adding until the required volume was reached.

Lesson 2: how to calculate the price.

The next step was to calculate the price of that total order, which could consist of several items. You needed to multiply the volume of each item purchased with the price per ounce, and add everything up to obtain the total price of the client’s order.

There were no electronic calculators. Instead, you had to work with an abacus that great Chinese invention. However, if you are really forced to use it, and so suddenly as I was, it does not feel so great anymore. . .

Lesson 3: collect the proper volume of grain coupons.

Pastries were made from flour and flour from grain. Ergo, you needed grain coupons to buy pastries. When you communicated the price of the order to the client, the client would not only give you money, but also grain coupons.

This added a whole new dimension to the notion of ‘change’. Suppose that a certain order of 3 ounces of biscuits cost RMB 3.50 and the client gave you a RMB 5 note and a 1 pound grain coupon, you needed to give back RMB 1.50 and 2 ounces worth of grain coupons in change. . .

In 1976, the citizens of Beijing had enough to eat. Still, grain was rationed using a coupon system. Food like dumplings had two prices, a price in RMB (renminbi) the local currency, and one in grain coupons. The unit of the latter was expressed in the weight of flour consumed. You would typically order a few liang (Chinese ounce) of dumplings. That would have a certain price in RMB and with your payment you would add grain coupons equivalent to the weight of dumplings you had ordered. Foreigners were exempted from using cereal coupons.


A one pound grain coupon

Very soon, I was myself confronted with by impatient and finicky customers myself.

. . . Many of my customers quickly became annoyed, when I needed more time for my calculations. Then, I overheard a conversation between two people observing the presence of a fair-haired sales person behind the counter. The question ‘what kind of person is that?’ was replied with: ‘He is probably from Xinjiang’. . .

Lesson 4: packing the merchandise.

. . . My merchandise had to be packed in paper and tied with a rope. Moreover, it had to be done in such a way, that the customer could hang it on a finger. That was convenient for the customer, but definitely not for a maladroit Sinologist linguist to be. Tying knots was for boy scouts, and scouting had never appealed to me.

Pastries needed to be handled with care. The customers were buying biscuits, crackers, or cakes, not a pack of crumbs. You needed to make equal piles on a piece of paper, fold the paper carefully around it and then tie it up with a very thin rope that seemed to be made of paper itself. You needed to take care of not crushing the merchandise. Then, you had to tie the knot in way that resulted in a neat pack of complete pastries, with a noose for easy carrying. . .

By the time I started to feel comfortable with calculating prices and packing pastries, our time in the store was over.

We spent the afternoons visiting various departments.

. . . an interesting item in my diary about our visit to the Accounting Department was that we met a real capitalist; one of the 65 mentioned during the introduction. He had been a shop owner in the old bazaar and when his shop was gradually incorporated in the socialist economy, he had been compensated with a job in which his old management knowledge could be put to use. We learned that he still earned a special salary. . .

We also paid a quick visit to the living quarters of the employees. As most work units in China, the Dongfeng Market was also responsible for housing its people. We visited Dongfeng’s own training facility on the last afternoon.

Comparing the two bouts of Open Door Schooling, I think I learned more this time than I did during my week in the commune.

A couple of weeks after we had said goodbye, I entered the Dongfeng Market again and when I passed my old counter, I was recognized by my former colleagues and asked to behind the counter for a chat. That was an unusual expression of affection to a foreigner in the China of that time.

Right at that moment, when I started to make local friends, the political turmoil that had been fermenting underneath the political surface exploded.


If you like this story and would like to read all of it, you are invited to buy the book. Benelux citizens can order a copy, signed if needed, directly with the author. Others can order it at Amazon.


2 thoughts on “17 They’re Serving Beef Today!

  1. Pingback: 19 The Hospital at the Elephant Pond | Studying in China during the Cultural Revolution

  2. Pingback: 22 Good Grammar Bad Meaning | Studying in China during the Cultural Revolution

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