5: Peter’s Potent Punch

This is personally one of my favourite chapters. First of all the anecdote to which its title refers is extremely funny. One level deeper, it was the first occasion for us to translate a very Chinese holiday and the way it was celebrated then into the way we were used to celebrate anything at home. The Chinese holiday I am referring to was:

. . . National Day.

. . . The preparation for the National Day celebration in 1975 invoked the spirits of an interesting collection of people. One day, Tiananmen Square was suddenly decorated with enormous pictures of the world’s most famous revolutionaries, including Marx, Engels, Mao Zedong, Lenin, and . . .  Stalin. Fascinating to see the portrait of that Cold War politician whose memory had already been erased in his native country.

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October 1, 1975 was a holiday in that there were no classes for a couple of days, but the day itself was still extremely busy with activities. That morning we were driven to the Sun Yat Sen Park, named after the first president of China, which used to be part of the Imperial Palace. It immediately posed a culture shock, as we were confronted with Chinese women wearing skirts without proper warning; some of them even wore lipstick. What a contrast with the unisex attire that was so much part of our environment.

After only two weeks in China, we had already grown used to the fact that women could hardly be recognized from the other sex by their cloths. Actually that is not entirely true. The female version of the Mao suit had more Western style lapels, while the male version was closed up to the chin. However, most men used to leave the top the jacket unbuttoned, which partly undid the male – female distinction again.

The school buses drove us to the Sun Yat Sen Part adjacent to the Forbidden City in the morning, and to the Summer Palace in the afternoon. We walked past all the sites where people were performing sketches, playing music, or singing and dancing. We absorbed what we saw. We were still new in China.

The celebrations continue up to the present day, but are less abundant than at that time. Life is colorful all year round now, and only judging by the food consumed in the street and various types of restaurants, every day seems a day of celebration, at least on the surface.

An especially interesting event happened during the afternoon walk in the Summer Palace. We actually saw a top leader, Gu Mu, who was visiting the park to celebrate National Day with the masses. That wasn’t made easy for him, as he was encircled by a number of less important people and guards.

Back home in our dorms, we felt we had to do something the following day, to celebrate National Day with the Chinese and simultaneously celebrate the fact that all foreign students had arrived and were in need for a get-to-know-everybody party.

It takes a Dutchman to prepare such a party in a proper fashion

. . . My diary entry for October 2, 1975 reads: ‘welcoming party for our fellow students: Peter’s Potent Punch’. The latter could be nominated for the Best Euphemism Ever award; if such an award would exist. . .

By that time, most students had arrived at the Institute and that was a great occasion to do what we would have done at home: organize a party. That was easier said than done in an environment without convenient supermarkets to stock up on crackers, cheese, crisps, wine, beer, and other party necessities.

Beer was available, as I mentioned earlier. There were beverages called wine on the labels, but that turned out to be extremely sweet alcoholic beverages, nothing like what we know as wine. Even referring to them as plonk would count as too much honor.

There were liqueurs, also mixtures of juices, alcohol and again sugar and maybe some other additives that we were happy to be unfamiliar with. Still, the most common type of alcoholic beverage available then was the traditional Chinese distilled liquor, going by the deceptive name of ‘white wine (baijiu) ’. They had an alcohol content between 50 and 60 per cent and most of them were quite awful. The more expensive varieties, particularly the famous Moutai, which gained world fame through President Nixon’s seminal visit to China in 1972, were tolerable, but most of them were quite unpalatable.

. . . I came up with the idea to pool some money and purchase a stock of various canned fruits and alcoholic beverages and mix all that at random in a few of the enamel wash basins we all had. It met with agreement from most of our neighbors in the hall, and I volunteered (sure I did) to do the shopping and mixing. The shopping was the price I gladly paid for having the knowledge of what actually went into the punch.

. . . Back in the dormitory, I started opening cans of lychees, pineapple, pears, peaches in syrup. When Chinese write ‘syrup’ on the label, you can trust it to be real syrup, with such a high sugar content (yes, again), that it almost becomes sticky, like fruit flavored caramel. No problem, once diluted with the deftly mixed alcoholic beverages, and carefully stirred (cutting the halved peaches and pears in smaller pieces), the result was what I still consider the mother of all punches: Peter’s Potent Punch.

Basin

. . . That proved to be dangerous, as such large drinking vessels invited for quickly drinking large quantities of what turned out to be a nearly lethal beverage. Sweet alcoholic drinks are always dangerous, because their mouth feel offers little warning of the inebriating ingredient. Your senses grow number with the amount of alcohol consumed, until you forget what you are taking in. The sweet aromatic taste of the fruits is noticeable longest, so your brain may even be tricked into thinking that the stuff is actually good for you.

. . . the fruits in Peter’s Potent Punch turned into malicious alcohol bombs. Their smooth texture did not require much chewing. You washed them down with a large gulp of the liquid. They would remain dormant in your esophagus as well, but once they reached your stomach . . . bang!

The punch worked like a dream. We all had a swell time during the actual party. As could be expected, many of those who have been less restrictive in their consumption of that lethal concoction started paying the price in the course of evening and the following morning.

. . . A number of the partygoers had to make quick runs to the toilet in the middle of the night and early morning. When I woke up de following day and set out to the toilet, for the regular reasons, I passed the door of the room occupied by two Danish students. One of them, the tallest one, a real Dane, normally a perfect example of how a fearless Viking is depicted in the movies, the only thing missing a helmet with horns, was standing in the opened door, leaning against the wall. His face was greenish grey, and his mouth produced a mix of gargling and moaning sounds. That man looked seriously sick.

I guess that he attempted to make it to the toilet in time, but he did not get further than the doorway. He barfed right where I spotted him, the vomit streaming down the wall. You could actually still distinguish pieces of the fruit flavored alcohol bombs slowly finding their way down the wall to the floor. He was indeed brutally sick.

This paragraph may be a little gross for a book like this, but that picture is stuck on the walls of my mind as one of the highlights of that year in China. I believe that even in extreme stages of dementia that I may suffer eventually, I will still vividly remember how we finally revenged the damage done to our ancestors by the Vikings. . .

We Dutch had better things to do than being sick. I had drunk with restraint and so had Chris. As October 3 is a holiday in (part of) The Netherlands, we had another party to attend at our Embassy. A major event in our 80-year war with Spain (1568-1648) was the Siege of Leiden (1573-1574), which was broken on October 3, 1574, using the most typical of Dutch ruses, flooding the land around the city. We Dutch feel at home in water, but the Spanish, born and raised on arid land, hated it. The Dutch resistance sailed a boat into the city and fed the hungry citizens with herring and white bread. That is the fare that is still eaten in Leiden each October 3 to commemorate its liberation.

Many Dutch diplomats are graduates from Leiden University, therefore, Leiden’s Liberation is celebrated in all Dutch embassies. It has almost turned into quasi national holiday, outside the Dutch border.

The herring is eaten raw, as we do in The Netherlands, washed down with jenever, our version of gin. In other words, more eating and drinking for us that evening, though after Peter’s Potent Punch, jenever almost tasted like nectar.

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As of October 4. 1975, we were ready for the action.

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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.

https://www.cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-6945-4

1: A memorable dinner

Here is blog consisting of a few snippets taken from Chapter 1. It opens with a scene that took place when I had already been in China for half a year.

Imagine this scene:

March 21, 1976, the Horn of Plenty (Fengzeyuan) Restaurant, Beijing, China. A peculiar party of people is seated around a table, eating and chatting. The dinner must have been going on for a while, as the table is covered with a variety of dishes; beef, vegetables, a steamed fish, crispy chicken, and other delicacies. In China, courses are not served one after another, but often simultaneously, and dishes stay on the table until they are empty. The spirits are up, literally, as the food is washed down with Moutai, the Chinese distilled liquor that had gained global fame by President Nixon’s seminal visit to China only a few years earlier. With its more than 50% alcohol and esters and other molecules you would rather not know about, its intense odour has filled the air of the small separate dining room immediately after opening the bottle.

You could easily associate this scene with Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. If the master would have been present to observe it, he could have eternalized the scene on canvas, maybe as a study for his seminal painting. Both scenes involve a group of people who are at first sight connected by a common interest, but when you look and listen closer to the body language and the intonation of the conversation, you will pick up cues indicating that they are highly divided under the merry surface.

That day was my 20th birthday.

I was a Dutch student spending that academic year in China. The diners, besides me, were the other Dutch student, Chris, two Icelandic students, Torge and Reinar, a Finnish student Kalli, the Second Secretary of the Dutch Embassy, Ronald, and his wife Sarah. As none of us had brought a camera, there is no picture to show you here. But allow me to act as your eyes and ears to interpret the scene.

It is by no standards your typical crowd of close friends.

Beijing in 1976 was not the Beijing that hosted the Olympics, or the city with the surrealistic China Central Television Building, designed by a fellow Dutchman, by the way. Neither was it the China that is now pulling multinationals like McDonalds, KFC, and Starbucks through the global financial crisis. It was the China of the Cultural Revolution, of people’s communes, the country where our Chinese contemporaries were sent to the countryside to learn about real life from the peasants. What was I doing there? Especially at such a pivotal moment in my life?

Many people seem to believe that your 20th birthday is a major milestone in a person’s life. Peter, Sue and Marc represented Switzerland at the 1971 Eurovision Song Festival singing ‘Laissez nous les illusions de nos vingt ans’, ‘Leave us the illusions of our 20 years’. I had not turned 20 yet then, but for some reason that refrain has gotten stuck in my mind. It is probably the only Eurovision song that I can freely recall at any time, so it must have struck a sensitive nerve.

So what can we learn from this small selection in terms of things that you may not know about life in China in the 1970s?

Well, what about the Horn of Plenty, for starters? That is not a very proletarian name. In fact, it was one of the so called ‘old numbers’ (lao zihao) of Beijing, restaurants with a long history.

During the most violent years of the Cultural Revolution, such restaurants attempted to go proletarian, e.g. by serving plain dishes people would cook at home and offering them for very low prices. However, no one appreciated that, in particular the workers who before could hardly afford to eat in restaurants like the Fengzeyuan. What they really wanted was high end dishes for low end prices. Bad luck, that was not possible. Even during the most proletarian of all revolutions. Even revolutionaries needed to take the cash flow into account. Capitalism always wins.

Fengzeyuan

The spirits that we took to liven up the dinner, Moutai, was far from proletarian either. You had to pay a few months salary to buy a bottle of the stuff and even if you had that money to burn, you would not always have access to places where it was for sale.

In other words, we were part of the happy few and enjoyed that without being bothered too much about our privileged position. A few of the foreign students did, but they were not part of our inner circle.

We were young then. Most of us were in our early twenties. We were students enjoying the relative carelessness of European student life. Still, if there was one thing we had in common, it was sufficient determination to give it up for a while to spend at least a year in what was then regarded by most people as a secluded empire.

This opening scene of the book not only reflects that even in the most revolutionary era of modern China there were luxury restaurants, but also the contrast between our sincere eagerness to learn as much about China as we could from our stay in Beijing, but the intuitive urge to emulate European student life in the alien environment.

We had a number of restaurants close to our campus, but we regularly tried out the fancier eateries in town. The book is full of anecdotes about our culinary adventures. We had a silent agreement that we would reserve the top places, including the Fengzeyuan, for special occasions, like birthdays.

We were also an international bunch. This birthday dinner only included my most intimate friends, but further in the book you will meet a few English and the occasional Australian and Canadian.

ReadMore

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.

https://www.cambridgescholars.com/product/978-1-5275-6945-4