The evening at Ying Garden started well. As I wandered through a courtyard searching for an entrance to the highly recommended roof-top restaurant, two women on their way to dinner saw my confusion and invited me to follow them. They asked me why I was in Chengdu. "To eat Sichuanese food," I replied. They greeted this always-safe-in-Sichuan answer with hearty laughter and we struck up a friendly conversation during a short elevator ride. When the door opened we stepped out into a miniature tropical rainforest. During my first two weeks in Chengdu I'd been haunting noodle shops and dumpling stalls that put little premium on décor and bustling hot pot emporiums that thrived on over-stimulating every sense. Ying Garden was of a different class. It exuded laid-back elegance. The air was filled with the fragrance of flowers and the umami scents of Sichuan cooking.
The host flashed a quizzical look when I told him I was dining alone, but for reasons known only to himself decided to reward me with what looked like the best seat in the house, a stand-alone gazebo garlanded with flowering vines.
And then he left me quite alone. I watched the wait-staff march back and forth between other tables for a few minutes, before finally managing to catch the host's attention again. He walked over, raising his eyebrows.
I asked if I could see a menu. He looked just the tiniest bit embarrassed, but promptly retreated to the kitchen and retrieved a lavishly illustrated, multi-page, laminated document. I asked him to point out some of the house specialties, and another look of mild discomfort flashed across his face.
"This menu is very old," he explained, as if speaking to a child. His embarrassment deepening, he told me that many current dishes were not actually on the menu. Then he pointed down at the glass pane on top of my table. Underneath the surface I saw a barcode. Enlightenment dawned. At Ying Garden, patrons didn't use anything as old-fashioned as physical menus. They scanned the table barcode with their phones, reviewed the choices that popped up on screen, and then ordered and paid accordingly. Everything was digital, except the food.
I blushed. The waiter wasn't embarrassed by the antiquity of his menu. He was embarrassed for me, at my fresh-off-the-jet confusion. Menus? Cash? How archaic.
By this point in my stay in China I'd had plenty of time to get used to the sight of convenience store clerks rolling their eyes while struggling to remember how to make physical change when I pulled out some old-fashioned paper currency from my wallet to pay for a tea egg or a cold beer. In contemporary Chinese cities every service comes with a barcode attached and everyone pays for everything with their phone. This includes utility bills, subway rides, rent-a-bikes, street peddlers, and audio tours at millennia-old temples -- there were even, I was told, (though I never saw one), beggars with their own barcode badges. But like most temporary visitors to China, I couldn't join in on the seamless payment fun. To use one of China's mobile payment systems you had to have an account with a Chinese bank, something that simply wasn't feasible for the vast majority of foreign tourists. There were rumors that WeChat, China's Godzilla-powered Swiss-army-knife messaging system, had made it possible to link a foreign credit card to their app, but I could not get it to work.
I tried to comfort myself with the excuse that my backwardness wasn't really my fault -- the real blame, I assumed, lay with the Chinese government's recalcitrance in letting its Internet tech giants interface smoothly with foreign banking and credit systems. But my inability to participate was still an ongoing source of irritation. The wholehearted ubiquity with which China has embraced and adapted to the smartphone age carries with it the distinct whiff of a future that hasn't fully arrived in the United States. It feels modern. I am a technology reporter from the San Francisco Bay Area, which, love it or hate it, is undoubtedly a font of constant innovation, and yet I still felt consistently out of the loop, one step behind. Ying Garden was the final straw -- I was operating at a clear disadvantage in achieving the maximum epicurean experience because my technological infrastructure wasn't up to the task.
I was a barbarian.
Huh. That's new.
Thirty-four years earlier, during my first visit to mainland China, the story had a different plot line. My traveling companion Keenan and I arrived in Guangzhou via a ferry up the Pearl River from Hong Kong with our wallets packed with FEC -- a special Chinese currency that foreigners were required to use for hotels, long distance transportation and at "friendship stores." Of course the first thing we did was find a black market currency trader who exchanged renminbi for our FEC at a very nice rate, allowing us to stretch our cash nearly fifty percent further. The second thing we did was find a place to eat, a cavernous dining hall where we shared a table with two friendly men about the same age as us.
They offered to show us around the city. While we initially suspected that they were touts looking to earn a quick buck off some first-day-in-China newbies, that unkind assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth. They were exceedingly gracious hosts, to a point that, as the day wore on, began to become uncomfortable. They would not let us pay for anything. The entrance fee to a museum featuring Shang dynasty bronzes? Bus tickets? A Coke from a street vendor? The sums weren't large, but our loss of face felt tangible. We were pretty sure that we carried more cash in our fanny packs than these guys likely earned in a year. We were representatives of the richest country in the world and they were citizens of a nation that was only then just beginning to climb out of decades of abject poverty. It was unseemly! We were desperate to reciprocate. We tried buying them a meal at a decent restaurant, but the fight over the check almost became an international incident.
The next day I came up with a fool-proof plan. Across the street from our cheap lodgings stood Guangzhou's then fanciest hotel, the White Swan. On Friday nights the White Swan hosted a hopping disco dance party -- with a catch. The door fee could only be paid in FEC. So we invited our new friends out for a night of dancing, and then, as we stood in line, sprung our surprise. They were annoyed but also appreciative of our sneakiness. Score one for the foreigners. We spent more on those tickets and drinks at the bar than they had spent on us for the entire previous two days. Equity was restored.
Looking back, the whole thing feels more than a little bit icky. The White Swan disco was a latter-day foreign concession discriminating against local Chinese. Our American passports gave us access to a kind of FEC-branded extraterritoriality. In our efforts to reciprocate, weren't we really just flaunting our first world status?
Turns out, that kind of elite status is not as hard-wired as the last few hundred years of Western supremacy might lead one to imagine. FEC were discontinued in 1994. Twenty-five years later, in 2019, merely using paper money marked me as kind of a rube, a hick from the techno-sticks, a second class citizen.
In my twenties, I was a colonizer. In my fifties, a barbarian.
Near the very end of the eighteenth century, the Qianlong Emperor sent an edict to King George III explaining why he was rebuffing a British trade mission. Included among its many moments of grand condescension was a sentence that has lived on in infamy:
"As your Ambassador can see for himself we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures."
Barely fifty years later, the Qing empire crumbled before British military might, setting off the so-called "century of humiliation." Ever since, there have been no shortage of commentators eager to point out the irony that the "barbarians" Qianlong dismissed so cavalierly in his missive to King George were a just a few decades away from bringing down the full wrath of Industrial Revolution science and technology on China's imperial era. Qianlong's edict, viewed from the perspective of Western imperial domination, is one of the great self-owns of all time.
But as the Chinese know better than anybody, the verdict of history has a funny way of changing its tune depending on the time and place and authorship of its writing. When I first started studying Chinese history in the early 1980s, Qianlong's complacent arrogance seemed like a case study in Manchu incompetence and willful ignorance. And everybody knows how that story ended, with Opium War gunboats, the sack of the Summer Palace, unequal treaties and missionary evangelization.
But even then, anyone who spent time in the endlessly bustling economies of Taiwan or Hong Kong or Singapore had a gut sense that if China ever got its act together like its East Asian neighbors, the world would be a dramatically different place. In my four years in Taiwan in the mid-80s, I lost count of the number of times I heard that "the 21st century would belong to China" -- and this was from people who had no love for the Communist Party or any desire to be politically rejoined with the mainland. They were nonetheless expressing an implicit confidence in their cultural vitality that resonated at least as far back as the Qianlong era and surely much further. For most of the last 2000 years China boasted one of the biggest economies and most advanced cultures on the planet. Viewed from that perspective, the century of humiliation was a speed bump.
And those who were barbarians before, would become barbarians again.
I ended up having a great meal at Ying Gardens. The stir-fried bullfrog and hot pepper platter (pictured above) was everything I could want from a Sichuan dish, a kaleidoscope of contrasting textures and tingling sensations. A steamed eggplant and tomato combination, smooth and savory, was the perfect counterpart. With a cold beer in hand, sitting alone in my palatial gazebo, I felt remarkably privileged — even despite my technological backwardness — to be enjoying so much gourmet elegance. But I also couldn't escape the sensation that the whole narrative of my life had been somehow inverted. When I first visited China, I came from the future, from a U.S. that was just a couple of years away from establishing itself as the sole superpower in the world and was just then in the throes of unleashing the computer age on us all.
But when I last visited China, I arrived from the past, curious to see what was coming next.