I’ve talked a lot about the food memories that I share with my mom, but I haven’t mentioned much about my dad. The reason is that, for 3 years (1998 – 2001), my dad was getting his Ph.D. in Shanghai, a 6-hour bus ride east of Hefei; combined with his busy work schedule at the Anhui Medical University as a teaching professor, I didn’t get to see him much growing up. Especially in the later years, when he was studying in Shanghai, the few times when we did spend some time together were especially memorable, and the few food memories that we shared are held very closely in my heart. I will talk about one of them today, and maybe also offer a bit of an insight into the very beginning of western fast food in China.
It was the summer of 2000; my parents arranged for me to fly from Hefei to Shanghai (with one of our close family friends who was going there on a business trip) and spend a few days with my dad during my summer vacation. I don’t remember much about the short, 45-minute flight, even though it was the first time that I’ve really flown without any other family members.
The second night I was in Shanghai, my dad took me to one of the most fancy restaurants around: Bishengke, or Pizza Hut, had just opened its first (and at the time, only) location in Shanghai a couple years before in 1998 at Xujiahui, one of the most prestigious commercial centers of Shanghai. Though I’ve had Kendeji (KFC) and Maidanglao (McDonald’s) before in Hefei (they had already spread to Hefei before Pizza Hut did – more on my childhood experiences with those sometime later), Bishengke, as well as the whole concept of pizza (translated into Chinese at the time as “Italian filled pancakes”), was still very new to me.
We must have waited in line for at least a couple of hours (Bishengke, even to this day, is considered by many in China as a fine dining destination, despite its poor reputation in the US as a below-average pizza takeout chain), though I can’t claim to remember much about the overall dining experience that day. I do, though, still remember the two items we got:
- A 9-inch supreme pizza, 56 yuan
- A very small bowl of spaghetti with meat sauce, 27 yuan
I remember that I liked both – even though both dishes were entirely new to me, the pizza was (with hindsight knowledge) significantly altered to fit a Chinese flavor profile by removing pretty much all the cheese on top – though it did lead to my preference for supreme pizza even to this day – and the spaghetti wasn’t too different from the traditional Chinese dish xihongshi jidan mian (noodles with tomatoes and eggs), except that eggs were traded for ground beef, so both were quite easily acceptable for a young palate.
What made the meal more memorable was the price: at a total cost of 83 yuan for two, it would have fed my dad and me 20 meals elsewhere; at a time when a bowl of noodles cost no more than 2-3 yuan in most restaurants, at a time when my dad was making somewhere less than 1000 yuan per month on his Ph.D. stipend in one of the most expensive cities in China (therefore making that single meal about 10% of his monthly income), that was his way of showing how much he missed me and loved me. The Chinese are notorious for their non-verbal ways of showing affection and care for each other, with the most common way being through food, and that meal was how he expressed his feelings – in making sure that I got one of the finest and most exclusive meals in Shanghai at the time (such words have never been uttered for a Pizza Hut here in the US, I’m sure), he gave the best he had to me.
To this day, when I think back to this meal with my dad, and the subsequent trip we made all the way out on the subway (first ride ever on the subway) to Jinjiang Leyuan (Jinjiang Amusement Park) in the far suburbs, where I rode a roller coaster for the first time, I feel so grateful and loved to have shared such an eye-opening experience with my dad. It was a short trip of only a few days, but the memories of those few days will remain dear to me forever.
A few more words on Bishengke: the international pizza behemoth has since opened over 100 locations in China, including one location in Hefei, to which, on my last trip to China in March 2013 with my mom, we invited my younger cousin and her parents. It was still a 2-hour wait, and we ordered 2 pizzas and some sides for a total price of over 300 yuan (around $50 in 2013). The cost didn’t shock me this time – a meal for 5 at any half-decent restaurant would cost at least 200 yuan nowadays – and, having had plenty of pizza in the US, I could see how different Chinese pizza was from what I’ve had here (a lot less cheese, for example), and, honestly, I did not care for it. A fine dining experience it may still be for a lot of Chinese people, but for me, Bishengke is just Pizza Hut, an average pizza takeout chain, only with the notable exception of that one meal in the summer of 2000 with my dad, the symbolism of which I would never forget.