My Bakery life and China visits

Strange but last night there was a film on the TV about ‘The Forbidden City’ and it reminded me of the many business trips I made into China during my working career.


When a young boy it was a country that I always dreamed of visiting so I was excited when in 1987 the company I worked for said they wanted me to go to China to conduct a market research, hold a few bakery seminars, and product demonstrations. This was at a time when China was just starting to open up to the West and with an immense amount of building modernization going on...  


My first trip was into ‘Dongguang’ and I remember the flight from Hong Kong was nerve racking, as I’m sure the pilot thought the commercial airline was a fighter jet as he landed it like one coming down with an almighty thump on the runway.


The first day was spent going from bakery to bakery with a Chinese interpreter asking questions and finding out the types of ingredients they used and in what volumes, often my colleague would keep the owner talking as I scoured round the bakery looking under the tables and in store rooms as in many cases they did not know the names or realize what ingredients they were using, which was just a case of the business and recipes being handed down from father to son.


This went on for three days building up a portfolio of information then on the fourth day we held a bakery seminar for 100 local bakers at the so called bakery school which was very basic to say the least, fortunately all the ingredients and equipment that we needed we had carried with us from Hong Kong.


The seminar started at 7am and went on till 5pm, then after the evening meal we held a question and answers time, there was so many questions being fired at me as they had a great thirst for knowledge and wanted to know all about bakery ingredients and there function in a recipe, the latest bakery technology and methods, by the end of the three hour session I felt totally exhausted and as though my brain had been drained of information.


After this all be it very late there was the customary banquet given by our host with endless amounts of food and drink, there was never ending ‘thank you’ ‘thank you’ and toasts, when the host toasted your health you were expected to toast him back, but you had to be careful otherwise this could go on all night or until the bottles where empty, I soon found out it was best to say you was on medication then you was not expected to drink.


Getting to the airport the next day for our early flight back to Hong Kong was like a fight trying to manoeuvre the car through the hordes of bicycles as people went to work, I’ve never seen so many bicycles at one time in my life and everyone going in different directions.


Two months later I was back in China but this time in Shanghai for market research and to check out a local company that was producing bakery fats as the company I was working for was considering starting a joint Venter with them.


We were meet at the airport by our hosts from the fat and margarine company who where obviously out to empress us having hired a vintage ex military Russian limousine, it was an enormous car but had problems with the radiator as it kept boiling over and had to keep stopping to fill it with water, as we passed through the streets people kept looking and waving, when we stopped at traffic lights, or when waiting for the traffic to move people would swarm around the car straining to see who was inside then waving and bowing, which made you feel like a celebrity.


Our hotel was a government run hotel and incredibly basic but at that time was the only type of hotel available as modern 4-5 star international hotels where still being built at that time.


We started by visiting the fats company and looking over the processing plant, discussing the joint venture, and the local bakery market, this obviously took time as every word had to go through a translator, after this we went for our evening meal and back to the hotel to discuss the day’s events, it was only 8pm but everywhere was deserted even the roads were empty of any traffic, this was the same at the hotel no one to be seen on duty we even had a job to get our room keys as the reception was closed and the receptionist had gone home, fortunately we found a night security guard who could help us, no way could we get anything to drink not even a cup of tea as everyone had disappeared from the hotel.

In the morning for breakfast you had a choice of Chinese rice porridge or an egg with one piece of bread without butter and a mug of Chinese green tea, no such thing as coffee or a breakfast buffet, it was a case of, take it or leave it...


The following days where all spent on market research and compiling data, all the information and statistics we had to find out for ourselves as in those days in China there were no such thing as government statistics at that time certainly and certainly not in the field of bakery ingredients or production, but as we started to compile and calculate all the volumes of bakery ingredients used it was staggering and in some cases some of ingredient volumes was more than all the other Asian markets put together which was good news for the company.


As we drove around Shanghai you could clearly see the different colonial areas with each having its own appearance of European Cities which you can still see in the structure and style of the buildings today. I remember when we drove through what was the British quarter to visit a prospective customer we passed through a pair of large gates into grounds surrounded by a high wall and down a long driveway lined with trees and came upon a magnificent building just like an old English country mansion, the grounds where full of roses, tulips, and daffodils, if you had been blindfolded when first driving in you would have thought that you was in England, I guess to the colonials at that time to all intense and purposes that’s exactly what it was ‘A home away from home’


By the time of my next visit to Shanghai things where moving fast as 4 and 5 star hotels where open and our company had started its joint venture with the fats company and had started to produce a range of bakery fats and margarines, a local bakery adviser had been employed who could speak some English which was a great help to me, we had also set up a bakery training area within the factory so could hold seminars and training sessions for small groups of local bakers. At this time we held our first big seminar outside of the factory facility, being a cake decoration and pastry’s competition and I had written a special recipe book for the occasion that had been translated into Chinese which was the first of many to follow.


I was still making my bakery visits around the city to promote the company products and give technical advice to the bakers as part of our customer service. On one occasion when I was doing this we were followed by the Shanghai TV news crew and local newspaper reporters, whatever bakery I went into they were all right behind me filming and photographing everything I did to instruct the bakers, it also cased a lot of crowds as everyone wanted to see what was happening, as I left a bakery people would swarm round me to shake hands and get there photo taken next to me I remember thinking OMG I’m only a baker not a film star. Then that same night my visits made the 6 o’clock Shanghai TV news, and the next day’s front page news in the local newspapers, I could not understand what they had written but my translator told me it said “Mr. Barry bakery expert from the UK check’s out Shanghai Bakery market”


I made many trips into Shanghai and from there travelled to many provinces and cities in China normally by car or train, on one occasion we was travelling by car to another city and had stopped in a rural area for petrol, my colleague and I was standing by the road surveying the area when we saw a large dog trotting down the middle of the road suddenly a tractor came around a corner and hit the dog killing it instantly, but all of a sudden people came out of know where and the dog was whisked away! All my colleague would say was, “they will eat well tonight!”


At one provincial seminar I was mixing a recipe on the mixing machine when the beating attachment broke in half and although they tried they could not find a replacement of the same size, so there was no option all I could do was to roll up my sleeves and adapt to the situation and finish the recipes by hand mixing, as they say, (the show must go on) thank goodness the products all turned out OK.


After the seminar the hosts “insisted” on taking us all for an evening meal, it turned out to be a 15 course meal each course being served individually, there was everything you could imagine including two types of soup “Turtle and Bear” which I did not touch, neither did I eat what they said was a delicacy, which was deep fried white noodles formed into a high peak like a mountain, on the sides of this as though climbing the mountain were deep fried ‘SCORPIANS’ the sting having been cut off, my Chinese colleagues relished them but I said sorry I give this a miss... 


Always after every seminar there would be a meal or the traditional banquet, always with vast amounts of food and drink normally brandy, everyone always wanted to toast your health “CUM PAY” (Cheers) and one by one and down the drink in one go then turn the glass upside-down to show it was empty it was considered impolite not to finish it, as I said you had to be very careful but this is the Chinese custom, I must admit it always made me feel very guilty with so much food and opulence at one meal sitting and then see so many people living in such poverty.


After a few years the company decided to widen its market into Beijing although the logistics at that time of getting products from Shanghai to Beijing was a bit of a headache, but first we had to assess the market and planned our trip, we decided to make half the trip by car and then continue by train, the car journey was memorable passing through rural areas and city’s seeing just how people lived. We stopped overnight in one city the name of which I can’t remember and stayed in what they said was an original hotel of the colonial days, it was absolutely beautiful, the whole interior and bedrooms was of highly polished seasoned wood, all the furniture was original colonial, and you could just imagine and fell the colonial atmosphere of the place, it was so quiet amongst the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city, in the evening we sat in the smoking lounge having a drink, talking, and listening to the string quartet playing light classical music, it really took you back to times gone by, and that night I slept soundly in my all wooden, draped four poster bed...


The next day we got into a taxi and driven at very high speed to the train station, but as we pulled up at the station entrance a police car came screeching to a halt in front of us the policeman jumped out and grabbed the taxi driver, apparently he had run a red light in his hast getting us to the station, he was unceremoniously pushed into the police car and we was told to go on our way and the police car speed off leaving the taxi where it stood and without us paying the taxi fee, when I asked my interpreter what will happen to the driver all he could say in his broken English was “He go prison”


Finally we got our overnight train to Beijing, being first class we had a private compartment for ‘four’ which wasn’t exactly the Orient Express but the bunks where comfortable and the train moved at a slow jerking pace as it travelled through the Chinese countryside, during the course of the journey female porters continuously served hot green tea by which time I was starting to get a taste for it, unfortunately we could not get much sleep that night which wasn’t from the excitement of going to Beijing more from the shaking and rattling of the train as it passed over well worn rails.


We arrived in Beijing in the middle of the morning and went straight to our hotel needless to say to bath and refresh ourselves not being able to do that on the train. After this we went touring the city to look at the many bakery’s and the many fast food chains that where opening up at that time, we even had lunch in the then biggest Mc Donald’s I have ever seen, it was surprising to see just how westernized Beijing was becoming in a very short space of time.


In the evening we went to a restaurant said to be the original restaurant where ‘Peking Duck’ was first served, I must admit it’s the best I have ever tasted, and it was amazing to watch the chefs with their sharp knifes skilfully carving off the wafer thin slices of meat and skin to go inside the thin pancake like roll, with the rest of the meat being deep fried.

Back at the hotel we all settled down for a good night sleep only to be woken up in the very early hours from the noise of an all night market outside the hotel, when I looked out the window I could see that the car park was packed with cars, vans, and people with all the vendors shouting out loud trying to sell their goods and in particular mounds of clothes which had all been bought in illegally over the Russian boarder and then sold at incredibly cheap prices.   


The following day the country manager had made sure we had a day for leisure and relaxation with it being our last day in Beijing and we set of early to visit the Great Wall of Chine, it was something I always dreamed about but never thought I would ever see, (I wasn’t disappointed) neither could I forget the immensity of the wall as you approach a place called ‘MUTIANYU’ from this point felling lazy we decided to take the cable car to a high point of the wall, from here you could see the wall zigzagging like a snake in either direction following the hills and mountains always at their highest point and with the deepest drop always on the Mongolian side.


We walked along the wall in both directions often passing men dressed in traditional warrior uniforms adding to the authenticity of the past, at one point we went up a very steep incline the like of which I have never seen before, you felt as though you where leaning forward at a 45degree angle, to climb some points of the wall was really exhausting trying to get to the top and one of the many watch towers but the views where breath taking and well worth the climb, but getting back down was another problem in itself as you felt you were running and tilting backwards. But I could just imagine the hordes of Chinese warriors marching up and down and patrolling the wall, and thoughts of the great Ghengas Khan and the Mongol armies came into my mind, and the accomplishment of actually building the wall, but as my colleague rightly pointed out to me was that what you’re walking on is like the longest tomb in the world, as when the wall was being built over the various dynasties as workers died they were just buried where they fell and entombed inside the wall...


After the great wall we went back to Beijing city and to the “Forbidden City” it truly is a city within a city, the moment you walk through the great gates your transformed back in time to the days of the Emperor’s, everything you look at seems to be in yellow even the cobbled floors are of a yellow colour being the colour used by and only for the Emperors, areas and steps that where only for the Emperors to walk on are kept in this way and where cordoned off from the feet of visitors, as you walked round looking at so much history and antiquity you could see all the splendour, feel the grandeur and opulence that the Emperors lived in, truly a fantastic sight.


For me this had been a dream come true and maybe had it not been for my job I would never have seen such fantastic places.


Over the course of the next nine years and my many more visits to China I saw immense changes in the country as Shanghai and Beijing became more cosmopolitan yet still retained its culture and traditions. It makes me wonder what it is like today...