Kaifeng’s bars were riddled with chancers – sing-song girls who would come to the table unbidden, and freelance hawkers who would hand out flowers or treats as if they were complimentary, only to reveal that there was a price to pay. Such hassle was part of the drinking life all over Kaifeng, except at Charcoal Zhang’s and Yoghurt Zhang’s, two higher-end establishments that served only the finest of wines and particular pickles, and chased all the riff-raff from the door.
We see in them, however, the early glimmerings of the Chinese theatre. Although few of their skits have been known to survive, at least in the forms they were originally performed at table-side, we do have a list of some of their names, many of which are immediately evocative of certain set-ups that would not be out of place today.
There are several titles related to ‘wrecking the restaurant’, which were presumably playlets of humorous incompetence. One is called Starting a Fire While Serving the Soup (song geng tang fang huozi), and immediately summons up images in my mind of a Chinese Basil Fawlty losing it with a waiter. Similarly evocative of a timeless routine is one that’s simply called There’s Only a Little Pepper (hujiao sui xiao). Some titles suggest wordplay or a stand-up routine, even a challenge to name a hundred fruits or cooking implements, while others have an interactive element requiring the participation of certain diners as they interact with actors playing the ingénue, the poor student, or the wily official.
Such lost Song-era performances have numerous echoes in modern-day Chinese dining. Skit is almost the wrong word for them – but there are scripted moments of performativity in many a modern-day Chinese restaurant that lays claim to anything more than basic food.
It’s only here, as I type up the forgotten table antics of the medieval Chinese eatery, that I am reminded of the time when I was with a film crew in Luoyang, where my ‘special’ fish dish came with the ringing of a gong, fireworks, and a hooting bunch of waiters dressed as imperial ministers. I remember this only because when I discovered it, I tried to get my attention-shy director to order it the next day without telling her that the whole restaurant would come to a halt when she did.
Similarly, I once endured a seemingly endless five minutes with the ‘Noodle Dancer’ (laomian-shi) at a prestigious hotpot restaurant in Xi’an – a capering madman who would juggle and thrash the dough to create handmade noodles in front of me.
“BEHOLD!” he bellowed. “I AM THE NOODLE DANCER WHO CREATES NOODLES OUT OF NOTHING. SEE AS I WHIRL AND TWIRL. SEE AS I SWIRL AND FURL! LIKE A LASSOO! LIKE A WHIP! I CREATE NOODLES OUT OF RAW DOUGH JUST FOR YOU!”
Unfortunately for me, I had ordered two helpings, so he had to go through the whole ostentatious routine all over again.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.