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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 June, 2004, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
The Beijing chippy
By Louisa Lim
BBC correspondent in Beijing

A stroke of inspiration from two Chinese friends with British wives has resulted in an unlikely import of UK cuisine.

Many Chinese believe they have the best culinary tradition in the world
When my bosses posted me to Beijing, little did they realise their decision would strike a blow for British cuisine on the other side of the world.

And nor for that matter did I, as, on the face of it, opening an English restaurant in China would seem to be a losing proposition.

When it comes to food, people here are chauvinistic, generally believing they have the best culinary tradition in the world. Their attitude towards British food can be summed up as disdain, combined with some pity, for the poor Brits who live off such bland mush.

Chinese people who have spent any time in the UK love to describe the horrors of the food - dwelling in shocked tones on descriptions of Marmite and rhubarb, much as British visitors to China talk of chicken's feet and entrails.

My husband, Feng, is from southern China and - to put it mildly - is no great fan of British food.

When we found out we'd be moving here, he was ecstatic. At last, he cried joyfully, I won't be hungry any more.

Eureka moment

He'd always wanted to open a restaurant in Beijing and it was while chatting to Leng Jie, another local with a British wife, that inspiration struck.

Leng Jie happened to say that, after 12 years of marriage, the only English food he could bear to eat was fish and chips.

And this, suddenly, became their Eureka moment - when it dawned on them that what Beijing was missing, in culinary terms, was a fish and chip shop.

The pair brought in a third, more numerate partner to do the sums and he declared the whole idea a goer.

Their first major challenge was finding the perfect spot for a Beijing chippy - not so simple when it seems the entire city is being pulled down and rebuilt.

After weeks of searching, they found an ideal site but, as always, there was a snag - the electricity supply couldn't support the deep-fat fryers they needed.

Don't worry they were told, you can just buy your own electricity pole. But, at $10,000 a pole, that was out of the question. Spot number two seemed even better. But again there were hidden problems - the entire building, though just finished, turned out to be illegal and slated for destruction.

I tried pointing out that working in a fish and chip shop is not necessarily a step up the social ladder
In can-do China, this wasn't necessarily a deal-breaker. They even started negotiations over the contract, but these ground to a halt when the landlord wouldn't agree to refund their rent if the shop was knocked down.

In desperation, they stumbled on the third site almost by mistake. A former bar, it had never been successful.

But, placed beside a popular nightclub and youth hostel, it was the perfect place to catch late-night drinkers tottering by on a quest for greasy comfort food.

Contract signed, the renovations began, and they started advertising for staff. There is no shortage of people looking for work in Beijing, so the potential bosses could afford to be picky.

Just how picky came as a bit of a shock.

Too stupid, too ugly, too short seemed to be common reasons for turning down staff.

A certain cachet

I tried pointing out that working in a fish and chip shop isn't necessarily a step up the social ladder - but the thing is, in Beijing, maybe it is.

Foreign restaurants still have a certain cachet, and some of those vying for jobs even had a college education.

And the three partners - as they say - had a vision, and that was fish and chips served up by the hottest talent in town.

With model staff in hand, the next step was the menu. Here I have to admit defeat.

I lobbied long and hard for mushy peas and curry sauce. But somehow the whole concept of mushy peas isn't too easy to convey in a way that makes it sounds like an attractive foodstuff.

But on the whole Feng and his colleagues did well.

Just thinking about fish and chips made me want to vomit
Leng Jie
The chips are proper English chips - fat and slightly greasy - served with cod in beer batter, along with a few local additions, like tempura vegetables, shrimp and deep-fried pineapple.

And then, the final frontier: dealing with the press. Here the boys' natural honesty was a definite drawback.

The first sign of this was when one reporter asked them about their experiences eating fish and chips.

Leng Jie smiled sweetly and replied, "When I was in England, I ate them every day. At first I loved it, but after a while, just thinking about fish and chips made me want to vomit."

At this point, I took the partners aside and gave them a pep talk about the importance of public relations - something which goes against all my journalistic instincts.

But the hard graft has been worth it. Fish Nation - that is its name - is finally open for business.

Its first few days haven't been too bad, with a steady stream of trendy locals and homesick Brits. And who knows? Maybe good old fish and chips might be Beijing's hit snack this summer.

And at any rate, if I ever get tired of journalism, I guess I can always fall back on a career behind the deep-fat fryer.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 June, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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