Before my first trip to China, in 1983, I was warned that the food would be terrible, and it more than met expectations: greasy, gristly, dismal, prepared with that brutal indifference Communism seemed to celebrate, and served up gray and ugly. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore kept alive the Chinese culinary tradition, three tiny candles standing in for the greatest bonfire in the world. By the early nineties, the situation was somewhat better, as long as you stuck with simple things or ate in people's homes. In the past five years, Chinese cooking has risen phoenixlike from the ashes, and divine food is now to be found in the country's unnumbered restaurants. It is hard to understand how the Chinese have retained some semblance of sanity in a country so utterly transformed, because the China of today is as dissimilar to the China I first visited as Topeka is to Zanzibar. Where miserable-looking people in Mao suits once pedaled rusty bicycles down dirt alleyways while unconvincing workers celebrated the Communist state in unbearable factory performances, one now finds a level of efficiency and sophistication in the cities that leaves me feeling that New York is quite nearly a provincial backwater. There are of course still legions of peasants laboring in poverty, but the advances in China, unlike those in Russia, seem to have spread through a broad swath of society. The improvement in the food reflects a profound social transformation: what was once unpleasant is now thrilling. And while much of these changes are in Beijing and Shanghai's smartest restaurants, they can also be found in country inns and at street dumpling stands.
I had the good fortune to do a culinary tour with the fashion designer Han Feng, who is warm and glamorous and sparkling with life, and who led us to both the fanciest restaurants in China and the best street food imaginable. "You won't believe it," she said on our second day in Shanghai as we drew near to Jia-Jia Juicy Dumplings, in the old Yu Yuan district, a grungy-looking stand where a huge meal costs about a dollar. Seated on plastic stools on the sidewalk, we gorged on dumplings filled with soup and pork, shrimp, or hairy crab (a regional delicacy). You dip them in rice vinegar with ginger, and when you bite down, first the warm soup floods your mouth, and then you experience the smooth skin and the rich meaty filling. Mobs descend on the place in all sorts of weather, and the eight women who work there are crowded so close together that you wonder how they can move their arms. A great steamer sits outside, piled high with bamboo baskets, watched over by a woman whose face is constantly shrouded in vapor. But everyone smiles and laughs. "How can this be so good?" Han Feng asked us, glowing with pride.
She was the inventor of our trip—and it took some considerable inventing—and she is also the inventor of herself, as miraculous and unlikely as modern China in all its glory. Han Feng left China in 1985 to move to New York, but has recently taken a Shanghai apartment, relocated her production to her homeland, and started dividing her time between the two countries. I first met Han Feng 12 years ago at a dinner party. I had recently returned from a trip to China to write about contemporary art, and we made desultory conversation until I mentioned one of the artists I had interviewed by name. "From Hangzhou?" she asked. "Really good-looking?About our age?" "Yes," I said. "Wow, he and I dated in high school and I never knew what happened to him." She came from China and I'd been to China, so why wouldn't we know people in common?
Since then, I've learned that Han Feng knows most of the world's interesting people, and I've been lucky to be invited to the divine dinners she cooks at home and those she organizes in Chinatown, where one runs into Jessye Norman, Lou Reed, Susan Sarandon, Rupert Murdoch, Anthony Minghella, or, just as likely, her wisecracking upstairs neighbor or the fur buyer who once paid her a compliment. Her satisfying throaty laugh makes every evening feel like a celebration.
Han Feng is profoundly international. " I love wherever I am and whatever I'm doing," she once said to me. She arrived in the United States as "a Chinese peasant potato," as she says. "Some people climb staircase of success," she told her then husband. "I take express elevator." Soon she met someone who wanted to back her design activities and promised to make her rich and famous. "I said, 'Maybe we can forget about famous and concentrate on very rich.' " Since then, she has developed a private label that has been sold at Bendel's, Takashimaya, Bergdorf's, and Barneys; designed opera costumes for the English National Opera; and made a line of clothes for the Neue Galerie in New York.
After her divorce, she had a long-term relationship, which ended when her boyfriend said he wanted to move in. "I can't believe it! I say, 'Move in?Move in?I don't have that kind of closet space!' " Most people fall in love with Han Feng if they get half a chance. The King of Morocco has commissioned her to make many of his clothes, and she has been a regular guest at his palace. "I stay there and see all the pomp and circumstance," she confided, "and I think how glad I am to live a simple life!" It's the most high-powered simplicity I've ever encountered; whatever potato she was when she left China, she's now an orchid of the first order.
My favorite place in Shanghai was the YongFoo Élite, brainchild of a local decorator who leased the former residence of the British consul and spent three years and $5 million restoring the space, furnishing it with antiques, and replanting its gardens, giving it the aura of the old Shanghai: decadent, elegant, lavish, and sophisticated. While we rhapsodized about the sweet shrimp, the fish fried with pine nuts, and the quail's eggs roasted with octopus and pork, our Chinese friends were impressed by the romaine salad—an exotic touch in such a setting. Dessert is not always Chinese cuisine's strong point, but I will remember the crisp date pancakes with sesame seeds forever.