(As mentioned in my previous post, this is a short story that was originally entitled Fun with Skin and lay on my USB stick for years. I’ve edited it and deleted some of the more puerile parts. If you like it, or indeed if you hate it, do drop me a comment)
Dumplings: A short story.
Nobody really knew the origins of the middle-aged couple who owned the shop. What was known, a fact gathered from their accents and their obvious lack of fluency in the local dialect, was that they were not originally from the third-tier city of Huaishi, or even from the province. Their voices sounded well educated, so they certainly did not come from the same sources as the regular migrant workers who flocked to work in Huaishi’s factories. Yet where that where was, nobody could say with confidence. They were certainly not from Beijing; their Putonghua was standard but lacked the definitive twang of the average capital native. Some guessed that they were perhaps from Shanghai or Jiangsu province; occasionally some customer with knowledge of those outside dialects would throw a remark at the couple in Shanghainese, but they would only receive a bemused look in reply. Either they truly didn’t understand or they were very good at concealing their understanding. Several customers had even tried directly asking the couple about the whereabouts of their hometown, though it had so far generated little success. The strange man and the strange woman who managed the shop would always evade the question and smilingly beckon the next customer to place their order.
Despite the mystery surrounding the couple, there was no mystery regarding their success. Even their competitors, especially when drunk on cheap baijiu and given to bitter complaints about lost profits, were forced to agree that the Golden Crane Dumpling Shop sold the best dumplings in the whole of Huaishi and perhaps the entire province. It had certainly become something of a local landmark. Previously, the small drab city of Huaishi and its three million smog-choked inhabitants had had very little to boast about. A local state-owned tourist board claimed the city was famous for a certain kind of braised chicken, though six neighbouring towns also wrote the same dubious claim on their poorly-written and never-read tourist literature. The success of the Golden Crane Dumpling Shop had changed all that. Now, tourists from across the province came on one-day package tours with the express purpose of sampling the Golden Crane’s famous dumplings. The lines of tour coaches and crowds of senior citizens scrambling to get the freshest dumplings had become a familiar though unwelcome sight on the streets surrounding the little shop.
All agreed that it was the skin of the dumplings that made them so uniquely different. The shop sold many types of filling: pork, chicken, chives, cabbage, egg… but the one thing each variety had in common was the delicious delicate baopi that wrapped each one. The baopi – the dumpling wrapper – was of a quality never seen before by most customers; certainly not by those long-term residents of Huaishi whose average diet consisted of cheap formaldehyde-filled beer and bowls of noodle soup processed from gutter oil. Each dumpling was lovingly enveloped in a thin, translucent wrapper that was almost transparent. It felt lighter than air – a feat not difficult in the pollution-heavy environment of the city – and would melt on the tongue leaving only a lingering sensation of refreshing effervescence.
Tourists would often ask Mr. Lin how his wife managed to create a dumpling wrapper with such fineness, hoping that they could take the recipe and the method back to their hometowns. Typically, Mr. Lin would stand in the shop’s small dining area by the cash counter. Behind a small door his wife remained in the concealed kitchen supervising the two young women who carried out most of the cooking and cleaning duties. Customers were always politely refused with a warm smile. “Trade secrets,” Mr. Lin would say with an enigmatic wink.
After about two years of successful business, news concerning the fame of the Golden Crane Dumpling Shop finally reached the ears of those senior Party officials who governed the city from mysterious offices high up on the eighth floor of the Ministry building that stood perpendicular to People’s Square. Their dining experiences confined mainly to the banquet rooms of the city’s finest hotels and restaurants, the senior Party members rarely ventured out to the small back-alley food stalls and shops where some of Huaishi’s tastiest snacks were concocted. At first their interest was merely culinary; lackeys were dispatched from the Ministry building to bring back for their bosses some of the dumplings that had gained such an enviable reputation. Satisfied with their findings and pleased with the delectable skin of the dumplings’ wrappers, the rulers of the city then placed special and frequent orders with the Golden Crane Dumpling Shop to ensure their dumplings became a regular fixture of the extravagant lunches that were held within the Ministry almost every day. However, as with every other financially successful business in the city, interest in the dumpling shop soon moved from the gastronomic to the economic. Greedy eyes began to envy the success of Mr. and Mrs. Lin.
When plotting to steal the success of a company, there are two approaches. The first is to just snatch the business away; normally this would involve bringing up real or imaginary charges against the owners and taking over once they were serving five years or more in a high-security detention facility. The second method is to discover the secrets of the company’s success then to emulate it completely but at a lower cost. Considering the fact that the Golden Crane was already a famous local landmark well known amongst tourists who brought in plenty of revenue, it was decided to keep the business running as smoothly as possible but to copy its model in other parts of the city to further increase the inflow of money into the city’s treasury. Though entirely unaware of the decisions being made about them, the Lins were spared considerable grief by the preference to keep their business open.
The senior public servants who desired their own dumpling empires at first tried the more pleasant forms of corporate espionage: namely, visiting the shop in person, loudly proclaiming who they were, and demanding free dumplings. It appeared that Mr. Lin was wise to the ways of official extortion as he was never unsettled by the fake smiles and half-threats of the men from the government who “just wanted to help”. They received their free dumplings, but never learnt a thing about the secret of Mrs. Lin’s baopi.
A handful of trusted minions were tasked to research the background of the Lins in order to find a weakness that could be leveraged upon. It was finally discovered that both Mr. and Mrs. Lin had enjoyed well-respected and highly successful careers across a number of high-profile appointments in hospitals frequented by members of the Politburo. At some point they had tired of the medical profession, accumulated their considerable savings, and moved to Huaishi (the hometown of Mrs. Lin’s late parents) to follow their lifelong dream of opening a dumpling shop. By all accounts their records were impeccable making blackmail difficult.
Over the next few months, the usual tactics were deployed. The Golden Crane became subject to many irregular health and safety checks. Either the Lins’ money had garnered them their own spies within the government’s network or they truly operated the cleanest dumpling shop in all of China, but every time the health inspectors burst their way into the small kitchen where the dumplings were prepared, all they ever saw was a spotless work surface and Mrs. Lin smilingly supervising the two women as they thumbed meat into the dumpling wrappers. As for Mr. Lin, he never seemed to drink, gamble or frequent any of Huaishi’s many pink-lit massage parlours. His only pleasure was a monthly trip to Beijing from which he would return with several boxes of expensive Oolong tea. Tea was his only apparent vice.
Although Huaishi was a relatively backwards city that had been mostly left behind by the country’s economic boom, the men who composed its leadership were not totally isolated from events that happened outside of their territory. A memo had come down from the central government in Beijing notifying all local leaders to be vigilant for a wave of stolen tobacco that had been misappropriated from several large cigarette factories in the capital, cigarette factories that by chance happened to have the same owners as some of Beijing’s most esteemed private hospitals. Providing items that could both improve and damage health was simply seen as good business sense by the shadowy owners of the two industries. Hearing the news, one of the party officials wondered if the secret ingredient in the Golden Crane’s dumplings was in fact nicotine. It would explain their addictive quality. A quick scientific test proved that the dumplings of the Golden Crane were absolutely covered in nicotine. Congratulating themselves, the officials waited for an opportunity to apprehend Mr. Lin and investigate the contents of his tea boxes. Unfortunately, they waited for a long time, as the ultra-cautious Mr. Lin was by all accounts a model citizen and gave his unelected representatives no excuse to prove their theory.
This state of waiting continued for some time until, as often happens, the stalemate between the Lins and the rapacious government officials was broken by an unrelated coincidence. Returning from Beijing with his boxes of Oolong during the chaotic National Day holiday, Mr. Lin had been unable to hail a taxi from the train station as per his usual habit. The hordes of Huaishi citizens also returning from excursions to the coast or a nearby mountain made the stretched traffic situation in the city even more shambolic than usual. Unwilling to board a bus due to his heavy boxes of tea, Mr. Lin had decided to take a ride with one of the many “black taxis” whose shady-looking drivers were a constant feature of the train station where they shouted at passers-by. After much negotiation, Mr. Lin had paid only three times the normal amount to reach his little dumpling shop, but to his exasperation the taxi had driven away before he was able to remove his boxes of tea from the back of the car.
The Chief of Police knew Mr. Lin from his many visits to the Golden Crane and from the constant pressure that his superiors in the Ministry exerted on him to hassle the Lins at every available opportunity. The Police Chief – not a bad man at heart but a man who just sought the easiest path to a quiet life – promised the frantic Mr. Lin that he would do everything in his power to locate the car and return Mr. Lin’s property as soon as possible. After telephoning his contacts in the local government, the most thorough manhunt in Huaishi’s history was approved. Almost every police officer in the city – both public and secret – was tasked with finding the driver who had sped away with Mr. Lin’s belongings.
The driver was eventually found in a dodgy part of town that was infamous for being a place where absolutely anything could be bought or sold. He had been attempting to sell the strange items that he had found hidden inside Mr. Lin’s boxes of tea. As well as finding the driver, the Party officials also found out the secret of the Golden Crane’s delicious dumpling wrappers.
If the fine representatives of the city of Huaishi had done their research more thoroughly, they may have discovered the key to the Lins’ success much sooner. For Mr. and Mrs. Lin were not just doctors; they were formally two of the most knowledgeable physicians within the field of paediatric care. Mr. Lin in particular had personally attended to the newborn sons of prominent political families. It was this knowledge of infant male anatomy – and the network of contacts that they had built after many years within the medical profession – that had undoubtedly led to the discovery, and continued supply, of the dumplings’ secret ingredient.
For when the Chief of Police showed his superiors the contents of the tea boxes, they were not filled with the finest leaves of Oolong tea, or with illicit nicotine. To everyone’s astonishment, deep within the boxes were stuffed hundreds and hundreds of freshly circumcised foreskins.
Not just foreskins. Where supply allowed there were also the testicular sacs, normally dissected from stillborn infants or late-stage abortions, which were reserved for those customers of the Golden Crane who could afford the shop’s “premium” selection. The taste of the sacs was not too different from the foreskins, but they were thinner and possessed a more translucent quality about them. They also were easier to fill with the meat stuffing, while the foreskins had to be rolled by hand before they were ready for the steamer. As for the nicotine theory, everybody laughed when they realized their mistake. Of course the dumplings were covered in nicotine: the scientists who had done the laboratory research on the dumplings had been smoking during the tests. While staring in shock at the small plastic bags of foreskins displayed in from of them, one of the wittier government officials stated that at least the Lins could not be accused of misleading their customers. The baopi really was baopi.
Despite a grudging respect for the commercial savviness and culinary ingenuity of the Lins, confronted with such a shocking revelation, the officials of Huaishi had no choice but to detain the couple on charges of gross criminal corruption. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Lin tried to deny the charges against them; in many ways they seemed relieved that the pressure of protecting their business secrets from the local government was finally at an end. The former dumpling entrepreneurs were sentenced to five years each at a provincial level detention facility. It would have been a much longer sentence, but Mr. Lin was able to negotiate a lighter punishment by sharing certain contacts with the obliging officials who earnestly wished to do their upmost to reach a harmonious solution for all parties involved.
The Golden Crane Dumpling Shop is still operating in the city of Huaishi and by all accounts has been hailed as one of the city’s greatest stories of local success. It was never publicly announced why the previous owners had been jailed after establishing the business, though rumours abound that the Lins had been involved in a severe case of tax evasion. Despite the change in management, the new owners – a conglomerate of civic-minded businessmen who wished to protect the heritage of a local institution – have succeeded in maintaining the quality of food that the Golden Crane is rightly famous for. The dumplings are better than ever, and the wrappers as crisp and light as they have always been. Several new branches of Golden Crane have now opened across the city and even one in the provincial capital. It is hoped that the fame of Golden Crane’s dumplings will attract attention from Beijing and revitalize tourism and investment in the province. Perhaps even a few prominent national leaders can be tempted to pay a visit to sample the world-famous baopi. After all, Xi Jinping is well known for his love of dumplings.
Note for non-Chinese speakers: Baopi – 包皮 – can mean the wrapper of a baozi (包子) or dumpling. It also means foreskin.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.