Two attractive young women beckoned to us from a doorway on a busy street in the Chinese city of Chongqin. They were wearing snug-fitting scarlet dresses with slit skirts in the traditional Chinese style – those that were popularly called “Suzie Wong” dresses in North America during the sixties after the heroine of the movie The World of Susie Wong. Over their dresses, the women wore diagonal sashes like beauty pageant contestants. Hoping that the characters on their sashes advertised a restaurant, we followed one of the women into the building and up a flight of stairs.
We had been unsuccessfully looking for a suitable place to eat lunch for the last half hour. All the restaurants were already filled to capacity with noisy groups of diners – most who puffed away on cigarettes between mouthfuls of food. We had beaten a hasty retreat from the last restaurant we entered because we could scarcely see across the room for the smoke. Now, after a morning of sightseeing, we were hungry enough to try anything.
At the top of the stairs we found ourselves in a pleasant, dimly lit dining room decorated with plants. It was completely empty of customers. Was it empty because the food was absolutely terrible or because it was obscenely expensive? We saw no prices on the menu and no one appeared to speak English. After brief deliberation, however, we decided to stay. To us, much of the pleasure of travelling comes from making contacts off the beaten tourist path.
My husband seems to be able to order beer wherever he is and whatever language is spoken, but I don’t drink beer. Although I could see bottles of soft drinks, I could not make the waitress understand that was what I wanted. Finally I walked over to the bar and pointed. Success at last.
Armed with our drinks, an English-Mandarin dictionary, and a sample menu translated into English, we attempted to order lunch. Within minutes, a half dozen people -- everyone from the chef to the bus boy -- had gathered around our table and were anxiously trying to assist us.
We had decided on shrimp, rice, and vegetables, so we pointed to shrimp on our sample menu. Everyone looked earnestly at the Chinese characters; then they consulted their menu. A lengthy, very animated conversation ensued. Finally the chef disappeared, returning with a shabby, stained menu written in both Chinese and English. We pointed to a shrimp dish on this menu. More animated conversation. Finally they seemed satisfied. The waitress wrote on her pad. We pointed out the words for rice and vegetables. She wrote again. Then the whole staff disappeared.
We enjoyed our drinks and speculated on what we were likely to receive. Would we actually get shrimp? Would they bring us enough food for a small army as had happened on several previous occasions? We were not left in suspense for long. While the ordering had taken the best part of 30 minutes, the meal arrived very quickly. It was delicious and exactly what we had ordered.
Just as we finished eating, the waitress appeared with two attractive fresh fruit plates containing apples, bananas and oranges garnished with cherries. We tried to indicate that we had not ordered dessert.
“You friends. No charge,” the waitress replied very clearly in the first English words we had heard since we entered the restaurant.
We enjoyed the fruit and went to pay the bill. The meal was a bargain at approximately $12. As we left, all the staff turned out to say good- bye. We were still the only customers.