As he plopped a pair of bright orange Chinese wolfberries and splashed a shot of Coca-Cola into a glass of French burgundy, Hu Chen turned very sage.
Over the din of a syrupy Mandarin love song, the ponytailed bartender intoned into his concoction: "United Nations."
"There's a little United Nations floating in this glass," Hu continued, pondering the brackish concoction. "French, American and Chinese."
Twenty years of reform have brought a lot of things to China. It's brought rock-and-roll, corruption, a skyrocketing economy and skyrocketing unemployment. It's brought a sex craze and sexually transmitted diseases, traffic jams and unparalleled travel. It's brought crime and crime novels, unprecedented freedoms and tough political crackdowns.
It's also spawned some of the world's weirdest beverages.
Chinese essentially drank four things 20 years ago: tea, beer, grain alcohol and tepid boiled water--the last reserved for when they were sick. Now the world's most populous nation is experimenting with all sorts of libations. Some of them are incredibly tasty. "Freshly squeezed cucumber juice," enthused William Brent, an entertainment impresario from Washington, who now lives in Shanghai. "It was great!"
Some of them are incredibly strange.
There's green snake-bile wine for those who need a Viagra-like jolt; there's a creamed marzipan beverage that is hawked as a skin restorative. A trendy potion among bureaucrats is made by blending a tablespoon of vinegar (even balsamic in some highfalutin circles) with a glass of Sprite. It's called Beverage No. 1, because President Jiang Zemin favors it.
Researching China's refreshments is not simply a culinary escapade for a courageous gourmand, a liquid lark for a brave epicure. An on-again, off-again exploration of Chinese drinking habits, pursued lovingly and sometimes loathingly, over the past year, also reveals much about China's social and economic changes and challenges.
In wine-bar cabarets and coffeehouses, you find the mad rush for an often very bizarre form of westernization. In the obsession with wacky colors, you appreciate the profundity of the all-out victory here of kitsch over communism. In the number of grain alcohol brands, 38,000 at last count, you can begin to contemplate the intensely fragmented nature of the Chinese market. In the lightning swings from one beverage to another, you feel the power that fads have to sweep through a restless urban population. In the massive smuggling of wine into southern China (experts say China's imports of red wine are actually three times higher than statistics show), you begin to understand the severity of the struggle against corruption.
Last year, the Coca-Cola Co., whose carbonated drinks dominate China with more than 70 percent of market share, launched a shockingly kaleidoscopic line of soda, aptly called Xingmu, or "eye-catching." Coke brought out the many-colored drinks because the government had demanded that the American giant create a product especially for China. Coke has invested $800 million in China but found that lately its desires to expand its investment are strongly opposed by Chinese officials who want to promote national brands, like a Coke knockoff, Future Cola, and a drink called Jianlibao that tastes like liquid metal.
Xingmu's five flavors are neon green apple soda; psychedelic pink watermelon soda; a milky, fizzy coconut concoction, along with peach and orange drinks.
"The taste is so-so, but I like the colors," said Li Yue, a waitress who was serving the beverages at a Beijing news conference. "Very artistic."
The increasing popularity of wine is one of the most significant developments in China's drinking habits. Grape fermentation dates at least as far back as the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. to 220 A.D.). Today, however, wine is closely associated with the West.
As such, because many urban Chinese are attracted to the West, they drink wine.
"I like France," said Rose Li, a shop attendant at a Shanghai wine store, "so I drink French wine. I've heard Paris is very romantic."
Wine accounted for about 1 percent of China's alcohol market in 1997, but with a 30 percent annual jump in consumption, it's coming on strong.
Still, Chinese do strange things to their wines. They add Sprite, Coke, juice and other beverages. Chinese wolfberries, tiny, bright orange dried fruit with a pungently bitter taste, are dropped in for medicinal reasons. Wine is still regularly chug-a-lugged because more Chinese associate wine with a night at the karaoke bar than an elegant dinner.
Coffee too, once lambasted by Communists as "the tail of capitalism," has profited from its politically incorrect status and is popping up everywhere. Now, it's almost as popular on Chinese airlines as tea. And cozy coffeehouses line the streets of some cities, like Chengdu, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Beijing boasts two newly opened Starbucks coffee bars. In the southern city of Shenzhen, a local chain called Coffee English, has opened six outlets and is doing a brisk business.
Business executives seeking to profit from these fads run the risk of getting burned by the fickle nature of China's modern consumer. In 1996, a "coffee boom" was predicted. Government coffee traders imported 12,000 tons of beans, more than five times the the previous year's imports. The coffee market crashed. And the beans are still in government warehouses. The red wine fad is fading these days as well.
The beer market is just as crazy. In 1997, China's 550 breweries cranked out almost 5 billion gallons, second only to the United States. Just six years ago, only four foreign beer companies had invested in China; now there are 40, the fastest pace of foreign investment of any beer market.
CAPTION: A waitress in a Beijing restaurant prepares a drink by soaking snakes in alcohol. The concept is something like tequila with a worm in it.