Qianmen opens the gate to foreigners

When you’re in Beijing and do what the Beijing people do, there is no other place to do that better than in Qianmen. 

As the literal translation of the name, ‘Front gate’, suggests, Qianmen was once the busiest commercial district in the imperial city. It was home to the empire’s most venerable purveyors of clothing, haute cuisine, tea and herbal medicine. 

Ruifuxiang, for instance, had outfitted generations of mandarins in the imperial court. These feisty officials wore only boots made by Neiliansheng and hats by Majuyuan. 

Quanjude, the doyen of roast Peking duck eateries, opened its first restaurant in Qianmen in the late 19th century. And, Tongrentang was the appointed supplier of herbal medicine to the imperial family. 

Hidden from the tourist tracks, these establishments, with few exceptions, have defied changes and persisted in catering to their faithful clientele in the graceful style of days long past. They are the exclusive purveyors to the city’s connoisseurs devoted to the old-world quality of craftsmanship.

But the days of anonymous excellence are a thing of the past as well. The secrets of Qianmen that lies behind a rusty wrought iron gate across its main thoroughfare leading to the Forbidden City has been unveiled by a multimillion-yuan facelift as part of the capital’s overall renovation project to welcome visitors to the Summer Olympics. 

Reopened after 15 months, the commercial buildings and ceremonial structures in the area have largely been restored to their original splendor. 

‘It’s showtime,’ said Wang Chengguo, deputy head and spokesman of Beijing’s Chong-wen district – where Qianmen is located. 

‘Foreign tourists can buy famous silk products in century-old Ruifuxiang silk shop. They can seek embroidered shoes (traditional Chinese shoes covered by embroidered cloth) in Neiliansheng shoes shop, one of the most noted traditional shoemakers, and can sample the pure roast duck and douzhir (fermented bean drink) in Quanjude.’ 

It’s obvious that the ‘China element’ will ‘help us attract more attention’ from the huge number of foreign tourists, a worker of Beijing Quanjude roast duck restaurant, headquartered on Qianmen Street, told China Daily.

‘The first Quanjude restaurant originated on Qianmen Street back in 1888,’ said the worker, who would like to remain anonymous. ‘After the recent overhaul of the whole street, Quanjude will hang the original 19th-century tablet to showcase our 120-year history and welcome foreign visitors.’ 

‘History will be the most attractive element to foreign visitors when they come to China during the Games,’ said Alexandra Oikonomidou, director of Ogilvy Public Relationship Worldwide, who worked for two years with the Athens organizing committee for the 2004 Games. 

‘And it will be the most distinguishing feature of the Beijing Games. Given the history of Quanjude, more than 5,000 tourists will come to our restaurant every day,’ Wang Chengguo gushed. 

Quanjude is just a part of the much-anticipated gold rush. The Games could bring up to 500,000 tourists and $400 million in tourism revenues for the host city, according to the Beijing tourism administration. 

Local officials have taken the initiative to help cater for businesses across the city to upgrade infrastructure and prepare better products and services targeting foreign tourists. The city, for example, has recently been promoting English training and has standardized the English translation of restaurant menus, some of which used to be puzzling, to say the least. 

‘I am glad to see so many Chinese people try to learn English,’ said Oikonomidou. ‘It shows the sincerity with which China is greeting overseas guests.’ 

The Chongwen district government has organized several interpreters, fluent in six languages, to help foreigners learn about Chinese history. 

Noble Club, a high-end eatery right next to the north gate of Ditan Park, has been offering English language-training courses to its 100-plus wait staff since May. 

They have been taking English tests every month and the best students were awarded with cash bonus. About 30 of them will wear badges saying ‘English service’ while greeting guests during the Olympic Games.

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