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The Candy Man

Thank goodness the “South China Beauty Restaurant” was trying so hard.  It’s awkward name was apt description for a place that seemed doomed to fail, despite having so many enticing ingredients: an anchor spot in the oh-so-trendy Kerry Mall , Beijing ’s equivalent of Rodeo Drive , with menus so ornate that they threatened the forest of glassware on the table as you turned the pages.  Too bad the food just wasn’t very good.

Instead of replacing the chef, they had listened to a marketer.  Put a cute young woman at the top of the escalator, and train her to smile enticingly while gazing at a beautiful menu.  Install a garish neon sign that beamed “Welcome to South Beauty China Restaurant” so that the mall’s otherwise purely-functional down escalator felt like a private entrance to a trendy club.  Finally, hire the candy man, and set up him right at the bottom of the escalator.  Alone among the other efforts, this was a stroke of genius.  

Mr. Wang was his name.  A tall thin young man dressed in chef’s whites and top hat, stooped over a little two-burner portable gas range, he was intensely focused on an earthenware dish filled with lukewarm homemade caramel that he occasionally stirred.  In a series of motions as fluid as the melted sugar itself, he would pluck out a small piece, rapidly shape it with his thumb and forefingers, and then add it to a growing concoction at the end of a long wooden stick.  Within minutes, this collection of thumbed sugar would reveal itself as a beautiful flower, complete with petals that had just opened and leaves that cascaded down.  The result was an exquisite, handmade lollipop. 

Soon after, the flower was joined by another extraordinary creation – a hand-blown tiger.  To make it, he grabbed a small ball of caramel, and rapidly shaped it into a ball.  He then pinched a little bit and pulled it out quickly so that the ball looked like it was pierced by a long, tapering straw.  It turns out that’s exactly what it was – he put the end of the taper in his mouth, and ever-so-gently blew into it while shaping the caramel ball into a hollow oblong shape.  Like a glassblower, he kept twisting and pinching the blob to transform it into a running tiger, complete with strong legs, big claws, and cute little ears. 

The candy-straw was the too-long tail, handily clipped with a quick dash of hot caramel.  Next came the whiskers, each teased from a tiny swab of caramel dabbed on the tiger’s nose.  The leftovers became the tiger’s stripes, dripped lovingly in crisscrosses along the tiger’s back.  The final step was to perch the tiger on a fresh wooden stick.  Voila!  Another amazing lollipop. 

These two were joined in rapid succession by more flowers (different varieties, of course!), an over-sized crawfish that wanted to jump off its stick, and a Chinese dragon that coiled up along its stick before exploding into flashing fangs and bulging eyes.  It was clear Mr. Wang could do this for hours, creating a fantastic garden of Eden on his little stainless steel cart.

In one way, the restaurant’s marketer must have been pleased.  The escalators often became impassable as clumps of otherwise-jaded Beijingers stopped to smile and watch.  Every so often a truly lucky fan would be rewarded with one of the creations, and walk off gazing at the prize, wondering whether to eat it or whether it was possible to keep it perfect forever.  As a traffic-builder, Mr. Wang couldn’t be beat.  Too bad his artistry wasn’t matched by the guys in the kitchen.

Perhaps next week they’ll try another trick.  The only sure bet, though, is that we’ll all follow the candy man, wherever he goes.



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