One of my greatest pleasures in life is the enjoyment of good food. Consequently, Shanghai was a great fit for me. A cosmopolitan city of 25 million the sheer range of cuisine on offer was mind boggling. Where to start ? The Taiwanese dumpling restaurant, Ding Tai Fung was amongst my favourites. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’d waddled out of that place. A large Japanese community meant multitude of cheap yet delicious sushi and teppanyaki restaurants. Delicious !
My absolute favourite hunting ground was Lao Wai Ji (old foreigner street) or Hong Mei Lu (road) food street as we foreign devils used to call it. I must have dined in that street around 5 times a week on average in my 8 years in Shanghai. Knockout curries from Delhi Darber at the top of the street. Keema mutter being my personal favourite. Next door was an exquisite French bistro with beautiful quiches and flans. Further down was Baastian bakery, a favourite weekend hangout the wife,kids and myself. Hearty Dutch breakfasts with a plethora of home made Dutch pastries, cakes and chocolates…
Further down the street past the Simply Thai restaurant another lunch time haunt, Las Tapas. Albondigas, chuletitas, tortillas, setas. My mouth waters just thinking about it…
I confess I was also partial to the Chinese restaurant at the very top of the street however the fact that an unpartitioned toilet was placed next to the urinal did unnerve me somewhat. I still recall the first time I ventured in to the gents there. I unzipped my flies, exhaled that pre torrent relaxing sigh and then nearly jumped out of my skin as I discovered, two feet to my left, a man, mid job, sitting on a toilet. He looked up over his copy of the Shanghai Daily, gave me a strained smile and then went back to his paper. Call me a western snob but I mentally deducted one of its Michelin stars after this experience. Not an Egon Ronay moment I concluded. Nevertheless, I was still a big fan of their Gou Lau Ru (sweet and sour pork).
Anyway, I digress. Back to the gorging…. Like all the self deluded, I’ve always thought of myself as being fairly self disciplined. In the occasional moments of candour I’ll admit however that it’s my father’s description that really nails me……; “Self restraint ? (chuckle) Yes, Rich, you can resist anything but temptation…..”
Well as we all know, for all pleasures there are costs. I was piling on the pounds and I began to notice the odd comment regarding my weight. On trips back to the UK my Welsh relatives would remark “you’re looking well” which as we all know is a euphemism for “good god, you’re turning in to a porker !”. I would hear the word “pang” (fat) more and more in office conversation and I suspected that I was the subject matter.
Whilst waiting for food to arrive at Baastian one Saturday morning I killed time by playing with my 4 year old daughter, Isabel. We were exploring a very jagged and uneven path in a gully behind some trees when she turned to me with a very concerned look in her eyes ;
“ Be careful Daddy ! Don’t forget you are very fat…..”
She was well short of the age where we grasp that a necessary ingredient for all good relationships is a healthy sprinkling of deceit. I tried to laugh it off. Kids eh…..don’t they say the darnedest things…. The reality ? It hurt !
I resolved to rein in my eating, to end the excess and lose weight. Words are so much easier that deeds though and the reality was that I was still in the St Augustine school of thought. To paraphrase the great man ;
“Please God, grant me continence……..But not yet……..”
A few weeks later I flew to HK on business. I waited for what seemed an interminable wait in the line for immigration. Since living in the far east I had developed a fear of bureaucrats. I once christened the condition as “bureauphobia”. I dropped this term however once someone explained to me that phobias only describe irrational fears. As anyone who has ever lived in a one party state can tell you, a fear of the state and its agents is certainly not irrational.
After a good 30 plus minutes, it was my turn. An excessively earnest young lady took my passport. She studied it for what seemed like an age. Why couldn’t she just stamp it and wave me through ? I turned to look at the endless queue behind me. I could read the thoughts in their faces. “Just our luck. Stuck behind some bloody clueless gweilo with an expired passport…..”
But I was confident. I travelled frequently and knew full well there was nothing wrong with my passport but all the same, why this delay ?
She stared long and hard at the passport which was open at the photo ID page. She looked up. She stared long and hard at me. She returned her attention to the passport and then again, looked long and hard at me. Eventually, she broke the tension ;
“Mr Flower ?”
“Mr Lichard Flower ?”
“You have become fat ! ”
I pride myself on having a quick wit (in fact I like to think that my wit is only surpassed by my inherent modesty). The ability to rattle off some smart sounding riposte. I could summon nothing. I was gobsmacked. The assassin had struck. There was no air left in my balloon. Much later I thought of some clever Churchillian comeback like “Madam, I may be fat but with 6 months dieting I will be toned and svelte but you Madam, you will still be obnoxious.”
Or even “Fat am I ? Well at least I can pronounce the letter ‘R’ ”.
But no, at the time of the “assault”, I had nothing. I recall eventually summoning a barely audible “Yes, I have put on a little weight” before pathetically shuffling off through the gate. A broken man….