Bun shop a tourist draw after Xi's visit

Bun shop a tourist draw after Xi's visit

CHINA - A no-frills restaurant that sits on a busy street in Beijing's Xicheng district has become the capital's latest - and perhaps most unlikely - tourist attraction in the past week.

People pose for photos in front of the shop, a branch of the Qingfeng steamed bun chain, before entering to snap more pictures. Inside, a long line of customers are waiting to place their order of six steamed buns with pork and onions, stir-fried pig's liver and a plate of vegetables.

The restaurant owes its sudden fame not to its food but to a VIP - President Xi Jinping - who went to the shop on Dec 28. The Chinese leader joined the queue at the self-service counter, where he ordered six pork and onion buns, stir-fried pig's liver and vegetables. The simple meal cost 21 yuan (S$4.40), which he paid himself.

Many Chinese, long used to having top leaders who rule from a distance, were pleasantly surprised, if not excited, at the sight of Mr Xi carrying his own tray and eating at a table, just like them.

Sceptics saw it as a public relations stunt to portray Mr Xi as a man of the people and to boost his austerity campaign.

Stunt or not, it helped turn the nondescript eatery, with its cream-coloured walls and movable wooden tables, into a must-see place overnight. Local media reported that as many as 400 people turned up last Sunday, the day after Mr Xi's visit, all jostling to order the same food Mr Xi ate.

When The Sunday Times visited the restaurant last Tuesday, there were still at least 50 people waiting in line at about 2pm. Despite not being on the menu, the xi zong tao can - or President Xi's combo - was the most popular order of the day. The customers not only wanted to eat what Mr Xi ate but also wanted to know where he sat, snapping pictures even as they tucked into the food.

Some even asked to sit at the same table that Mr Xi had occupied but media reports said the restaurant had removed the actual table over fears that customers would fight over the spot.

Most of the 10 people The Sunday Times spoke to were Chinese who were in Beijing for work or on holiday. They said they made a special trip to the restaurant after reading about Mr Xi eating there.

Others, like Mr Wang Tian, 41, and his colleague, took a 40-minute ride by high-speed train from Baoding city in Hebei to Beijing just to try the xi zong tao can meal. Mr Wang paid 126 yuan for his return ticket.

"The buns taste okay but we came here to eat because we support Mr Xi," said Mr Wang, who works in the garment industry.

"He's been in charge for only a year but already you can see he's done a lot. He has introduced many people-centred policies such as fighting corruption," he added.

Like Mr Wang, others who spoke to The Sunday Times said they were impressed that Mr Xi had eaten at the shop as it showed he was "close to the people" and "lived simply and humbly like ordinary folk, without extravagance".

University student Xu Yingxin, 24, who was in Beijing on a three-day school-related trip, took a 30-minute ride on the subway to visit the restaurant.

"I was curious and just wanted to see where President Xi ate. I feel like he has closed the gap with the people. I don't think any other leader did anything similar in the past," he said.

Mr Chen Yixin, 36, from Guangzhou and who was in Beijing on a business trip, spent more than 30 yuan to buy 20 buns for his colleagues. He was also eager to have his picture taken in front of the store.

Mr Chen, who works in the floral industry, said Mr Xi's visit might give the President a deeper insight into the lives of common people. "I was here when the news of President Xi visiting this restaurant broke so I thought I'll stop to have a look since I like buns as well," he added.

The Chinese leader's lunch visit has definitely been good for business at the restaurant, although its staff declined to be interviewed.

Another Qingfeng branch, in Dongcheng district, also saw a 20 per cent increase in business, according to an employee who declined to give her name.

It helps too that Qingfeng's food tastes quite good and is reasonably priced, as The Sunday Times found out.

While the hype may baffle foreigners from countries where it is common for leaders to have meals at restaurants, Mr Xi's visit is highly unusual in China, according to Beijing-based sociologist Hu Xingdou.

Said Professor Hu: "Given China's imperial past, its leaders are typically seen as unapproachable and there is a distance between them and the people.

"And so when something like this happens, bringing Mr Xi closer to the people, it creates a lot of excitement. The ordinary people are very supportive of his visit."


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