Beijing’s Prince Shuncheng Mansion, a 400-year-old former royal compound, has witnessed the tumultuous Qing dynasty, Japanese occupation and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
Now, its back garden – full of serene fish ponds, ancient red-brick architecture and lush greenery – has opened to the public as dining venue, with a menu that includes snacks that were once served in ancient royal palaces.
Last year, state-owned group Kuntai took over operation of the property, which is also known as Jun Wang Fu, from the Beijing Tourism Group, opening the back garden venue last month.
“We have capped the seating capacity at 30 because we don’t want too big a crowd to affect the quiet atmosphere here,” says Randy De, general manager of the Kuntai Royal Hotel, which operates the mansion situated in Chaoyang Park. “Opening from 11am to 6pm, we only provide breakfast and afternoon tea sets, with no lunch and dinner offerings. The tea sets have to be booked in advance for us to control crowd size.”
The tea set, priced at 398 yuan (S$81) per person, includes Vietnamese chicken and fruit spring roll, foie gras pie with truffle, Spanish ham with honeydew melon, roasted vegetable with Milan salami, and rose and chestnut cake.
The menu is designed to include Beijing snacks that were once served in ancient royal palaces, De says.
“We want the meal to match the ambience of the environment. Before Kuntai took up the operation, many people had been to the mansion to attend weddings. But they have never been to the back garden area. We will do renovation in phases and open more areas [for the public] in future.”
The mansion has a storied past. The 3,000-square-metre (32,300-square-foot) site was once the home of Lekdehun, a Qing dynasty royal descendant who was crowned Prince Shuncheng, or Jun, in 1648.
After the fall of the Qing dynasty , the mansion was commandeered by warlord Zhang Zuolin in 1924. Zhang and his son, Zhang Xueliang, used it as their residence.
Zhang Xueliang became famous for kidnapping Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China’s ruling Nationalist party , to force him to work with the communists in battling Japanese aggressors in 1936, playing a pivotal role in changing the course of Chinese history.
After 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, the mansion served as the offices of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Part of the compound was leased to subcontractors for use as a hotel and dining and events space.
In 1994, the entire mansion was moved to Chaoyang Park from its original site in Xicheng District near the Forbidden City.
Though there are other restaurants in Beijing that are former Qing royal residences, such as the Bai Family Mansion, they have been heavily commercialised, full of gaudy decor like golden dragon thrones.
De says the intention is for Prince Shuncheng’s Mansion to stand out from such venues, which might be too intimidating to visitors.
“I don’t want visitors to feel they cannot afford [dining] in grandiose royal structures. Since our opening last month, we have done many Chinese weddings . Chinese visitors are happy to enjoy such beautiful traditional surroundings, while foreigners feel they are in the real China when they are here.”
Prince Shuncheng Mansion, or Jun Wang Fu, 19 Chaoyang Park South Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, Tel: 138 1183 2314
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.