Puffed and peaked hats weave around one another. At times, they dip in concentration over a wok or large saucepan; at others they sway as the wearer lugs a heavy pot from stove to bench; at yet other times they lean towards one another as they work on the same dish. I see them from my window at first light, preparing for a breakfast that begins at 6.30 am.
Is this some trendy café or restaurant preparing signature dishes for well-heeled clientele? Are the chefs stoned and chain-smokers, as is the case so often in other countries? No and no. I am looking upon one of many dining halls at a school or university campus in China. And these are hard-working chefs preparing food for the masses, so there is little time to indulge in the past-times of chefs in other places. Needless to say, such preparation requires not one or two chefs, but fifty or more, decked all in white.
Soon enough the masses arrive: hundreds upon hundreds of students and staff for the first meal of the day. My empty stomach draws me to the fining hall too, where I join the throng. Despite the milling crowd, everyone makes way for one another. I grab a simple stainless steel platter with indentations for different types of food. Chopsticks complete the collection. What will I eat? Long, fried breakfast buns to dip in warm soymilk? Noodles and freshly cooked vegetables? Fried dumplings or Chinese breakfast pancakes? Rice porridge with red bean paste? Flat cakes filled with green vegetables and egg? The possibilities are almost endless, but I opt for the soymilk, a long bun and the flat cakes – for less than a dollar (in comparison).
Sitting at a table with three others (for sharing space is the norm), I pause to look out across the vast dining hall. I am surrounded on all sides by heads of straight black hair bent over their meals. Chopsticks blur, slurps are loud, talk is subdued during the more important task of eating. I estimate about three hundred people as my breakfast companions – and this is only for the fifteen minutes or so that it takes for me to eat my own morning meal. Multiply that number for the full breakfast period, for the two and half hours from 6.30 to 9.00 am. Multiply again for lunch and then dinner, each of the same length of time. And multiply again for the dozen or so dining halls on this campus, let alone the sixty campuses across Beijing.
As I look out I ponder whether this is the practical response to a massive population. Perhaps it is of the same ilk as the practice of half a dozen students sharing the same dormitory room for their undergraduate years. The same may apply to sleeping berths on a train, which are also shared with many others. I wonder whether those practical issues are overlaid with the history of socialism in this country. To be sure, one can find plenty of relatively expensive restaurants in town. But even those are less patronised now as the president (Xi Jiping) invokes Mao’s call for party cadres and many other to continue to live a simple life. So in the dining halls, students, staff, children of staff, even visitors may be found. Everyone eats in the sample simple manner – freshly cooked food costing next to nothing.
What about those chefs with their puffy hats? What do they do when the meal time is finally over? On one occasion I arrive a little late for a meal, when students and staff have departed. The dining hall is full of white hats, all of them bent over their own bowls. A moment to eat after the hard work, to chat and rest. Not for long, however, since preparation for the next meal time soon begins. It starts in a little over an hour.