Beijing’s soft power diluted like Chinatown soup

I had thought my people were the only ones obsessed with naming places Kisumu Ndogo, but wait until you see China Town and you can bet you are in a Kung Fu movie.

You have to decide whether a handshake or a nod would do and you fight with chopsticks for lumps of unyielding meat as long strands of noodles swim like dragons beneath your really hot peppered soup.

A taste of Chinese culture

It’s funny how our lives revolve around food. Outside its necessity for survival, food has the power to shape cultures, religions, and families. In its variety, we can learn a lot about people’s dedication to their stomachs and the animals that live around them.

So when I got to try Chinese food for the first time recently, as we were doing some fieldwork for this week’s issue on China, I got a peek into what China looks like and a dose of their culture.

We decided to walk around first and survey the area. The majority of the stalls were selling Chinese cuisine with only a handful translated to English.

China Town presents a microcosm of China in a small intimate way, with red hanging lanterns, colourful screen partitions, and a mini hotel for guests, and a bar area with pool tables to keep visitors entertained.

We saw some selling Kenyan artifacts and liquors. I noticed their ‘wines and spirits’ kept only a handful of bottles on display, you could count them perhaps elevating the rarity of the cases of Baijiu liqour imported from China.

Unique rooftop designs

This was so unlike Kenyan where wines are squeezed a track full into a small space with mirror illusions to show how well the counters are stocked with fake alcohol.

The Chinese make statements with their architecture as you walk in, the unique rooftop designs, the low wooden simple chairs and almost Kibanda like ambiances. Once we arrived on location it looked more of a shopping center with stalls in Chinese branded brightly with dancing dragons and Chinese food.

We finally settled on a corner stall to try out some cuisines. Because the food is strange, the menus are everywhere plastered on the walls, in graphic details so it makes it easier to order.

It did not, we struggled through two lists of menu and still could not settle on a meal, in fact we knew more about what we did not want to eat than what we did. We certainly were not having dog or Pork intestines.

A Kenyan waiter helped us choose a meal, telling us what is what so we don’t end up ‘accidentally’ eating a dog. We ordered the infamous Chinese noodles at Kes800 a plate, which is also one of the cheapest items on their menu. The meal was served in a huge bowl, and small side bowls to eat from.

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Why Chinese eat noodles using sticks

Personally, I fail to understand why you would eat noodles or anything else really with two sticks. But in the spirit of learning about a different culture I was willing to try and our waiter was a willing teacher. Turns out their ancestors discovered that it is easier to use sticks to reach into a bowl with hot water or soup or oil. But here’s my theory, you could just let it cool.

The noodles had a lot of soup, plenty of chopped up coriander and some pieces of meat. My first thought after tasting it was that maybe it needed some salt, or flavor, so I added something that looked like salt that was placed on the table, it tasted just ashy.

So then I went for the chili and as we slurped the noodles through the sticks and soup it spread all over our lips and all we could do was resort to the wad of serviettes to try and cool the burning off. I respected their chili, but even with the chili it tasted like boiled food mixed with vegetables with a bit of soy sauce for color. So I added more soy sauce and pretended it had an acquired taste.

We thanked our waiter for the chopstick lesson and wanted to ask for some Chinese ones when he told us he is not that proficient having picked up the language from his bosses who he said do not speak English.

China Town in Nairobi presents a microcosm of China in a small intimate way, with red hanging lanterns, colourful screen partitions, and a mini hotel for guests, and a bar area with pool tables to keep visitors entertained.

Chinese soft power

The stalls were mostly Chinese-owned and operated with a few Kenyans serving as waiters to help translate to the non-Chinese speaking guests.

The reality is that it will take a while before Chinese soft power can drill down into our lives. Maybe with a little more movies and entertainment about China we can learn some of their famous cuisines like tea ceremonies, and less boiled food options.

But Chinese soft power is still quite elitist here, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Kenya and China, on 14th August 2023 the China-Africa film festival was launched.

It was however an invite-only event held at two rivers that featured a beautiful mix of two cultures where most ordinary Kenyans had no idea it even happened. The location meant that even though they also had a screening schedule open to the general public willing to learn about their culture, it would be difficult to get every day crowds like me.

Confucious Institutes

Language is also quite prohibitive and it will take more than just Confucious Institutes in universities to spread it. The Kenyan and Chinese films were showcased in original languages with subtitles.

The festival however provided an opportunity for Kenyan filmmakers to expand their market and export their content to global audiences. Also held in China, the festival hopes to strengthen cultural ties and showcase both cultures, including performing arts and films.

There will also be exchange programs to allow filmmakers to learn and benefit from different cultures. They hope to nurture young talent, and grow the film industry in Kenya which will also contribute to the country’s GDP.

“With more avenues to showcase and distribute our films, the future of the film industry in Kenya stands brighter. Global viewership is every film maker’s dream, and this is a good step towards achieving that,”’ said  Scholar Thitai, a Kenyan filmmaker based in Nairobi.

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