Since we’ve returned from our travels abroad, it’s been a whirlwind month of reflection, visiting friends and planning our future. One of the main reasons we set out into the great blue yonder was to gather inspiration for a few ideas that have been rumbling around in our heads. We wanted to visit people on the other side of the world who had similar values or intentions. While we were on our way, Tracie’s sister Sannie emailed us and reminded us that since we were headed to Hong Kong we should really try and meet up with King and Margaret, Tracie’s aunt and uncle’s close friends. Sannie gave us the number and while we were there we called them and asked if they wanted to meet up.
As you know , one thing led to another and King and Margaret pointed us in the right direction for several people to talk to and visit with during our trip. They understood our intentions for the future and got our vision. Like that they put us in contact with Lejen Chen, the Bagel Lady, in Beijing, China. They told us we should look her up when we got there and Margaret even sent off a polite introduction via email. But Beijing was a long way off from Hong Kong. So, we didn’t move too much towards setting up our meeting. We kind of put it off. And that’s too bad, because we only had one lovely day with her. One day was enough, however, to give us a new perspective of what Beijing could be.
We’d been down and out on Beijing. Hating it, in fact. It’s huge. Everything is built to intimidate and control. It all started with the Forbidden city some 600 years ago. To give you an idea of how huge it is, we spent a whole morning there and we only got to the interior wall of the palace – we didn’t even make it to the living quarters. And there are wide expanses of granite or slate pavement that batters your knees and sears your brow. I can imagine a little bit how it must have felt to foreign dignitaries that arrived at the gates. Awestruck is an understatement.
But there is this emptiness to Beijing’s scale and growth. While the history is there in the Forbidden city and other sites around the city, it’s also crumbling as you head to the metro. Vast blocks of centuries-old neighborhoods are leveled while you sleep off your dumplings from the evening before. We wondered if there was any kind of cultural preservation. It seems that everyone and everything is all about making the fastest buck. Nothing slows down. Its all crushing, bearing down on you, hard to breathe.
Then we received a phone call from Lejen, that she was back in town and was going to be available one of the days we had left before we headed out of China. So Tracie put her head down and mapped out a course of action for navigating the Beijing bus system to make our way out past the 3rd ring road where Lejen’s restaurant, Mrs. Shanen’s, sits.
Interior Dining Room at Mrs. Shanen’s
It’s in a mostly expatriate area. I mean, who else would be looking for a bagel? Not the Chinese you’d expect, but she has built a local clientele base, some of whom have “pioneered different preparation techniques” from frying to dredging in sesame paste and butter1. The restaurant is a roadside cafe sitting out in desolate surroundings amidst new outcroppings of expat gated communities and industrial parks. Never judge a book by its cover or its location.
The dining room was one of the most relaxing we set foot into in China. She’s definitely created an oasis in the middle of a desert. It has the vibe of quiet and ancient meditation while still maintaining a upbeat contemporary European look. Step in from the road to fresh lemonade, Arnold Palmers, grass fed burgers, chocolate cake, bagels, Fair Trade coffee and delectable Chinese teas.
Lovely tea sets rest during a lull on the service station shelves
My Arnold Palmer
There is nothing like stepping out of the Beijing heat into a quiet American style cafe. Forget the culture shock of China, welcome to the culture shock of little America in China. But Mrs. Shanen’s and Lejen Chen are beyond satisfying an expatriate community in China. They are also enriching a culture that seems lost and a partial reflection of what it could be. Lejen has found a way to fill a need and spread little flowers while she does it, figuratively and literally.
Mrs. Shanen’s is one part of Lejen Chen and her husband Shan En ventures into bringing wholesome good food to Beijingers, expats and locals alike. She launched the bagel factory back in 1996 and has grown the cafe and now is successfully running an organic farm and CSA to boot. As we left the cafe to go visit the farm I remarked on a room off to the side that seemed setup just for kids and she said “Yea, we’re thinking of turning that into a pizza joint…maybe.”
the Industrial Back Alleys of Beijing, a Little Bit of Gotham, Any
Wu, April 19, 1999 Nytimes. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/18/business/business-in-the-industrial-back-alleys-of-beijing-a-little-bit-of-gotham.html?scp=1&sq=lejen%20chen%20bagels%20in%20back%20alley%20of%20beijing&st=cse