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The ancient marketing secrets of a snack bar

Zhiweiguan, a famous Hangzhou restaurant providing authentic local dishes and some southern China specialties including xiaolongbao and wonton soup, was on the verge of closing until its owner discovered a marketing ploy. Tan Weiyun samples the hard sell.

There is no way Sun Yiqi would have been able to foresee that his little humble snack bar near the West Lake would become one of the major culinary attractions of Hangzhou - 96 years later.

"If you want to know (zhi means know in Chinese) my restaurant's taste (wei), just see (guan) the ingredients of my choice." This was how Zhiweiguan, a famous Hangzhou restaurant featuring authentic local dishes and some southern China specialties including xiaolongbao (little steamed buns) and wonton soup, got its name a century ago.

In 1913, bistro owner Sun posted this bold, ambitious slogan on the door as a last resort to revive the restaurant's business. If this effort failed, Sun thought, he would think of closing the restaurant.

But to his surprise, it worked. The slogan aroused locals' curiosity and business boomed. More and more people flocked to the restaurant to have a look and taste of "the special food." The tiny bistro was suddenly packed with diners, eating happily inside, as well as waiting anxiously in long queues outside.

And this prosperous scene has stayed there almost untouched up to today. Whether it's lunch or afternoon tea or dinner, Zhiweiguan is always packed with people, giving it a lively atmosphere day and night.

At the end of Yanggong Causeway just behind the famous scenic spot "Viewing Fish at Flower Harbor" (Hua Gang Guan Yu), the restaurant offers guests a great view of the placid West Lake.

At the entrance of the villa-restaurant, a lake stone welcomes the streams of diners. It is said to have been mined from the Taihu Lake in Jiangsu Province.

Though it has been evolved from the original shabby snack bar into a restaurant offering seafood and luxurious banquet dishes, Zhiweiguan's biggest attraction is still the popular low-priced dim sum.

You can find all the famous traditional Hangzhou dim sum and dishes in the restaurant, such as West Lake Vinegar Fish, Longjing Tea Shrimp, Beggar's Chicken, West Lake's Water Shield Soup, Zhiweiguan Home-made Steamed Buns, Cat's Ear noodles and Dingsheng Cakes. All are enjoyed a great deal by locals and visitors.

Mouthwatering Cat's Ear is a must-eat when visiting Hangzhou. Dough that is shaped like a cat's ear is mixed with chicken shreds, diced ham, dried scallops, mushrooms and sliced bamboo shoots and served in soup stock that has been simmered for many hours on the stove. It is one of the symbolic dim sum of the city.

According to the legend during an incognito journey of Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to Hangzhou, a sudden cloudburst drenched him on a boat in the West Lake and the emperor was left cold and hungry. He asked the boatman for something to eat. The boatman's granddaughter cleverly twisted dough into small slices and shaped it like cat's ears. Boiled in the pot for a few minutes and sprinkled with a sauce of fish and shrimps as seasoning, the snack received the thumbs-up from the hungry emperor.

Steamed bun with crab's roe stuffing is another popular snack, perhaps the quintessential city dim sum. It is perhaps the updated seafood version of Shanghai's xiaolongbao, with delicate parcels of pork and fresh crab roe, encased in a bread dough and steamed in bamboo baskets.

The perfect steamed bun has a soupy filling and when it is steamed it boasts a thin but firm casing that does not break when picked up with chopsticks but bursts in the mouth in a succulent explosion. Each one of Zhiweiguan's crab roe buns is a perfect example.

Many of the desserts are served with style, some put in a mini-bamboo basket (as small as a match box), some wrapped in silk and some encased in paper. They are shaped and cooked so beautifully that each one just looks like a work of art. It is almost a crime to take the first bite and destroy an exquisite work of art.

West Lake Snowy Lady, just like its name, is a petite cutie. Wrapped with snowy white glutinous rice, the dessert has a cream-and-mango heart. With a gentle bite, the mango's freshness in the smooth cream offers a taste of love, a little bit of sweet mingled with a smack of sour.

Other dim sum include Lotus Pastry with Bean Filling, Papaya Cake, Puree of Peas and Cucumber Pastry.

Address: 10-12 Yanggong Causeway

Tel: (0571) 8797-0568


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