Washingtonians can get Beijing duck at many of the innumerable Chinese restaurants in town. There’s even a “Duck Heaven” in Adams Morgan. But duck lovers say you’ve never really been in duck heaven until you’ve had Quanjude Beijing duck. Quanjude is reportedly mainland China’s best duck restaurantthe Morton’s of duckso good that Mayor Marion Barry made wooing Quanjude to Washington a centerpiece of his November trip to Asia.
“We’ve had some very fruitful relationships,” the mayor declared, “with the duck people.”
Alas, four months later, Washingtonians still have to go to Dulles before they can go to Quanjude. There’s no duck restaurant and no commitment from the Quanjude Roast Duck Group (the “duck people,” who own a chain of restaurants in China as well as outlets in Los Angeles and Houston) to open a restaurant here. In fact, a Chinese-American liaison with QuanjudeAlfred Liu, the prominent Chinatown businessman who first suggested the duck restaurant to Barrysays the chain may never come to Washington.
It’s admittedly a little naive to ask whether the mayor has delivered on the nominal initiatives he announced in Asia last year. Barry regularly drops the ball on much more important city matters, like the budget. And to Barry’s credit, he didn’t proclaim that an Asian-led economic nirvana would follow his trip (he did that in 1984, on his first excursion to Asia). This time, he did his best to contain expectations, announcing plans for the restaurant, a Chinese store, and increased tourism.
What’s more, the mayor’s trip didn’t cost taxpayers anythingnot directly, at least. Businesses and the host nations covered all but $10,000 of the cost, the mayor said at the time. He said the remainder was paid by the Committee to Promote Washington, although he didn’t mention that the committee receives tax revenues from hotel guests.
But even if the trip didn’t knock the city financiallyand may have carried a metaphysical benefit in Barry’s 10-day absencethe mayor has done nothing, it seems, to turn the trip’s goals into reality. Though the mayor’s press office refused to answer questions for this story, interviews with businesspeople and Barry administration officials reveal little progress aside from continued talks and planningpreliminary work that could have been completed prior to the trip. At a time when the mayor’s defenders complain that the control board has taken too much of the mayor’s power, the worthless trip to Asia underscores how Barry uses his mayoral prerogatives mostly to help himself, this time with a free vacation.
Fourteen Washingtonians traveled to South Korea and China with Barryfive more than Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening needed for his concurrent, unrelated trip to Asia. While Glendening signed a five-year deal with a Taiwanese shipping firm and helped convince a brewing company to reopen an abandoned Baltimore factory, Barry preened before Korean reporters in an effort to plug the District as a tourist destination. Barry officials say flattering articles resulted, but they wouldn’t or couldn’t provide any examples. Since the trip, Korean tourism has boomed in Washingtonas well as in other U.S. cities that never bothered sending their mayors to Seoul.
The mayor also tried to convince the president of Korean Air Lines to make its Seoul-to-Dulles flight nonstop. The flight still stops in New York.
And Barry vowed to lobby Congress to waive the requirement that Koreans obtain a visa before traveling to the United States. Barry officials wouldn’t say whether the mayor had done so, but the visa requirement remains intact regardless. An aide to Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton says she has heard about no such lobbying effort on the mayor’s part.
In Beijing, Barry’s main foci were duck and friendshipthat is, Quanjude and the Friendship Store, the dictatorship’s answer to Hecht’s. The store is run by the Beijing government and, until a few years ago, it was closed to all but high-ranking Chinese officials and foreign tourists. (Perhaps the Friendship Store here would only serve Barry cronies and could be run by city employees.)
In the grandest of his overseas announcements, Barry spoke of an “Asian Town” carved out of abandoned city-owned properties in Chinatown. The mayor told the Washington Post he would promote the project by offering low prices to lure prospective investors. Apparently he didn’t let his own advisers in on the plan, though. Two Barry administration officialsincluding Ann Pina, director-designate of the Office of Tourism and Promotionstold me they had never heard of Asian Town.
But the main problem with Barry’s trip was that he didn’t plan much in advance. Glendening’s deals were mostly in place by the time he made the ceremonial visit to sign the agreements. Barry, by contrast, had nothing ready to sign before he stepped onto the plane.
“These things take time,” says Pina, adding that a Chinese delegation will visit the city next monththe third such visit in a year.
But Pina didn’t know that the November trip’s most feasible accomplishmentthe opening of a Quanjude branch in Washingtonmay be linked to the construction of a Chinatown development still months or years from groundbreaking.
Liu, the architect who designed Chinatown’s famous archway, wants to build the China Trade Center, a hotel, office, apartment, and retail complex, near the MCI arena now under construction. He envisions both the duck restaurant and the Friendship Store locating in the trade centerin fact, it was Liu who originally proposed a Quanjude deal to Barry. Liu has known the mayor since at least the early 1980s and traveled with Barry both last year and in 1984.
Liu flies to Beijing regularly on business10 times each in 1995 and 1996, he says. (“Nobody can break my record,” he jokes.) He has established relationships with several Chinese government and business leaders, including Quanjude executives.
Liu says Quanjude would prefer to work with him as a Washington liaison and would prefer to open its restaurant in Chinatown. “They know that’s where the Chinese people go, and where the tourists go who want Chinese food,” Liu says. Los Angeles-based Quanjude officials would only confirm that they are considering a Washington restaurant.
But while Liu has built a successful career as an architect, his trade center has never been more than a dream. It was 14 years ago that he first proposed the “Far East Trade Center,” a massive development covering the entire east side of 7th Street NW between G and H streetsan area that will be mostly consumed by the arena. But the trade center ran into myriad zoning, financing, and political problems and was eventually scuttled.
Today, Liu is promoting his smaller trade center and says he already has agreements from Chinese financiers to provide about $60 million of the $100 million needed to pay for the project. But past seems to be prologue with the China Trade Center. Liu hasn’t even been able to purchase the land for the center yeta spot of prime real estate just north of the arena. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority owns the land, and Metro might let another developer buy it for a parking and office complex.
The parking proposal has angered Chinatown’s businesspeople and its few remaining residents, who have urged Metro to pick Liu’s trade center (which would have fewer than half as many parking spaces). But Metro is mum on its decision, which won’t come until next month.
If Liu does finally succeed, the duck people may be on their way. If not, says Liu, “they will look around,” perhaps on Capitol Hill. Maybe the mayor can travel halfway across the globe to suggest another location. In fact, maybe he could remain in Chinathey could use his expertise on how to bloat their bureaucracy and run a one-party political system.CP