Sunday, April 15, 2007

Bagels in Beijing

In 2003 I was working at the New Day Creations Foster Home and Community Center in Qingyundian, in the Beijing district of the PRC. I wrote a little about that experience in a previous post.

One day Byron and Karen Brenneman, the American half of the operation, and Danny and Eileen Rubirosa, (he is the great-nephew of the famous Latin lover Porfirio Rubirosa, which is actually Danny's real name), who help run the community center and the orphanage, respectively, got an urge for some real New York style bagels. So we piled into the van with their kids, and drove to the outskirts of Beijing, near the airport. We ended up in what turned out to be a light industrial park. When we got there, we were surprised to see a neatly kept, fresh looking bagel shop.

It had the Irish sounding name of Mrs. Shanen's Bagels.

Well, Mrs. Shanen was not Irish, but Chen Lejen, a Taiwan born, Brooklyn raised Chinese-American.

Framed up on the wall was a New York Times article from 1998, that told her story. I would have linked to it here, except that the Times wants you to subscribe to Times Select, or to purchase the article for $4.95. So instead, I will link to the next best article I found.

We went in, but they were getting ready to close. Mrs. Shanen was very kind, and showed us around, and shared her story with us.

She used to work for National Geographic, and did freelance tv production work. While on assignment in the PRC, she met her husband. after a couple of years, they got married, and she moved to Beijing.

Growing up in Brooklyn, she developed a taste for bagels. After moving to China, she missed having those good Brooklyn bagels, so she started experimenting, to see if she could make them on her own.

Eventually, she found the proper recipe and way to make them, and opened up a small factory. At first, she employed impoverished unskilled men and women in the factory. That was, until she found out that the men thought that working meant sitting around all day drinking tea, reading the newspaper, smoking anywhere, and spitting on the floor. When it became obvious that no amount of talk or threats would change their behavior, she fired all the men, and replaced them with women. She found that women were much easier to train, and kept to accepted standards of hygiene.

Her husband had his own little factory, but eventually, her bagel business became so successful, that he sold his business to help her out. That allowed them to open up a couple of different businesses right next door to the bagel shop and restaurant.

After that, even though it was late and they were getting ready to close, we had a couple of their pizzas, which were great.

Mrs. Shanen's Bagels has developed a relationship with the New Day Foster Home, and has helped them out with donations of food for the kids.

So if you're ever in Beijing, and have a craving for bagels, pizza, or good food, go see Mrs. Chen Lejen and her husband at Mrs. Shanen's Bagels. It's worth it, if for nothing else than to talk to Mrs. Chen!