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Care to try some snake-bile wine?
 The Washington Post

As he splashed a shot of Coca-Cola and tossed a couple of bright orange Chinese wolfberries into the French burgundy, Hu Chen turned sage. ''There's a little United Nations floating in this glass,'' said the ponytailed bartender in Chengdu, pondering the brackish concoction. ''French, American and Chinese.''

Twenty years of reform have brought many things to the mainland: rock'n'roll, corruption, a skyrocketing economy and skyrocketing unemployment, unprecedented freedoms and tough political crackdowns.

They've also spawned some of the world's weirdest beverages. Twenty years ago, the Chinese essentially drank four things: tea, beer, grain alcohol and, when they were sick, tepid boiled water. Now they're experimenting with all sorts of libations, some incredibly tasty. ''Freshly squeezed cucumber juice,'' enthused William Brent, an entertainment impresario from Washington, DC, who now lives in Shanghai. ''It was great!'' And some incredibly strange.

There's green snake-bile wine for those who need a Viagra-like jolt, and a creamed marzipan beverage hawked as a skin restorative. A trendy potion among bureaucrats blends a tablespoon of vinegar (balsamic vinegar, in some highfalutin circles) with a glass of Sprite, called Beverage No 1 because President Jiang Zemin favours it.

A look at drinking habits over the past year also reveals much about the mainland's social and economic changes and challenges. In wine-bar cabarets and coffee houses, you find the mad rush for an often bizarre form of Westernization.

In the obsession with the drinks' wacky colours, you appreciate the profundity of the all-out victory here of kitsch over communism. In the number of grain alcohol brands (38,000 at last count), you can begin to contemplate the intensely fragmented nature of the mainland market. In the lightning swings from one beverage to another, you feel the power that fads have to sweep through a restless urban population.

In the massive smuggling of wine into southern China (experts say the mainland's imports of red wine are actually three times higher than statistics show), you begin to understand the severity of the struggle against corruption.

Last year, the Coca-Cola Company, whose carbonated drinks dominate the mainland with more than 70 per cent of the market share, launched a kaleidoscopic line of soda called Xingmu (or eye-catching), responding to the Central Government's demand that it create a product especially for China. Coke, which has invested US$800 million (HK$6.24 billion) in China, lately has found its desires to expand strongly opposed by mainland officials who want to promote national brands such as Future Cola, a Coke knock-off, and Jianlibao, a drink that tastes like liquid metal.

Xingmu's five flavours are neon green apple soda; psychedelic pink watermelon soda; a milky, fizzy coconut concoction; and peach and orange drinks.
''The taste is so-so, but I like the colours,'' said Li Yue, a waitress serving the beverages at a Beijing news conference. ''Very artistic.''

Wine's increasing popularity is one of the most significant developments in mainland drinking habits. Grape fermentation dates at least to the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD). Today, however, wine is closely associated with the West, and because many urban Chinese are attracted to the West, they drink wine. ''I like France,'' said Rose Li, a shop attendant at a Shanghai wine store, ''so I drink French wine. I've heard Paris is very romantic.''

In 1997, wine accounted for about 1 per cent of the mainland's alcohol market, but with a 30 per cent annual jump in consumption, it's coming on strong. Still, Chinese do strange things to their wines. They add Sprite, Coke, juice and other beverages. Chinese wolfberries, tiny, bright orange dried fruit with a pungently bitter taste, are dropped in for medicinal reasons. Wine is chug-a-lugged because more Chinese associate wine with a night at the karaoke bar than an elegant dinner.

The beer market is just as crazy. In 1997, the mainland's 550 breweries cranked out almost 19 billion litres, second only to the United States. Just six years ago, only four foreign beer companies had invested in China; now there are 40, the fastest pace of foreign investment of any beer market.

Coffee - once lambasted by Communists as ''the tail of capitalism'' - has profited from its politically incorrect status and is almost as popular on Chinese airlines as tea. Cozy coffee houses line the streets of such cities as Chengdu, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Beijing boasts two newly-opened Starbucks coffee bars. In southern Shenzhen, a local chain called Coffee English is doing brisk business at its six outlets. But business executives risk getting burned by the fickle mainland consumer. In 1996, a ''coffee boom'' was predicted. Government coffee traders imported 12,000 tons of beans, more than five times the previous year's imports. The coffee market crashed. And the beans are still in government warehouses.

 

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