Italians trail Marco Polo; China triumphs at soccer

As October yielded to November, a Sino-Italian film crew was shooting ''Marco Polo'' at the Ming tombs. Soccer fans still savored China's 3-0 victory over Kuwait, which kept their country in the World Cup competition.

Scarlet and gold have faded from the foliage of the Western Hills, while indoors, shuai yang rou, also known as Mongolian hot pot, is back in favor.

We will return to ''Marco Polo'' later, but October cannot disappear from view without mention of China's thrilling victory over Kuwait Oct. 18.

Fans were calling up friends to beg, borrow, or steal tickets to the match, upon which depended China's chances of making it to the World Cup in Madrid.

In contrast with the arrogant Cultural Revolution days, the Chinese now admit that their country is poor and backward. They have a hunger for international recognition, especially in sports, where China was for so many years shut out of international competition because its seat was occupied by Taiwan.

Victory celebrations here are still modest compared to the raucous motorcades that jam the streets of Paris or Rome. But, oh, what a ringing of bicycle bells there was that Sunday night! What an explosion of shouts and backslapping and even firecrackers! It was a night to be remembered.

'Marco Polo was an explorer of men,'' says moviemaker Vincenzo Labella. ''In an age when Mongols were considered the scourge of the earth, he revealed to the Western world that the civilization he had witnessed in China was a very high one.''

Mr. Labella is in China as the producer of an eight-hour television film on his intrepid, insatiably curious countryman, whose adventures at the court of Kublai Khan have fascinated generations of Westerners. It is a $23 million project, the first such Sino-Italian co-production.

Mr. Labella has already taken his cast and production staff of 150 (and 4,218 costumes) on wanderings as far-flung as those of Marco -- from Italy to Morocco, to Silinghot in Inner Mongolia, and now Peking, where he is filming in the Forbidden City and at the Ming tombs. Mr. Labella expects his film to reach US television screens next May 16, four years after his first approach to the Chinese.

A former history professor, Mr. Labella wrote the script himself, trying to remain true to fact and to invent only credible details, such as an encounter with his fair countrywoman Claudia de Vilionis in the splendid canal town of Yangzhou.

Mr. Labella said he had gotten full cooperation from the Chinese.

There has been only an occasional ''brushing of elbows,'' he said diplomatically, speaking mainly of frustrations caused by differing concepts of time.

''To us, a day has 24 hours. To the Chinese, it could last a month. It's as easy for them to procrastinate and postpone as it is for us to say something must be done by yesterday.''

If ''Marco Polo'' enjoys the vogue in America that ''Roots'' and ''Shogun'' did, restaurants will surely try to cash in with their versions of ''Mongolian hot pot.''

Mongol it may be, but here in the Chinese capital the ''hot pot'' is a doughnut-shaped charcoal-heated chafing dish. The pot, which has a central chimney (i.e., the hole of the doughnut), is associated with the Muslim minority , who do not eat pork.

Donglaishun Restaurant on Goldfish Lane off Wangfujing, Peking's Fifth Avenue is the best-known ''hot pot'' restaurant.

Now that cold weather is setting in, its shuai yang rou or ''rinsed mutton'' has come back into its own. There is nothing like a steaming pot of rinsed mutton to make for camaraderie. The mutton, sliced paper-thin, is dipped into the boiling water of the hot pot, along with various vegetables.

You make your own sauce, fiery or mild to suit your taste buds, out of sesame oil, shrimp sauce, fermented bean curd sauce, chives, chili oil, garlic, and coriander. Besides mutton, some spots also serve fish, prawns, chicken, or beef - but never pork.

Muslim dietary habits, trampled on during the Cultural Revolution, are again being respected.

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