Chinese make partial bow to Chinese-American food

The mayor of one of China's most exotic cities has visited the fertile flatlands of northwest Ohio to try some American-style Chinese food. Liang Lingguang pronounced the fare good - for United States tastes.

''As for my personal taste,'' said the mayor of Guangzhou (Canton) in an interview during a tour of La Choy Products' plant about 40 miles west of Toledo , ''I should prefer to have real Cantonese food. But from a marketing point of view, this is a more appropriate taste for Americans.'' His words were interpreted by Lu Ji'an, deputy division chief of the foreign affairs office of Guangdong, Guangzhou's province.

The mayor of Guangzhou's 3 million people was in Archbold to inspect the highly automated facilities of La Choy. Some of the food-processing technology is to be borrowed in a business joint venture between the southeast China city and La Choy's parent, Beatrice Foods Company. Guangzhou and the China International Trust & Investment Company are to form the Chinese half of the deal under the name Guang Mei (Broad and Beautiful) Food Company.

Liang, his wife and an entourage of about a dozen Chinese and Americans were on a jaunt that also took them to Los Angeles, where he signed a sister-city agreement; Chicago, Beatrice Foods' headquarters, and Bradenton, Fla., home of the corporation's Tropicana Products subsidiary.

Flanked on all sides by rows of cans marching in many directions, they watched a screw the length of a limousine plop out dough at the rate of 3,500 pounds of flour per hour. In the next room, the dough became a conveyed river of chow mein noodles.

They watched as a specially built planter, looking like an overgrown sit-down mower, was driven into a straddling position on the sides of a 35-foot-wide bin, one of 49, each containing 30,000 pounds of growing bean sprouts - 1.5 million pounds each week.

Until now, Liang had been nothing if not diplomatically correct; dressed as he was in a Western-cut navy blue suit, blue shirt and dark blue tie. But now he appeared excited.

''One-point-five millions pounds?'' Lu interpreted.

''One-point-five million,'' replied Dale Pape, La Choy's director of operations.

In a warehouse room, they stood amid piles of boxes reaching the level of three stories high, ready to be shipped aboard the 60 semitrailers that arrive at the 11.5-acre plant site each day. They watched 70 boxes of Chinese vegetables pop out each minute and two boxes of meat-and-shrimp egg rolls come off the line each second.

They were led to a separate frozen-food processing section, where five-inch egg rolls entertained them by lining up and plunging into a long bath of hot oil. At the same time, a mob of thumb-sized egg rolls jumped into cartons at the rate of 1,500 per minute.

They appeared impressed.

Now these sorts of activities are to be introduced to the birthplace of the egg roll. Beatrice has said the agreement represents ''the first business joint venture contract in China with a major US manufacturer.'' Guang Mei Food Company is to develop both export and domestic Chinese markets for canned fruits and vegetables with La Choy. Tropicana is to be involved in a citrus juice project. During the group's press conference at Chicago's posh Mayfair Regent Hotel, Beatrice chairman James Dutt referred to the agreement as a blend of American technology and Chinese agricultural and culinary expertise.

In Archbold, Liang's smile changed to a grin that underlined his high cheekbones with faint horizontal dimples. His gestures became bolder as he explained it was not his intention to accept American methods whole. For one thing, he explained, the labor-saving advantages of automation mean little in China, where labor is the most plentiful commodity.

''Your standards of automation are impressive, and some sections of the process we will introduce. Others we will not. Instead we will employ labor.''

Which methods, he declined to say.

''You know, I'm not an expert and I don't want to become a bureaucrat. I intend to send a team of specialists here and let them decide.''

Liang said the timing of the specialists' trip depends on further negotiations with Beatrice.

Archbold refers to itself as ''Chinatown, USA'' because 500 of the town's 3, 000 residents work at La Choy, but the luncheon that ended the tour took place at the decidedly un-Oriental Die Alte Scheier Restaurant. Reason was, one executive admitted, ''People come here expecting to find a Chinese restaurant and we don't have one.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.