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The Innovation Game

Indeed, what could be more Chinese than a strawberry crisp pizza, a peach and cream sandwich, cucumber flavor crisps, or a cheese and sea salt chocolate bar?

By Michael Jones Updated Jun.1

    Chinese people often talk with pride about their ancient traditions, customs and practices. This is true across many fields of life, especially in areas such as the culinary arts. Indeed, for many people China is almost synonymous with an assortment of traditional edible delicacies. However, China is not alone in this – many countries pride themselves on their traditional foods and beverages. Although, upon closer inspection, how truly ancient are these traditional delights? 
    Just like Italian, Indian and French cuisine, Chinese food is awash with non-indigenous ingredients such as tomatoes, chilis, bell peppers and potatoes. These immigrant ingredients tell a different culinary story, one of integration, innovation, and adaptation. Indeed, rather than the historic traditions behind Chinese food, it is perhaps the versatility and flexibility of the cuisine to reinvent itself across the ages that is most fascinating. 
    For visiting foreigners, the peculiar world of Chinese-foreign hybrid concepts is a source of endless fascination. Products that may, on the surface, be considered international are in fact often the most extreme examples of Chinese innovation. Indeed, what could be more Chinese than a strawberry crisp pizza, a peach and cream sandwich, cucumber flavor crisps, or a cheese and sea salt chocolate bar? 
    Such curiosities emerge because of China’s willingness to embrace and experiment with new ideas and notions. For example, while the chocolate fountain is largely limited to wedding celebrations in the West, it makes a much more regular appearance in Chinese life, especially at buffet dinners. Moreover, rather than be restrained to dipping strawberries and marshmallows into the warm gooey chocolate, the Chinese have dramatically extended the range of available accompaniments to include the likes of cherry tomatoes, carrot batons and even cucumber slices. 
    Moreover, Chinese ingenuity, innovation, and adaptation are not limited to the culinary world. Life in China is awash with fascinating interpretations of concepts, technologies, and products from around the world. For example, while the Western world may have invented the modern, consumerist, manifestation of Valentine’s Day, only the Chinese could have injected it with growth hormones and found excuses to multiple it repeatedly across the calendar. Indeed, the Chinese have reformed the concept of Valentine’s Day so thoroughly that they even celebrate an annual Single’s Day, to make sure no one misses out on the chance to accumulate credit card debt in the name of love. 
    While it was the British who invented the ‘package tours’, pioneered by Thomas Cook way back in 1841, it is surely the Chinese who now wear the crown in that particular industry. Following statistical trends, there are almost certainly more people now employed in the tourist industry in China than live in the entire UK. Assuming growth trends have continued over the last year, tourism’s contribution to China’s GDP is probably larger than the entire economy of either Brazil or Italy. While those comparisons may seem shocking, they are less surprising to anyone who has tried to visit Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors or Beijing’s Summer Palace during the Spring Festival Holiday. The simple fact is that the Chinese have taken the notion of the package tour and transformed it into an efficient, if sometimes overwhelming, behemoth. 
    This innate Chinese desire, and indeed expectation, for needs and wants to be addressed immediately, connects closely to perhaps China’s greatest innovation of them all, the world of online service and product delivery. Indeed, when Supermarket Direct pioneered online next day grocery delivery in London in 1995, could they have imagined that by 2024 almost one-third of all Chinese retail sales would be digital, and that many products would be available not tomorrow, but within the hour? It is hard to walk anywhere in China without swerving to avoid someone rushing to deliver something to an impatient recipient, and one assumes we will soon all be swatting delivery drones out of our hair as well. 
    The simple fact is that, although it is common in China to refer to international things as existing outside China and Chinese life, China is incredibly intertwined with global life. Chinese traditions, customs and ideas are heavily influenced by ideas, technologies, and concepts from abroad. Likewise, Chinese ideas, technologies and concepts influence traditions, customs and ideas in other countries. Moreover, this is not a new phenomenon. Life has always been this way. So, whether we are talking about ancient Buddhist monks bringing ideas over the Himalayas, British gardeners replicating Chinese designs in the 1600s, or the culinary revolution that swept both Europe and Asia when the chili first arrived, it is important to remember how connected our worlds really are.