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Cakewalker finds slice of heaven
By Xie Fang (China Daily)

Chiu Binghang, once a Hong Kong high-flier, now runs a dessert bar in the capital city and says his life on the mainland suits just fine. Xie Fang

With all the charisma of a pop idol, Chiu Binghang's soft tunes lull his audience, whose members can't help but sing along as they are drawn into nostalgia. Between crooning Cantonese classics of the 1990s, Chiu addresses some 200 spectators at Eastern Culture Square, sharing snippets about his life in the Harbor City.

The 41-year-old performed in Beijing a fortnight ago, at the invitation of Hong Kong's Chamber of Commerce on the mainland. Yet Chiu is neither a professional singer, nor an official.

Rather, this Hongkong man has for past three years run The Upper Room - a tiny dessert bar serving cakes and other sweet delights in the capital. Chiu is a former advertising professional, whose rich experience and creative nature are reflected in his two-story bar, tucked away in a narrow alley in Chaoyang District.

The space is a haven for exhausted white-collar workers to re-energize and, decked out in bright blue-and-white, represents Chiu's own take on paradise. He believes Greece is the closest place on Earth to Heaven, and accordingly his interior design features Mediterranean style.

Fine-haired dolls, soft cushions and fragrant candles are dotted around the less than 100-square-meter bar, creating a kind of homey ambience. The walls feature some of Chiu's favorite advertising works, revealing the corporate routine he left behind.

He has made a post for himself beside a white window, where his laptop sits near a sign bearing the motto:

"Eventually I can hide in the Upper Room to enjoy my time."

But despite his dynamism, Chiu comes across as the friendly boy-next-door. Tall and stylish, he eschews business attire. Instead, he eludes a holiday vibe in a comfortable blue top, patterned with tropical rainforest.

It is hard to believe that just a few years ago, Chiu was a typical workaholic, immersing himself in endless advertising projects.

Chiu gained a Bachelor's degree in marketing at a Canadian university. He tried his hand as a movie correspondent, actor and singer, before settling in advertising in 1990, landing a start as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson (JWT) in Hong Kong.

Three years later, he left the company to pursue his life-long dream of becoming a pop singer. But the lights didn't turn green on that path so, after two years, the dreamer rejoined JWT.

In 1998, he took on a new challenge, as creative department head of McCann Erickson Guangming Ltd (Shanghai), and then moved to Beijing by the end of 1999.

But despite harvesting success in that field, Chiu said there was always an inner voice telling him to break from the routine and try something new.

"I wanted to open a dessert bar," he recalls, speaking fluent Mandarin.

"When I was young, my grandmother always bought the best cake in Hong Kong for my birthday. In my eyes, dessert stands for bliss," he adds.

Considering the cheap rent and blooming economy, Chiu felt he was able to realize his dream in Beijing. Though from a business viewpoint, he admits it's a wrong decision to open his bar in such a remote spot.

"It is close to the CBD in which many of my friends work, so I just simply thought it would be fine to start business here," he says.

Less than one month after opening, Chiu was shocked to learn of demolition plans to make way for a new project.

"The bad news hit me like a thunderbolt. This is the first time for me to conduct business, and more importantly, I have spent most of my savings in the bar, while just a little compensation can be granted according to the contract," Chiu says.

"But sometimes we need a little bit of faith to go through the difficulties rather than simply giving up. To my delight, they have yet to undertake the demolition and I am so lucky to still be in my business," he adds, grinning as if he had won a lottery.

Chiu says he had no problem turning his hand to running a dessert bar. He believes life is about continuously creating via different media. "In the past, I used to create through advertisements, nowadays the subjects are shifted to food and music."

Not surprisingly, Chiu has many ideas for new Hong Kong-style desserts. For instance, he mixes fruit and ice with glutinous rice dumplings, perfect for relieving the summer heat. His creativity is also reflected in the name of his dishes. "1,2,3,4,5 Ribs" is an example.

"People wonder if there are five pieces of ribs in the dish - in fact, we just use five different sources to cook it," he says.

The bar holds a music party each Friday from 8 to 11pm, where Chiu entertains his customers as DJ and singer. The event usually attracts at least 60 people, some of whom even bring their own musical instrument - a harmonica or clarinet to share their passion for music.

Chiu says each event has a specific theme, ranging from the celebration of friends' birthdays, to new social trends and the understanding of life.

Every Wednesday, the man e-mails his contact base of 1,000 friends and customers, informing them of the theme of the upcoming event.

"It doesn't matter if they come to the party or not, what's more important is to share things with them," he says.

Given its less-than-ideal location, Chiu does not expect his business to bring in a big pay-check. But it has provided something he values more - a platform to make friends and add meaning to his life. "Some things cannot be purchased by money," he says.

Chiu wants to stay in his business as long as revenue and expenditure are balanced. Last October, he opened a branch in Langfang, Hebei Province, which is about one hour's drive from Beijing.

For this ex-Hong Kong high-flier, life on the mainland suits just fine. Compared with Shanghai, which in his eyes has many characteristics of Hong Kong, Chiu prefers the capital's vastness and dry climate. Plus, he says there are the small perks. He recently switched from taking cabs to public transport, on discovering a card that lets him ride for less than 1 yuan (13 US cents) each way.

"So Beijingers will have to make a space for a Hongkongese," he says.

(China Daily 07/02/2007 page5)

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