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Ethnic Chinese Find New 'Land of Opportunity' - 2004-04-22

China's economy is booming, helped in part by ethnic Chinese coming from all over the world to do business. For their parents and grandparents, opportunities once rested abroad, but this generation finds that China is the new land of opportunity.

It is Saturday afternoon inside Mrs. Shanen's bagel restaurant. The shiny restaurant with its checkerboard-tiled facade sits at the edge of cornfields worked by weathered men driving donkey carts. Their wives sell dumplings from steaming woks set on rickety tables at the edge of the road.

Inside Mrs. Shanen's, customers, mostly Westerners who live in Beijing, lean against glass cases displaying dozens of varieties of bagels, waiting for empty tables. They are here for the "real thing," and Mrs. Shanen's delivers - round, chewy bread rolls with a hole in the middle.

The art of bagel-making was carried to the United States - primarily New York - by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Over the past few decades the popularity of the bagel has spread, and it is now one of the most common breakfast breads in the United States.

Twelve-year-old Chloe Horowitz has lived in China with her American family for three years. She says she likes Mrs. Shanen's, because she tires of Chinese food. "It's un-Chinese. It's just not Chinese so it's nice," she says. "You can pretend you're not in China for a little while."

Her father, Paul Horowitz, says the restaurant's owner (Le Jun Chen, also know as Mrs. Shan-en) is a savvy businesswoman, because she opened in an area where many foreigners and middle-class Chinese live, but there are few restaurants.

"She's starting early, carving out a niche, and you can see every table in here is filled with people," says Mr. Horowitz.

The owner is 43-year-old Le Jun Chen, who at the age of eight, moved from Taiwan to New York. She grew up around bagels. She learned about bagel-making from a friend whose family had been making bagels for generations. In her former career as a television producer, she even worked on a documentary film about bagel-making.

So when she moved to Beijing 15 years ago to work with U.S. film crews, living without bagels was a hardship. It had been years since she had eaten a bagel when she spotted one on a fancy hotel's menu. Her hopes were quickly dashed when she was served a bread roll that was nothing like a bagel. "The salmon was perfect. The cream cheese was right, but the bagel was just completely wrong," she says. "So I felt this urge to do something about it."

Soon after, Mrs. Shan-en brought some bagels back from a trip to the United States. They were slightly stale when she introduced them to a Chinese friend. "It was like a two-day-old cinnamon raisin bagel, and he thought it was great," she says. "And he's the one who said we should do this in Beijing."

She and that friend, Shan-en, went into business together and ultimately married, and Mrs. Shan-en's Bagels was born. That was seven years ago. Customers have since westernized the name to Mrs. Shanen's.

They trademarked a Chinese word for their bagels: bei-goo - which means precious grains. The word "bei" can also mean the ancient Chinese coin that, like a bagel, has a hole in the middle.

Mrs. Shan-en employs 30 bakers and provides bagels to Beijing's top hotels and Western grocery stores.

Her busy restaurant opened just three months ago and has Mister Shan-en dreaming of franchise possibilities, while Mrs. Shan-en wants to stay small. She says tracking down raw materials is hard; she can spend days finding cream cheese, or good cinnamon for cinnamon-raisin bagels. On this particular day she is looking for a key ingredient for pizza bagels - an Italian sausage known as pepperoni.

"And every day I have like one ingredient that I have to chase after," she says. "And today it's pepperoni."

Mrs. Shan-en says she is far from alone with this entrepreneurial spirit. She knows of one Asian American hoping to open a Mexican tortilla factory in China. An association of overseas Chinese entrepreneurs has been organizing in Beijing, but Mrs. Shanen says she will not be able to take part. She is too busy making bagels.