Maggie obviously wears her history lightly. Not so her boss, Lawrence Brahm, a 41-year-old American hotelier and restaurateur who's founded a miniempire by excavating the bad old days, giving them glamour and letting people revisit them—for a tidy price. Brahm owns Jiang's limo and a treasure trove of other Communist Party artifacts. They decorate his restaurant, the Red Capital Club, and his boutique hotel, the Red Capital Residence, both housed in 200-year-old courtyard compounds in Beijing's Dongcheng district. Brahm has seized upon a romanticized notion of China at the cusp of revolution and turned it into a luxury-entertainment brand that appeals not only to visiting foreigners with a sense of irony but also to young Chinese and old generals nostalgic for the early days when life seemed simpler. Both the hotel and the restaurant are usually packed. Call (86-10) 6402 7150 for reservations or to book a $200 tour of the capital in Jiang's limo.
Last year, seeking a change of pace, Brahm closed the books of his Beijing-based consulting practice to dedicate himself to his new projects. Still besotted with his eerily romantic image of a lost China, he has returned to his Little Red Book and the nostalgia tucked inside. Ever the businessman, he has used his China experience to turn a profit out of propaganda.
His first venture, the Red Capital Club, opened in 1999 and was inspired by the comments of high-ranking Chinese visitors to his renovated courtyard home. They were awed by his collection of revolutionary furnishings, so he came up with the idea for a restaurant that celebrates what he calls communist chic. "China has modernized so much, so quickly, that Beijing now looks like Los Angeles," says Brahm. "The people have lost the kind of cultural spirit that used to drive the place. It used to be that China was all ideology and no material goods; now it is all materialism but no ideology. So the Chinese guests seek some sort of nostalgia for how they thought it once was." At his restaurant and hotel, Brahm has succeeded where even master propagandist Jiang failed: he has erased the tragedy and rendered the revolution perfect. He points to an empty pack of official Communist Party cigarettes glued to the wooden armrest of a vintage easy chair. "What I am trying to do is recreate a mood, a dream of the 1950s innocence when idealism was building postrevolutionary China. I want to capture the essence of how people lived then and how powerful people made decisions." Despite Brahm's enthusiasm for the early idealism of China's communist liberation, many of his vintage treasures—posters, lamps, porcelain figurines depicting Red Guards and busts of Mao—date to the darker days of the Cultural Revolution.
His second project, the Red Capital Residence, opened in 2001 and has five rooms outfitted with original 1950s furnishings culled from the Cultural Revolution Reparations Committee stores (which stockpiled pieces confiscated by the Red Guards), as well as items donated by Party members and their families. Low-slung leather chairs in the cigar lounge were used by members of the Politburo; the green-shaded lamps came from the desks of ministers; a thick purple curtain in the reception area comes from Mao's house in the exclusive government compound of Zhongnanhai.
The guest rooms are decorated along different themes. The Edgar Snow Room features an old typewriter with a facsimile of a page from Red Star Over China still on the roller. The two sumptuously decorated Concubine Suites, complete with silk-draped, Ming-era opium beds, are designed for guests who, says Brahm, "always wanted to be a concubine—or have one." The Chairman's Chrysanthemum Suite is modeled on Mao's library and bedroom, where he received most of his visitors. The bookshelf above the antique bed is stacked with the Great Helmsman's favorites: Sun Tzu's The Art of War, Lo Kuan-chung's Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Karl Marx's Das Kapital and several treatises on Chinese political philosophy. Instead of a Bible on the bedside table, there is a stack of Little Red Books. Photographs of Mao's various wives and mistresses adorn the coffee table. And, yes, there is even a Mao alarm clock.
Beijing has other eating joints that celebrate the Cultural Revolution by serving up the hearty peasant fare that Beijingers remember from their enforced exile in the countryside. Brahm's approach is far tonier. His Red Capital Club boasts Zhongnanhai cuisine—the preferred dishes of the Party élite who lived in Beijing's government enclave. Mao's favorite meal, red roast pork with bitter melon, is on the menu, as is Deng's family recipe for chicken. (That dish comes garnished with black- and white-cat sculptures—carved out of beets and turnips—in honor of Deng's famous economic axiom: It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.) The culinary allusions continue with the dessert offerings: yuan xiao, rice-paste dumplings stuffed with peanuts and black sesame, are listed as Chiang Kai-shek's balls. Elegance is combined with camp: an antique telephone on a lounge table is wired to play a recording of Mao's voice. The house wine, a French Bordeaux carrying the Red Capital label, is described in the menu as "appropriate for any party or mass gathering."
The residence's Qing-dynasty compound is rumored to have once been the home of Kuomintang General Fu Zuoyi and served as both an infirmary and message center for the Communist government. In the late 1960s, a bomb shelter was dug out from under the courtyard on the orders of Lin Biao, Mao's then-heir apparent. Brahm has turned it into the three-chambered Bomb Shelter Bar, a lushly decorated wine and cigar lounge where you can sip red Bordeaux while watching vintage films, such as The East Is Red and Ballet of the Red Detachment of Women. Brahm has improved on one of the most powerful propaganda campaigns in history. Not only are his guests embracing his version of an uncomfortable past —they're also buying it.