Thursday, April 10, 2008

Beijing's First Private Restaurant: An Oral History

Deng Xiaoping's reform officially kicked off near the end of 1978. Partial privatization was allowed in the countryside, where farmers gained limited freedom in what and how to plant in the field. They were also encouraged to form small-scale semi-private enterprises. However, it took quite a while for these reforms to enter the lives of city folks, not to mention in the capital city.

The first private restaurant in Beijing opened its door in 1980, by a housewife named Liu Guixian (刘桂仙). The restaurant is still open today, at No. 43 Cuihua Hutong (翠花胡同43号):

(The panel at right says: "The First Private Restaurant in China")

Liu Guixian, who is now 75 years old, recent gave an interview to China Youth Daily in the form of oral history. Those who can read Chinese should check out the original, as the rough translation below will certainly not do justice to the unique elegance in her tone, delivered in the typical old-Pekingese style:
Hey, let's have some tea here!

I am the kind of person who speaks it as it is. So, I will tell you the story from the beginning. Otherwise, if I got sidetracked, I would confuse myself. From the very beginning, people have been asking me, how did you come up with the idea of opening a restaurant? Well, because I am a cook, I cook delicious dishes.

I was doing odd jobs back then, helping people to cook. So I learned many cooking skills from the masters. How should I put it? The dishes I made has my own distinct flavor. They come from my innovation upon what I had learned. They are all my own design and make, nobody else could make the same. Until today, if you have a dish in my restaurant, you won't find the same flavor in any other restaurant. So you have to come back here. I have a lot of regular customers.

I have five kids, four sons and one daughter. We were very poor. The seven of us used to have only two bed covers. How did we cover ourselves? Daddy and I just slept with our cloths on. But how could I feed so many kids? They were all growing. So, one night, I was listening to the little radio. It says that a couple in the Northeast were making Baozi (包子) to sell on the street. Ah ha! I got the idea. I learned to cook well. I could open a little restaurant.

Back then, there was no such term as private enterprise (个体户). I talked to my old man. He said, who would allow you to do that? Where is any private restaurant in Beijing? To open a restaurant, you have to have a license. If the government does not approve, you can't open one yourself. So I said, let me go apply for one.

The next day, I went to the the Business Bureau (工商局). I am not like any other woman. Nor any ordinary man. When I make up my mind, I will go for it, no matter how difficult and exhausting.

I remember back then, the Business Bureau was very far from my home. I didn't have a bicycle, so I had to walk. I got there, and told them I would like to open a restaurant. They asked me if I had room for it. I said yes, I could use the room we were sleeping in. "Where would your family sleep then?" they asked. I said, "On the roof. We could sleep on the roof." Everyone in the room laughed so hard. Finally, they told me to go back. They said I could go ask for assistance from my old man's work unit (工作单位) because I had many kids and hardship. They could not help me here. There was no such policy.

I had to walk for one an hour from my home to the Business Bureau. So I walked there every day, begging them and sometimes even doing it shamelessly. For a whole month, I did not miss a single day. Probably any ordinary person would have quit by then. They were pretty warm with me in the beginning, trying to talk me out of it. But after a while, nobody would pay any attention to me any more. They simply said, "here you came again, just sit down". And I would just sit in their office while they minded their own businesses.

I didn't know how, but a reporter got words about me and wrote about it in a newspaper. It said that there was a female comrade named Liu Guixian who went to the Business Bureau every day, begging for opening a restaurant herself. It must be an interesting news since there were no private business back then. After that, I did not know whether the Bureau got permission from up above, or that they just decided on their own. But they agreed. When I went there again, they told me: "Okay, we will do it first before we have permission. You go open your restaurant. We will get you license later. Go home and get ready."

So our whole family worked on it. We did not have money to buy building material. We went to the old man's work unit and begged for a wagon of waste material, old bricks, old pads, woods, and such. We opened the front of our room and built a little kitchen in the back. We had a little space to wash dishes. We made stoves, dug channels for wastewater. The Bureau people came by and inspected everything. They provided guarantee for us to get a 500 RMB loan from a bank.

We used that money to buy a refrigerator. It was a discounted one because it lacked painting on the door. But that was all we could afford with the money. We couldn't afford a better one. Then I went and bought 4 old tables, a dozen or so little stoles, 4 plastic table top. Then we lit up firecrackers and we opened for business!

What about cash flow? I had none. The day we opened for business, I had only 36 RMB in my hands. Later on, they did a show on TV about us. The host asked the audience to guess how much money I had on the opening day. Nobody got it right. The minimum they guessed was 50,000 RMB. Ha!

Today, nobody believed that I only had 36 RMB. But that was what I had. I went to the market with that money. At the time, everything was rationed except for ducks. So I bought 4 ducks.

Did I have any customers on the first day? Hey, let me tell you. There was a huge line, along this Hutong, that went tens of meters long. It was a raining day. But people were standing there with umbrellas. I just had the 4 ducks. So I made several dishes out of them: crispy duck, spicy duck, eight-treasure duck. I sold them 1 RMB for each dish. All were sold out immediately. After I had sold out, people still didn't want to leave. They insisted in standing in the line. Why? They said: "We missed this batch. We will wait for next batch." The line just stood there. Oh my goodness! My old man came home that day and saw so many people by our house. He thought we had some kind of emergency. At that time, there was only this one private restaurant. Everyone was curious!

I sold all the 4 ducks by noon that day. With the money, I went back to the market and bought 7 ducks. The 7 ducks were gone by that evening. So, with these ducks, I had my cash flow. I did that again and again for a whole week. Now I had some money!

With more money, I started to buy fish and meat and other things. I could cook more than 30 dishes now. I could sell jumbo shrimp, I could sell turtles, I could sell eel, I could sell anything! I got all these stuff from markets all over town.

When we opened the restaurant, everything was still rationed. We needed coupons for rice, sugar, meat, oil, and so on. I didn't have them. So I traveled to Hebei and Tianjing. They got farmer's markets there. I gathered information on when and where the markets were and headed there in the pre-dawn darkness. I traveled by train or long-distance bus. I would buy two big sacks of stuff and returned home by noon. Then I would prepare for the food. My kids were all little then. The old man was working. We did not dare to hire any help. So, it was only me. I bought and cooked and cleaned. I really couldn't handle it all. So we could only open for one meal a day, for dinner only.

I think only I could have done it. Nobody else could have gone through it. I was having a harder time than that White-Haired Girl. I had a hard time sleep, cook, or going to the market. We put up a tent on the roof of our house and a ladder by the wall. Our whole family just climbed up the roof and slept in the tent at night.

Aye, I was so tired, so exhausted. I was lucky that I was healthy and strong back then, like a little tiger. Now, when I recalled the exhaustion back then, I would want to kill my self by knocking my head on a wall.

Back then I would just think, I had to persevere no matter how tired I got. I wanted my dishes to become famous. I wanted people to say that the restaurant opened by Liu Guixian had delicious dishes and was kind-hearted too. I did not care much about expenses. I kept thinking of how to make the dishes better. All the vegetables I cooked, I marinated them in sesame oils first so they had the best flagrance.

Overnight, my dishes became famous! They were delicious and cheap. There were more and more customers. I could only place 4 little tables in the small restaurant. They were so little, even smaller than the center part of this table here. I could only take care of fourteen or fifteen customers a day. So they had to make reservations. Sometimes, they had to wait for more than 60 days to get a reservation. I had a little book with their phone numbers. When their reservation was up, I would call them. As soon as I called, they would be here. Nobody ever missed.

People from foreign embassies came too. The first time they came, they followed maps. Those were hand-made or copied maps. This was a little restaurant in a Hutong. How did they know? Hey, there were all special agents in embassies, of course! There was a time that all my customers were foreigners. Chinese could not even get in. They kept telling each other, so all foreigners knew about us.

They came to my restaurant to eat. One reason was that the dishes were really good. They did not exist in the big restaurants. And they were cheap, less than 1 RMB a dish. But they also came to the restaurant to check us out. They tried to get some information from me. You could imagine. How did a private restaurant suddenly appeared in Beijing? They did not exist for all these years, how came one showed up now? What was up with that? Was the Communist Party changing? Where was China heading to? They kept asking these: "How did you choose to open your own restaurant? Who told you to do it?" "Could this little restaurant open for a long time?" "Are you afraid of another Culture Revolution? That they will come after you? Are you practicing Capitalism?" I just said: "I am not afraid. The worst would be returning all the money I made. I say I believe in one thing, that is, everything will be okay as long as I follow the Communist Party!" They all laughed. They said I was good at speaking. They couldn't get anything out of me.

Do you know? There had been reporters from 77 countries who interviewed me. The busiest time, I had 20 or 30 reporters coming in a day. I always wanted to cry when I saw many reporters show up. Why? I was anxious. They came to interview me, either distracted me from cooking or taking my time away from shopping. There was a little window in our little kitchen. So I would let the reporters stand in the courtyard while I was cooking in the kitchen by the open window. They would ask questions outside and I would answer them while cooking. Some reporters did not want to leave after the meal. They looked around everywhere, asked about everything. Some came several days in a row, almost lived here.

People in my neighborhood hadn't changed their mindset much yet. Now, everyone is looking up to rich people. But back then, everyone hated me. Most people thought I was practicing Capitalism. That doing private business was going against the Communist Party. They saw many foreigners came to my restaurant and thought I became a special agent. The neighbors would tell me: "Ain't you afraid of being a special agent?" "You are a special agent now!" "Just look, there will be a day for you to be sorry sooner or later. The country will give you what you deserve." I said, "You don't scare me. I am doing this just for my kids. I need to feed them. I am not afraid." But I was, I couldn't sleep well at night.

A week before the first Spring Festival, I was called to the Public Security Bureau. They told me that leaders from the national and city government would come to visit me and I should get ready for that. I couldn't tell my kids. It would be a secret. So I went home and cleaned up the entire restaurant and bought two big sacks of firecrackers.

When the Spring Festival came, two Vice Premiers showed up at my home: Yao Yilin (姚依林) and Chen Muhua (陈慕华). They first visited the "Big Bowl Tea" at Qianmen, then the Xidang Market, and then they came to our restaurant. These were all the new things at the time. They wanted to visit all of them.

That noon, people from the US embassy happened to be there as well. We had Jiaozi for the Chinese New Year. Yao Yilin and Chen Muhua went around and inspected all corners of the restaurant. They told me to take good care of the kids, make sure the dishes are good, and separate the cold and hot food. They also told me to make more cold dishes to accompany drinking and make more popular dishes.

Wow, It was such an occasion back then! People were stuffed in the Hutong. Nobody could even move. I lit up all the two sack-full of firecrackers. The way they went exploding!

I saved money. The restaurant was way too small. I wanted to expand but there was no room. I asked around the neighbor and nobody wanted to sell. With great effort, I finally persuaded one family to sell with a lot of evening chatting and dishes. I bought a new house for them at Gu Lou. I also gave them 10,000 RMB for their moving expense. That was 1980s, when 10,000 RMB was worth 100,000 RMB now. So, like that, I bought this house in the Hutong. There are 12 rooms. I opened another restaurant.

By then, my kids were helping me out. They served as waiters, did cleaning work and shopping. Some of them would disappear from their work and went out to play for a whole day. Once, my youngest kid was going out to shop. He went out with his bicycle but did not return by late afternoon. I was worried and headed out to look for them. I saw his bicycle and the stuff he bought on the side of the road. He had gone to watch people fighting.

Private enterprise was no longer news. There were restaurants all over the place. In Cuihua Hutong, there were 7 or 8 restaurants came about all at once, probably following my example. But they did not last long and all disappeared soon. Ha ha. I did not move anywhere. I stayed in this Hutong. No matter what the weather was like, there would always be customers came to my restaurant.

Ay! Then, there was such a boom. There were so many private enterprises. People selling cloths, opening restaurants. Many of them were much bigger than mine. But now you look. Not many had survived. Some lost money. Some made big but spent them all. Some got into drugs, prostitutes, and jails. They did bad to themselves. Some are still lingering at home now. Some divorced. Of course, some made rich too. But very few.

During the boom, the young fella would come to my restaurant to eat and brag. I heard what they were talking and did not like it. I told them: "You little fella are all short-sighted. The way you are doing it can't last long." "Hey, you are old-fashioned. You have to brag to do business now. It's not like your restaurant. People would know it by tasting your dishes." They would tell me.

We started early. So we had quite some money by then. But my kids grew up fine. They didn't get into the bad behavior of these other kids. They didn't gamble or play with women. I swear that as long as I am alive, nobody in my family can play Majang, gamble or visit prostitutes. I tell my family every Chinese New Year day.

My youngest likes antiques and old furnitures. He had asked for 80,000 RMB to start a business buying old furnitures. I did not agree. He is still complaining about it today. He thinks that he would be rich now if I had given him the money then. But he did okay himself. He has a decent antique store. He buys old furniture from Guangxi and Guangdong. Got them here by the train, refurbish and sell them. He did this for 20 years and made some money.

Although I made money myself, but I always felt that I didn't have money. Looking back the 30 years, the thing pains me the most is that I lost all the money I had made through hardship.

It's been 10 years. How did I lose the money? I opened a carpentry factory and made a huge mistake.
Liu Guixian's adventure in the carpentry factory ended up losing 6 million RMB, her entire savings at the time. But her restaurants survived. The restaurants have provided for four generations of her family. Today, she has a staff of more than 20. But she still comes to the restaurants every day to make sure they are run right. She is looking to pass the restaurants along to one of her grandsons.

No comments: