When I was living in South Korea, there used to be a joke which wasn’t really a joke – more of an astute observation offered as a lament of inevitability – about Western restaurants. People laughed through their frustration at the process whereby Western restaurants invariably declined in quality following a set pattern. It went something like this:
The quality would start out high as the owners maintained their ideals. Soon, foreigners would flock to get the good food and enjoy the unique atmosphere. This would cause the restaurant to be noticed by locals, who would see the international customer base and suddenly consider the restaurant as cool. Soon, the locals would begin to eat there partly out of curiosity and partly out of a desire to be hip themselves. It wouldn’t take long before they started to complain about the food because it didn’t suit their palette, and the quality would begin to decline pretty rapidly, eventually leading to an exodus of foreign customers, and all the items on the menu being replaced by local foods or pale imitations of the originals.
In China, and particularly in lower tier cities, this process has been sped up to an absurd degree. In fact, theoretical scientists would need to postulate new units of time to describe the speed with which the Chinese can ruin something nice. In Huainan, where I live, a few idealistic souls have attempted to introduce entirely alien concepts like cleanliness, ambiance, and taste, and these efforts have severely punished. I shall now present a case study of three such businesses.
The Italian Restaurant
We shall start our culinary tour of Huainan’s international side with the greatest restaurant ever to open its doors in this backwater town. Its owners were Chinese people who’d lived abroad and learned of the finer things in life. They opened a sprawling restaurant in the middle of Huainan, where they endeavoured to keep things authentic – genuine stone-baked pizzas, fine wines, beautifully-presented side dishes, the highest-quality imported ingredients, and impeccable service.
Alas, the denizens of Huainan are not wooed by such things. They would venture into the restaurant, complain that the food wasn’t Chinese enough, steal the silverware, let their children run riot, and act rudely towards the staff. Typical complaints include:
- Can you make a pizza with durian and blueberry?
- A real pizza should be thick like the ones I saw at Pizza Hut.
- The pasta sauce doesn’t have enough sugar in it.
- This steak isn’t charred to a crisp; how am I supposed to eat it?
The owners refused to lower their standards enough for the locals, and quickly went out of business.
The German Restaurant
The success of German beer throughout China in recent years has prompted the opening of a number of German restaurants throughout the land. They mostly sell a mix of inauthentic European cuisine and grossly-overpriced Chinese fare. This allows Chinese customers to visit an international restaurant without having to actually eat something unfamiliar.
Such a restaurant opened in Huainan, offering a very hit-and-miss menu. They had some genuinely impressive Western food and a range of exciting beers that could be found nowhere else in this tier 310 city. They even did very non-Chinese things like cleaning the bathrooms and providing soap at the sinks.
The owners were not as idealistic as those at the Italian restaurant, and happily compromised on quality by allowing for normal Chinese behavior:
- Spitting on the floor
- Putting feet on the table
- Allowing tuhao customers let their kids and dogs run freely around the restaurant
Over time, the items on the menu became harder to order. The beer supply was seldom restocked, and only the items the Chinese wanted (fried rice, fried noodles, etc) were usually available. They would begin substituting important ingredients and switching cuts of meat, and eventually the service degenerated to the usual Chinese standard – the staff all playing on their phones and orders routinely forgotten.
After a little over a year, the German restaurant closed, and few people noticed or cared.
The Japanese Restaurant
I had the highest of hopes for the Japanese restaurant. It was, after all, part of a chain of restaurants, meaning that it would be forced to stick to a set menu rather than bow to local demands. Moreover, Japanese food is not so alien to Chinese palettes, and therefore less likely to offend the delicate sensibilities of the locals. Alas, it was to suffer a slow and steady decline.
This chain store provides a menu of mostly noodles, in a pretty peaceful, clean setting. As they serve Japanese food, a healthy dose of nationalist hatred keeps most of the locals away, and ensures mostly a younger, more open-minded crowd. However, it has never proven popular, and it is a mystery why the company even bothers funding this branch as it could clearly have never turned a profit.
As the months and years have passed, the staff has gotten lazier and the food blander. Getting served is only possible if you can shout really, really loudly – even when the restaurant is completely empty – and while the dishes are made to a strict formula, the quality of the ingredients has declined so severely that it’s like eating paper. Complaints are met with typical Chinese customer service skills: “So what?”
Perhaps it is absurd to expect nice things in a place where the government has had to put up signs that say, “No shitting in public.” After all, this is a town that is made fun of by even hicks from the most backwards burghs in the province.
Yet this process is a story that is true throughout the Middle Kingdom. People want to appear adventurous, but only within their own predefined boundaries; they want to walk outside their own comfort-zone, but only if they can act the same way as they do at home; they want to be international, but still thoroughly Chinese. And that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with importing an idea and adding local flavor (although I still maintain that putting durian and blueberry on pizza is among the vilest crimes of humanity). China long ago imported communism, calling their style of governance “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Now they are doing the same with the fancy things they import from abroad.
All across this country, expensive new buildings appear overnight, and foreign ideas are introduced every day. A few months ago, a big mall opened in Hefei and my friend reported that he walked in and saw dozens of brand new stores and restaurants selling expensive things, shiny decorations everywhere, and signs proclaiming how advanced and international the city had become because of this cosmopolitan, international mall.
“That sounds pretty fancy,” I said, over the phone.
“No,” he replied. “There’s an old woman helping a baby to shit on the floor.”
The mall will probably make billions of RMB, and as China grows richer, more malls like it will be built in every town in the country, but there will always be someone taking a shit on the floor right there in the middle of it all. In many ways, China is just developing too fast for the people who live there, and if you’re looking for something nice, the best you can really hope for is “Fanciness with Chinese Characteristics.”
In the bigger cities, where people have been exposed to a bit of culture and taste, things are improving, and will probably continue to improve for years to come. Yet out in the sticks, where public defecation is the norm and where social mores haven’t changed since iron was invented—despite the proliferation of iPhones and blunt government propaganda to “Be More Civilized”—it might take a while before people can be expected to sit down to food that doesn’t still have its head and feet, go two minutes without spitting on the floor, or leave the restaurant without swiping the cutlery, crockery, and a few rolls of toilet paper for good measure.
As the country grows wealthier, the Chinese look west and decide what they want based upon what we have… but they want it on their own terms. And that’s fine. It’s their country. They want flashy malls and bars and cafes and theme parks and high-speed rail, but they want the right to spit and piss and poop in public because that’s their culture. I just wish they just leave pizza alone.