This Restaurant Celebrates a Brutal Era in Chinese History
Sichuan is full of restaurants themed around the Cultural Revolution, when millions of Chinese were exiled, tortured, and killed by the Communist regime.
All photos by Yang Yuanyuan
At the 18 Qingnian Road branch of Captain Themed Hot Pot Restaurant in Chongqing, an enormous city in China's southwestern Sichuan province, depictions of Mao Zedong's face are seemingly as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse's big-eared silhouette at Walt Disney World in Florida.
The late founder of the People's Republic of China is everywhere: wearing a red star-adorned cap on the side of white tin mugs full of Budweiser; arm aloft, painted in vivid full colour on the wall; as a young man, staring earnestly from the circular metal badges pinned to every member of staff's jacket.
The restaurant's guestbook is stuffed full of hand-written praise for the man considered by many to be a great, innovative revolutionary, and by many others to be a ruthless dictator responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people and, via his 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, the strangling of intellectualism and the arts.
One customer has written a quote attributed to Mao in the book: "This world belongs to you, and to us. But after all it belongs to you. You are like the rising sun in the morning, full of youthful spirit. You have all the hope and promise for tomorrow." Another has written of the former leader, who died in 1976, simply: "Long live Chairman Mao".
China might be undergoing broadband-quick modernisation, with more and more young Chinese traveling abroad to study and travel and soak up ideas not quite in line with communist ideals, but Mao's brand is still strong in the country. President Xi Jinping has made shoring up communist loyalty a priority since he came to power in 2012, and although China now officially recognises Mao's Cultural Revolution as an error, showing reverence towards him is still encouraged.
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Large-type red writing on the wall in the Captain restaurant reads: "Our communists are like seeds, and the people are like the land. Wherever we go, we have to adapt ourselves to the local soil, and root ourselves and nurture the blossoms among the people."
Certainly with slogans such as these, and with the staff clad in retro soldier uniforms, Captain is a good place to toast Mao's legacy whilst reliving Cultural Revolution times—albeit with more chance of being served a Bud by a Red Guard than be served a beating. However, although the current political climate makes it tempting to read a lot about nationalism levels from the popularity of such places, the driving force behind their success may be simpler: they're just fun places to be, and serve great food.
"The theme of the restaurant doesn't matter that much to us," one diner, enjoying a meal with her boyfriend, says. "The food is really good, that's why it's so famous. Also, although the décor reminds people of a certain period of time, it doesn't mean just the Cultural Revolution aspect; it was a long time period and a lot of things happened then."
"For pre-1980s-born people there is a sense of nostalgia here," another young customer says. "But for the younger generations it's just a fun thing. Although Chongqing is one of the most 'red' cities in China, and I think that this restaurant does respond to that theme well."
Indeed, while Cultural Revolution period-themed restaurants are found across China, Chongqing does seem to be a city with a nationalistic thread running through it that is stronger than most others in the country.
This is partly down to Bo Xilai, Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing from 2007 to 2012, who oversaw a drive to increase party loyalty and nationalism. It was expressed through mass "red" singing sessions in the city, TV shows that promoted "red ideas" being broadcast, and a thriving set of red-themed restaurants such as Captain.
Bo was toppled in September 2013 when he was jailed for life on corruption charges, part of the anti-graft drive that has seen many political rivals of President Xi removed from power. Chongqing is perhaps not quite so overtly red since his removal, but the red restaurants remain.
The food at the Captain restaurant is fantastic: quality, mega-spicy hot pot, which is Chongqing's specialty cuisine. But does the fact that the place is based around a time period that caused misery and death to so many people leave a bad taste in the mouth?
"I understand that there must be people who visit whose fathers and grandfathers suffered during the Revolution," says Xiong Jinhua, a manager at the restaurant —also clad in a green soldier uniform and with a Mao badge on her chest. "But the majority of our customers are from rural areas, and have better lives now. There is not much red culture left now, and we want to preserve it, to promote a culture in which people worked hard and kept carrying on—solidarity, persistence."
Xiao was born in the Sichuan countryside in 1992, long after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. She said she had mixed feelings about China's rampant modernisation and liked the nostalgic feel of her workplace.
"My generation is getting lazier and lazier—I want to work here, earn money and be independent," she said. "I consider myself a very filial person. I love my parents. To love your parents is the first step to loving one's country."
Chongqing's red restaurant revolution continues to quietly simmer.