This Beijing Restaurant Delivers Noodles Via Fighter Jet
In the endless sea of China's gimmicky restaurants, the latest stands out for its militaristic patriotism: Diaoyu Islands Malatang Noodle Shop is themed around a chain of islands fiercely claimed by both China and Japan.
Photos by the author.
From its backstreet Peking duck joints to its grand dim sum halls, Beijing is home to some of the most impressive eateries in the world. But the city has always been missing one thing: a restaurant themed around a group of islands in the East China Sea, over which China has been squabbling with Japan about ownership.
That oversight has been addressed with the recent opening of Diaoyu Islands Malatang Noodle Shop in the capital's Chaoyang district. Zhang Yan Chun Zi and her husband Lu He are capitalising on the anger surrounding the islands (which Japan calls Senkaku Islands), with China and Japan mud-slinging about each others' claims to the land and an increasing danger of military conflict there.
Spindly model Chinese fighter planes hang from strings above noodle-slurping customers at the restaurant, which boasts a replica machine gun in the corner, images of the islands on the wall, and a sign declaring that "The Diaoyu Islands are China's inherent territory." It might sound like an unfriendly environment, but despite Zhang donning a military jacket and Lu a bulletproof-style camouflage getup, the couple are the picture of warmth and friendliness.
Zhang, a former Chamber of Commerce worker, explains: "We were inspired by a sense of national pride and responsibility to guard our inherent territory. As a Chinese girl, I want to protect the islands in my own way."
It's hard to see how the noodle store is directly contributing to China's protective measures around the islands, but it's certainly an effective show of patriotism. "I work in the import and export industry and help state-owned companies avoid foreign exchange risks. I love my country," says Lu. "We want to use this restaurant to make our position clear to the world and demonstrate the attitude of the Chinese youth."
This patriotic demonstration cranks up a notch when Lu attaches a bowl of hot pot ingredients to a rope and presses a button. The bowl trundles overhead, dangling from a conveyor system and revealing a picture of a fighter plane glued to the bottom of it before landing on a metal table and cooking area.
It's not immediately obvious, but the table is supposed to be a replica of the Liaoning: the Ukraine-built aircraft carrier that is now the centerpiece of the People's Liberation Army's Navy. "All the details are designed strictly according to real things on the actual Liaoning," says Lu of the mildly grubby, 15-foot kitchen area. "If you throw it into the water, it will actually float."
It's not a claim we can realistically test, but Zhang is on hand to elaborate on the significance of the pair's own personal aircraft carrier. She says the venue has been built on the four principles of the city promoted by the Beijing government: patriotism, innovation, inclusiveness, and virtue.
"The first one, patriotism, is obvious," she says, gesturing towards a Chinese flag above the main cooking area and the replica machine gun. "And you can see the innovation in the design of the aircraft carrier table and the food transfer system," she adds, as another bowl with a picture of a plane on it touches down.
The "inclusiveness" aspect is a harder sell, given that the restaurant is fundamentally based on a conflict with Japan. "We would give a discount to Japanese customers who would acknowledge China's sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands," says Zhang. "So there: You have inclusiveness." The discount has yet to be claimed by anyone.
Both Zhang and Lu insist that their restaurant is not projecting anti-Japanese sentiment, and that Japanese people are welcome. "We had a Japanese journalist here who was sort of right-wing," says Lu, by way of example. "She was worried that she wouldn't be allowed in without saying, 'The islands belong to China' out loud. But she was warmly welcomed and tried dishes including the grenade [fried banana] and cannonball [fried sweet potato]."
Lu adds that he tries to quell potentially inflammatory behavior outside the restaurant, as there is a Japanese eatery a few doors away. "Sometimes Chinese employees from there yell, 'The islands belong to China!' in a half-joking manner when they pass by," he says. "When that happens we ask them to kindly come inside instead of saying it out loud."
Like most bizarre theme restaurants in Asia, Diaoyu Islands Malatang Noodle Shop doesn't place food quality as its top selling point, but the venue's hot pot and noodle dishes are decent and freshly made. Anyway, all food tastes a bit better when it comes served by a waiter in full navy uniform after it was flown over your head onto an aircraft carrier.
I had expected to leave the restaurant with a xenophobic bad taste in my mouth, along with that of the venue's impressive tomato noodle special. But Zhang and Lu were so friendly, I couldn't imagine them getting all PLA on anyone even if they started laying down Japanese flags as tablecloths and shooting down the toy planes with an air rifle.
"We hope the two countries can find a peaceful solution over the islands issue," says Lu. "Neither Chinese nor Japanese want to see a war. I told that to the Japanese journalist here and she said, 'Yes, we are friends and I will come back.'"
So there you have it: make noodles, not war.