City Life: Peking - Peking Duck gave birth to a fortune

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time when it was difficult to find anywhere to dine in Peking. This seems far-fetched now, given that the city has hundreds of restaurants. But all gastronomic revolutions have a beginning, and Peking's epicurean turning point happened down a nondescript alley on 30 September, 1980.

That was when Liu Guixian threw Maoist dogma to the wind and opened the "Happy Guest", the city's first private restaurant since the Communist victory of 1949.

On the first night the Liu family bought four ducks and prepared four simple tables of duck dishes. It was hardly gourmet dining, but it was a sell-out. At that time, it was difficult enough just getting hold of the ingredients, as food staples could only be obtained with ration coupons. A constant worry was also whether this capitalist venture would suddenly find itself out in the political cold. So, with China just celebrating 20 years of economic reform, whatever happened to Ms Liu?

The original "Happy Guest" is alive and thriving. The traditional Peking alley of single-storey, grey-bricked buildings has barely changed and outside the restaurant's entrance hang large red, paper decorations. Inside in the one long dining room are 12 square formica tables. Prices are extremely modest by Western standards. The bill for a group of 18 lawyers who recently held their end-of-year lunch at the restaurant was pounds 65, including beer and spirits.

"Though I received little education, I think I am different from other women. If I do something, I try to make it a success," said Ms Liu, now 66. As a young peasant from nearby Hebei province she came to Peking soon after 1949 and worked as a cook in the homes of officials. In the years before opening herrestaurant she cooked for aparty elder. "Don't say who!" she laughed. But the salary was low, and in 1980 she asked to be allowed to resign. "I had five children to support."

Starting a private venture was not easy. "At the beginning, I went to the district government commercial bureau and asked if I could open my restaurant. They didn't have the documents, so I went to the government and sat in another office all day," she said. Then she seemed to get the go-ahead.

"It was dangerous at first but once it was open, the government showed some support." Her restaurant did well, and eight years ago she opened a bigger one nearby and now employs over 20 staff. It is perhaps only in a society that has changed as much as China in 20 years that an illiterate peasant woman, with less than three years schooling, can have achieved so much. "When I give a speech, I have a good memory. I'm nicknamed `the tape-recorder'," she said.

But it is also astonishing that a couple of very basic food joints can have generated so much money.

"Every month I give mychildren's families over 1,000 yuan (pounds 74). Every year I divide the profit among them. It's not equal, but they don't ask each other how much they got. I tell each one, you have got the most, do not tell the others."

Teresa Poole