Guan Guan Ji (贯贯吉穆斯林餐厅) is a chain of three highly successful Chinese Muslim restaurants, with two branches in Ningbo (宁波), and one right here in Shanghai on the bustling Zhejiang Central Road (浙江中路) and the corner of Guangdong Road (广东路). This restaurant was first introduced to us (Lilly and Wesley) by a local Shanghainese classmate as one of Shanghai’s best Xinjiang (新疆) restaurants, where its ethnic style and mouth-watering, openly displayed array of foods were described to us as authentic. Interestingly enough, after a third visit, we learned that it is in fact not a Xinjiang restaurant, but instead encompasses cuisines from all of China’s Xibei (西北) or Northwest, with the majority of workers, including this branch’s owner, being from Gansu province (甘肃省) and of the Hui ethnic minority (回族).
See the map below for further understanding of Chinese geographical context and the relative sizes of Xinjiang and Gansu provinces.
However, this discrepancy stated above is irrelevant for a local Chinese customer simply coming for a bite to eat at an ethnic restaurant. When pulling into Zhejiang Central road, the sizzling and delicious smell from the lamb kebab cart (a notable food choice within Northwestern Chinese cuisine) in the center can be sniffed out from all the way around the corner. Faces and people of all colors and nations can be seen bustling in and out of the restaurant and around the street at late hours of the night.
The types of food sold on the street are diverse and different from traditional Chinese street food stands. Here, placed directly outside the restaurant’s main door, there are vendors selling beef and lamb skewers, Xibei style baozi, halal noodles, fruits, nuts, beans, and many different types of breads（牛肉和羊肉串儿，包子，清真菜，水果，坚果，豆子，各种各样的面包).
But, this is all before even entering the main source of food on this section of the street: Guan Guan Ji Muslim Restaurant. It is clear from a first glance that all of the workers, inside and outside, are Muslim; the men grilling the skewers and working the kitchen all wear the caps photographed above, and the women all wear the same pink headscarf (头巾) pictured below.
Additionally, the architecture and art inside of the restaurant is clearly different from a traditional Chinese, or Han restaurant that one would see selling Sichuan cuisine or Xi’an noodles. There is Xinjiang calligraphy hanging on the walls, and large photographs of famous mosques in northwestern China. The restaurant also enforces a strict NO SMOKING and NO DRINKING policy, visible on signs outside of the door and in each room of the restaurant (禁止吸烟，禁止喝酒), which coincides with the employees’ Muslim culture, as both tobacco and alcohol are considered impure and dangerous to the sacred human body. In the event that someone brings a drink or smokes inside of the restaurant, they will first be gently reminded that this is unacceptable behavior. If the customer refuses to comply, he or she will be forced to leave the premises.
Placed below is an interview during our second visit to Guan Guan Ji. Interestingly, in the video, the woman interviewed says she is from Xinjiang, when really we later learned that she is from Gansu. Her response when we asked her again later was that she was afraid we didn’t know where Gansu was.
This lead us to explore the following question: How does Xinjiang/Xibei culture and being of an ethnic minority impact the restaurant business in Shanghai? Is being from Xinjiang more prestigious than from Gansu in regards to food and authenticity?
To get further explore this question, we went back for another interview and caught up with employee 苏美玲 (Su Meiling), right after she got off of her shift at 10:00 PM on December 1st, 2015.
With Su Meiling, we discussed what it is like to be of an Ethnic minority in Shanghai, and how that directly impacts the food business in the context of Guan Guan Ji. She comes from Lanzhou (兰州), in Gansu province, but grew up in Xinjiang. She discussed how part of the appeal of the restaurant is its ethnic vibrancy, and how the inside of China itself is actually much more diverse than one would think. However, although many people think of the restaurant as mainly Xinjiang style, she explained to us how the restaurant is actually “Xibei” (西北), and includes cuisines from multiple Chinese northwestern provinces. However, to please the customers, who are notably mostly locals or of Han descent, there have been modifications made to the food and drinks to please the tastebuds of those in Shanghai.
For instance, Su Meiling talked about how Xibei food is typically a lot spicier than they make it at the restaurant. This is especially noticeable in their dish, which is one of the most popular at the restaurant, called 大盘鸡, or “big chicken plate”. She explained how many customers will come into the restaurant and directly ask for this Xinjiang style chicken, using the word Xinjiang in their order, and the waiters and waitresses know precisely what they mean. She and the other coworkers will not correct the customer; they will instead nod and promptly bring over the dish, despite the fact that their version is not made in the Xinjiang style nor is publicly advertised as such. It is instead in the Gansu style, where the majority of the employees are originally from. The differences between the two dishes comes from their preparation, the level of spiciness, and the ingredients in the sauce in which it is marinated.
I asked Su Meiling, “but what if someone directly asks you if the food is from Xinjiang?” She responded “then we will tell them that it is not, but we have never been asked that question”. She then moved on to explain that there is no need to interfere with the Guan Guan Ji’s customer feeling that he or she is having ethnically diverse food experience; something as minor as where the exact origin of the food comes from precisely is not a main priority for anyone at the restaurant.
This lead us into a conversation about Muslim culture and ethnic minorities in Shanghai, and we inquired how the restaurant may utilize this to its benefit in creating an ethnically diverse experience. It widely known that China has exposed ethnic minorities to make the country appear more diverse than its 90% Han population; during the 2008 Bejing Olympics opening ceremony all 56 minorities were represented in their traditional clothing, only to be discovered as Han children dressed in inaccurate and non-authentic outfits for the sole purpose of demonstrating China’s unity and diversity.
Su Meiling adamantly answered that Guan Guan Ji does not need to over-exaggerate Muslim culture or their Hui descent in order to provide that ethnic experience; the restaurant’s authentic nature demonstrates this diversity enough on its own. In Gansu, the Muslim restaurants actually look very similar to Guan Guan Ji, and she would wear a similar, if not the same headscarf while working at a restaurant in her hometown of Lanzhou. However, while she admits that the headscarf and hats of the employees may be an attractive factor of the restaurant and is proud of her culture, she also expresses that it is difficult for her to get a taxi on the street wearing this. Inside the restaurant is a safe-zone, but once she separates from Zhejiang Central Road, she must be extra cautious to avoid discrimination, and will remove her scarf when she feels necessary.
Although many will consider Guan Guan Ji as a Xinjiang restaurant, Su Meiling explains how at a closer look, from the food to the atmosphere, it differs from traditional Xinjiang restaurants in Shanghai. These other locations are large complexes with extravagant decorations, stages and much more expensive dishes, with nightly shows, lights, and ethnic dances. These restaurants will utilize Xinjiang culture for the pure benefit of drawing in customers, and do not look like actual restaurants in Xinjiang. Guan Guan Ji tries to maintain a more authentic vibe, in the sense that the restaurant itself, and the attire worn by the staff do both look a lot like a typical Muslim restaurant in Gansu. Therefore, Guan Guan Ji’s attraction to the customers comes from its authentically authentic nature, Su Meiling explained how Xinjiang style restaurants, the culture is hyped up for the pure purpose of profit and attraction.
Su Meiling’s remarks prompted us to embark upon what would become Phase II of our mission: sniff out these so called “authentic” Xinjiang restaurants in Shanghai and determine if Su Meiling comments were valid. Are the staff members, like Guan Guan Ji, also from Gansu? Are the traditions and practices of the Xinjiang uighur (维吾尔族) exploited for profit?
These questions brought us to the location pictured below.
And it did not take us long to find answers to these questions. Near the intersection of Taolin Road (桃林路) and YuShan Road (羽山路）a brand new Xinjiang restaurant opened in May of 2015. In fact, most returning NYU Shanghai sophomores witnessed its construction on their walk back from the Academic Building to Motel 268 only a few months ago.
The outside decor is baroque and outlandish, humbled only by what the 客人 (customer) discovers once he or she enters: a grand display of tall ceilings, portraits, patterns and chandeliers inspired from an obvious source– you guessed it: Xinjiang.
At this point in our adventure–one that Su Meiling might call a more “commercial” experience– we are a bit confused. There was a significant degree of similarity between the two restaurants: lamb kabobs were being cooked over the barbecue outside of the restaurant, small desserts (usually consisting of some mixture of golden raisins/yogurt) were placed in a glass display case by the check out counter. But these are also characteristics of Xibei restaurants. Was this really Xinjiang style? Who were we to determine authenticity?
It took Wesley all of two-minutes to get to the bottom of things. After talking with one of the dancers working at the restaurant– a woman dressed in a glamorous traditional Xinjiang gown– we discovered that only two people on staff were actually from Xinjiang: the dancer herself and the head chef working in the kitchen. The rest of the staff descended from all over China, and were notably not Muslim.
Additionally, the entire restaurant was playing Xinjiang themed music, and the focal point of Yi Pa Er Han is its center stage. Even on a Tuesday night, loud music blasts from speakers in each corner, and there are hourly dance performances by the only woman from Xinjiang, where customers are encouraged to hop up from their tables and dance with her, all for the sake of having an “authentic” eating experience.
The staff were extremely friendly and greeted us with kindness throughout the entirety of our experience– but, we were not searching for overall pleasantness, we were searching for authenticity. But, what was actually authentic about this restaurant? Whereas the entire staff of Guan Guan Ji was all from a single location, Yi Pa Er Han hired staff from all over, with the only requirement being that the dancers and head chef are from Xinjiang. The hostess, when asked about the nature of the food, said that she personally assumed that the food was all authentic, but does not know for sure. In Guan Guan Ji, Su Meiling, who was also a hostess and waitress, knew all about the food they served and the way it was manipulated to fit the tastebuds of Shanghainese customers. It seems that, although the Xinjiang restaurant went out of their way to heighten the ethnic experience with campy decorations and exotic performances, we concluded that Guan Guan Ji’s ambiance that emulates an actual Xibei Muslim restaurant without overcompensation, and a staff that knows the culture and food back and front, is more authentic than Yi Pa Er Han.
As we bid the staff farewell, Wesley made two astute observations: 1)Behind the check out counter, various types of beer and alcohol were placed high on display for the customers to buy and 2) despite the restaurants multiple signs that say no smoking, right next to the hostess, a customer lit up a cigarette and continued to smoke it inside. Our previous experience taught us that both of these practices (smoking and consuming alcohol) were absolute cannot-dos in the lives of Xinjiang and Xibei muslim men and women. The moment the hostess did not react to this man’s smoking , our question of Yi Pa Er Han’s authenticity was thrown to the flames: we were dealing with the precise type of commercialism Su Meiling described.