With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Saturday, October 08, 2011


The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World (2008). (Amber Entertainment)

The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World
Directed by CHEN Weijun
China/UK/Netherlands/Denmark, 2008, 80 minutes
When: Saturday, October 8th, 2011, at 3:00 PM
Where: Asia Society
725 Park Avenue
New  York, NY 10021

Asia Society NY's  documentary film series Visions of a New China continues this afternoon at 3:00 with another terrific offering, The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World, the massive West Lake Restaurant.

Synopsis: Situated in Changsha, Hunan is the world’s biggest Chinese restaurant, which seats up to 5,000 diners and employs 1,000 staff. A sprawling complex containing pavilions in the style of traditional Chinese architecture, the restaurant is owned by Qin Linzi, a middle-aged female self-starter who used to earn 30 RMB a month. Documenting the restaurant’s day-to-day operation, the film shows routine slogan-chanting sessions intended to boost morale among the staff. A perceptive portrait of Chinese society, this engaging documentary provides a window into traditional Chinese customs that often revolve around banquets.

ACF Review:  There are many fascinating aspects to the story of West Lake Restaurant, not the least of which is that of its founder, owner and guiding force, Ms. Qin Linzi. When we first meet her, she talks about being a member of the Communist Party, explaining that someone in her position has to be. Obviously, to stay on the good side of those in power, it helps to be one of them. And the corollary of course is true as well: it always helps to be well-connected with those having power and influence. Sound familiar? Well, one of the points the film makes, at least to me, is that entrepreneurial capitalism in China isn't all that different from what it is in the United States. It's pretty much the same except that there's only one political party to deal with in China rather than the basic two in the U.S.

Mrs. Qin is a middle-aged woman with one daughter, apparently in her twenties, from her first marriage. She borrowed money from about thirty friends and family members and opened her first restaurant in 2000 in the city of Liuyang. By the end of its first year in business, she had paid back all the loans, and things just took off from there. Construction of the vast new facility in Changsha took over a year and the restaurant complex, which has five kitchens, opened in October 2004. Mrs. Qin's second husband is her former chauffeur, to whom she basically proposed. She says that she told him that since they spent so much time together, people would talk, so they might as well get married. Some years younger than her, he must be one of the most fortunate former drivers in China, if not the world.

The film does not stint on covering the day-to-day operations of West Lake, its staff, nor its food. The camera takes us to pep talks to keep up employee morale as well as meetings of managers where issues such as employee turnover are discussed and addressed. We also gain insight into the lives of some of the employees. I found the story of one young woman to be particularly touching. With her father unable to truly work, she has come to West Lake to support her family, and has thus given up her chance to go to college so that her older sister and only sibling can.

Final mention must be made about the food. One almost gets a sense of the aroma of the dishes as they are prepared and then set forth for the customers. Though truth be told, I found some items to be less than to me liking. Segments of snake that are still writhing on the serving plate is one example. Another is a dish prepared in a chef's competition for the third anniversary of the opening of the complex. Fried Live Fish is prepared by the chef holding the fishes head and dipping the tail and body into frying oil. The fish is sliced along its side and then served. For the competition, if the fish's mouth is not still moving, the dish is disqualified! I'm not sure I could handle the sight of such a preparation, let alone eat it. But maybe that's just me.

The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World is terrific on several levels: as an example of entrepreneurial capitalism in present day Communist China, a sociological study of a large and varied workforce, and as a gastronomical insight.

ACF Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars; very highly recommended. 

For information about the Visions of a New China documentary films series, including descriptions of each film, the full schedule, and ordering tickets, click here.

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