At a North Korean restaurant in Shanghai, fake flowers, fake smiles, mediocre food
There are more than 100 state-owned franchises of Pyongyang Goryeo around the world, offering a chance to experience the culture and food of one of the world’s most secretive countries. What are they like to visit?
Few of the South Korean expats I know in Shanghai are interested in trying one of the city’s 11 Pyongyang Goryeo restaurants. The consensus among them is that the food is bad, especially compared to the many South Korean options in the metropolis. Some even believe it is morally wrong to pay money that goes to support the North Korean regime.
But many locals and tourists visiting China see a trip to a Pyongyang restaurant as an opportunity to glimpse the culture, the food and the all-female North Korean staff from the most secretive country in the world, without actually having to visit the place.
North Korea started opening restaurants in China in the 1990s, mostly along the border between the two countries. Over the decades, however, it has franchised more than 100 state-owned restaurants in China, throughout Southeast Asia, and in Dubai.
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The establishments are run and staffed by North Koreans, and the country’s culture – or, rather, the culture the communist dictatorship wants to present to the world – is on display.
For the regime, the restaurants serve as propaganda, to humanise the country and give it a (pretty) face. Though what they present is indeed glittery and attractive, it becomes clear over the course of dinner that everything and everyone in the restaurant is highly curated, controlled and contrived.
At the entrance stand two women pristinely made up and wearing fluffy pink hanbok (traditional Korean dress), their black hair gelled into single French braids of the same length. They whisk me up to the second-floor restaurant. The place is almost empty, save for one Chinese family sitting at a banquet table, with kids and grandparents in tow.
Part of the awkwardness is that the restaurant is huge – maybe 400 square meters of unpeopled space. The ratio of North Koreans to everyone else is about five to one. (Located in a business district, the restaurant is more popular during lunchtime.)
The waitresses, all young women, wear identical sky-blue hanbok embroidered with colourful flowers. The traditional dresses, which normally feature full, structured skirts, are instead wrapped tightly around their bodies, resulting in a look more akin to the kimono. Made of what looks to be shiny polyester, the dresses glimmer under the bright lights. With so little to do, the women congregate near the cash register in small groups, chatting in a lively way. I don’t see any signs prohibiting photos, so I take a few, without any reprimand.
The restaurant manages to look both formal and cheap. Large rectangular crystal chandeliers loom over each table, but the grey booth seats feel like they could belong in the back of a taxi. Too-tall cloth napkins stand rolled up at each setting, before which are wide, high-backed chairs. It is all out of proportion.
The place teems with plastic foliage. Faded fake yellow flowers in partial and full bloom are mixed in with lush plastic greenery. To give the place a bit of sparkle, here and there green sequined ribbons have been wrapped around brown synthetic branches.
A waitress totters over on four-inch black platforms with our banchan – small side dishes – on a tray. They are cold cabbage, like sauerkraut, and dried tofu skins with spiced cucumbers, a few slices of yam, and radish kimchi. The dishes are not particularly cold, and they are not particularly fresh. However, they are not particularly offensive.
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When I talk to the waitress, in Korean, her answers are short and to the point. “Where are you from?” I ask. “Pyongyang,” is the terse reply. “And how did you learn Chinese?” “Back in Pyongyang,” she says. “Do you like it here in Shanghai?” “It is nice, yes.” The waitress stops our conversation short, gives me a short bow, and walks quickly away.
I order items on the menu that are named after the North Korean capital: “Pyongyang rice soup”, “Pyongyang cold noodles”. And for good measure, because you can’t really mess it up, an order of trusty bibimbap. The soup is basic, though a bit oily for my taste. Inside the bowl of beef broth is a dollop of rice, a potato pancake, shredded egg, strips of chicken, spinach, sprouts and kimchi. The broth, though lukewarm, is peppery and refreshing. The cold noodles, also lukewarm, are adequately chewy.
A different waitress brings over the bibimbap, and without asking, begins to mix the dish herself at the edge of the table. I see another waitress at the other table mixing a similar dish as the patrons chat among themselves. The bibimbap is greasy, which is disappointing, and feels inauthentic to my South Korean palate.
One feature of Korean food is its comparative lack of oil – so much is grilled, steamed, fermented and stewed that oil often plays a minimal role. But I remind myself that for a country like North Korea, which has been such a mystery for decades, nobody really knows what cuisine is considered authentic nowadays. Perhaps the abundance of oil is a sign of luxury, or another reminder of just how far North and South have deviated from one another.
Around halfway through my dinner, though I had been taking photos throughout the evening, one waitress comes to tell me I cannot take photos. She cranes her neck to see whether my camera is really off. She makes no move to confiscate it.
At around 7.30pm every night, the staff of the restaurant put on a song and dance show for about 20 minutes. Without much fanfare, four women dressed in black qipao-style dresses get on stage with their instruments. The band consists of a drummer, an electric bassist and two keyboardists. The show opens with a slow number, with two dancers holding bouquets of fake pink flowers. Their number involves stepping lightly in sync with one another, pausing, and jiggling the bouquets from time to time. The sound system uses so much reverb that I cannot tell whether they are singing in Chinese or Korean.
As the show progresses, the tempo and energy of the music picks up. The style becomes more and more similar to that of an ’80s synth-pop band, and I am captivated by the waitress-bassist who plucks her instrument with alarming speed and technical ability but whose smiling face remains fixed and unchanging. In fact, all the bandmates are smiling the same smile, swaying in time from right to left, right to left, as their pieces become more frenetic. There is one piece that features women in traditional Korean male costume, jumping rope with a cord adorned with large colourful synthetic flowers. The lights flash from blue to yellow to purple onstage, and the eight members of the restaurant audience clap politely after each number.
Towards the end of the show, the performers walk out singing into the audience, evenly spaced throughout the empty restaurant. Each is holding either a garland of nylon flowers or tiny artificial bouquets. As the song ends, they come to us, handing out the props. I take a quick selfie, garlanded in plastic. At the sight of the flash, a waitress glides up, reprimanding me for taking a photo.
Five minutes later, they spread out again, their hands open to us, expectant. We give the props back to the performers. The gift of fake flowers and our participation was only for show, like everything else that evening.
Pyongyang Goryeo Restaurant, 2/F, 88 Changliu Road, Pudong, Shanghai, tel: +86 021 5049 2060