“My goal is simple,” says a young woman. “To find a good job, then marry a good husband when the time comes. Because money solves everything.” She smiles broadly, her bright blue uniform suggesting that she’s already achieved her first step. A waiter at the West Lake Restaurant in Changsha, China, her shifts are busy, if not precisely “simple.” She works alongside some 1,000 employees, in dining rooms that accommodate as many as 5,000 clients.
The titular Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World (at least according to Guinness) does look really, really big. Screening on 26 January as part of the Stranger Than Fiction series at New York’s IFC Center (including a Q&A session with the film’s editor, Jean Tsien), the film shows the establishment again and again in striking wide shots that highlight size — hundreds of tables, crowds of waiters, plates and bowls and vats of steaming food, as well as a frankly huge stage in the Entertainment Hall, where performers sing, dance, and make heartfelt speeches. Wait staff members line up to recite their creed: “Solidarity equals strength, strength is iron, strength is steel.” Managers gather around tables to plan menus, arrange birthday parties and longevity banquets, and anticipate last minute adjustments — say, when a wedding party that called for 360 seats expands to over 500.
The numbers are impressive: Weijun Chen’s documentary makes this work clear as well, with intertitles that indicate the many possible occasions for big restaurant uses — did you know that there are “10 million weddings and 1.9 million divorces in China every year”? Seemingly background information, such statistics also frame the film’s consideration of the many complications of Chinese culture, in particular its remarkable mix of old and new. Embodying this mix in multiple ways, the West Lake’s proprietor, Qin Linzi, is introduced as she’s counting money. She reveals that her “total assets” are worth about £2 million (nearly $3.5 million), then laughs when her interviewer asks if she ever dreamed of being rich: “Never.”
Qin suggests that she owes her success to her abusive first husband: when she left him, she says, she had to find a way to support her parents and her daughter, Liu Siwei. Her current husband, once her chauffeur, jokes about their unusual dynamic. President Qin, as his wife is called by her workers, smiles appreciatively as he prepares dinner for her at home (“He cooks quite well”) or drives her to work. “As they began their romance, he says, “We were thinking the same thing: she said that as the boss, if we didn’t get married, people might gossip.” Qin explains, “Throughout history Chinese, women have been subservient. Because I am seen as a powerful woman, people think he must be under my thumb.” The camera looks up as they dance during a wedding celebration at the restaurant, their smiles wide. “Now that we are married,” she adds, “I believe that we will grow old together.”
They will grow old, too, looking after her business. She started it by borrowing small amounts (£700) from individual friends: she opened her first, modest version of West Lake in 2000, paid back her lenders after the first year, and continued to expand. While some of her workers have been in place for years, others — primarily waiters, runners, and busboys — turn over frequently, citing poor pay and long hours as their reasons. “They haven’t had a good meal since they started here,” reports one manager. Well, observes another, “If they want to eat like they do at home, we can’t provide that.”
Ironically, perhaps, Qin asserts that West Lake develops “relationships” with customers, adapting local recipes to mass production. Liu Siwei adds, “Doing business is about guan xi [networking]. The more people you know, the easier it is to get things done.” The restaurant stands as testament to such faith in cultivating social context, at once a location to affirm associations — mutually beneficial friendships, business deals, familial bonds — and also a massive metaphor for the shift from local business to global dealing that characterizes China’s current economy, as it alternates between precarious and burgeoning.
When Qin takes the film crew on a tour of the wild duck farm she uses (“When you come to eat in the countryside, it makes you appreciate food in a different way”), the film shows both the result of new farming methods (huge numbers of ducks) and the traditional means of dispatching them. “Ducks are difficult to kill,” says the farmer, as he demonstrates: “If you pull the heart out, it will die quicker.” The bird flops and twitches, its heart pulled out, not dying nearly quickly enough.
The film keenly illustrates that such traditional preparations support the restaurant’s booming, completely contemporary commerce. Hundreds of plates of roast duck are carried from the kitchen to feed paying customers. Qin insists that her own goals are benevolent, that she cares for her employees’ well-being. “I tell my staff that everyone has potential,” she says. “If you spend all day in the kitchen, you become a robot.” And so she encourages activities that take them outside the kitchen, as when the cooks are corralled to perform for the restaurant’s own anniversary celebration. They look awkward as they rehearse (“Although they are not dancers, they put their hearts into it”). Like everyone else working at West Lake, they look caught between the past and present, between goals and needs. None of their options seems simple.