Asia Society’s fall documentary series is entitled “Visions of a New China,” and Chen Weijun’s The Biggest Chinese Restaurant In The World, which plays there Saturday afternoon, more than delivers on that promise. It’s a minutely detailed portrait of Hunan’s West Lake Restaurant, and the mega-eatery comes off as a bit of a headache—a sprawling Disneyland of cheap porcelain and costumed, regimented greeters. Chen clearly loves the place’s staggering statistics: five massive kitchens, a thousand employees (including three hundred chefs), five thousand seats, 700 chickens a week, 200 snakes, and (literally) tons of pork and chilies.
These numbers—along with a hearty dose of Maoist boilerplate—are rattled off by the founder and owner, Qin Linzi, a brassy (female!) entrepeneur whose rags-to-riches story drives the documentary’s first half. Like many, Qin aims to close the loop between normative traditions—Lucky Money for newlyweds, classical dances daily—and the country’s burgeoning middle class. Traces of the Cultural Revolution are ubiquitous, but the restaurant aims to combine a central planning-worthy operation structure with an ongoing celebration of longer-term Chinese culture.
“In the 60s, 70s and 80s, there was no food. People just wanted to fill their stomachs. Now with a better quality of life, people can also eat for pleasure… Now everyone is like an emperor; they want something new everyday.” Beyond these remarks, Chen doesn’t delve much into Qin’s business strategy, or attempt a grand unified theory for her success. Rather, the restaurant is shown as an inevitable consequence of the Chinese economy, an elaborate joint venture that lives and dies on its army of workers. The narrative shifts from Qin and her family to a broader set of employee-driven sequences, including chop-off competitions for the chefs (replete with still-squirming snake chunks) and domestic scenes of a West Lake greeter on maternal leave.
Amidst all the conspicuous consumption, there’s a notable lack of whip-cracking onscreen. Without souring the story, Chen’s film culminates with a sneak-attack reminder that, while conditions have improved for Qin’s employees and their families, hardship is still unavoidable. Most workers (especially the young) speak dreamily about going to college and forging a better life for themselves and their parents, ambitions made doubly meaningful given the sometimes-ludicrous heights of West Lake’s ongoing PR offensive. Are these “the Chinese” politicians are always warning us about? Absolutely, and you can see quite a few on display here—chipper, self-effacing, cautiously optimistic, and cognizant both of their newfound economic stratum and the godawful straits that preceded it.