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December 29, 2011

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A little taste of North Korea

SHANGHAI'S seven Pyongyang North Korean restaurants serve authentic kimchi, barbecue and seafood hotpot, as well as song and dance. Pretty North Korean waitresses stick strictly to the menu. Yao Minji reports.

A trip to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is out of the question for almost everyone in Shanghai, but a taste of authentic North Korean cuisine and song and dance performance is not far away.

In the city there are seven Pyongyang restaurants, which are famous for Korean specialty dishes such as kimchi, barbecue and seafood hotpot as well as vivid song and dance performances by young North Korean waitresses. These restaurants are one of the very few places where one can see North Korean citizens. The average price for four person including barbecue, North Korean beer and seafood hotpot is around 800 yuan (US$ 127).

North and South Korean cooking is pretty much the same, but North Koreans emphasize that the seafood from the North Korea East Sea (generally known as the Sea of Japan - but that's disputed) is distinctive.

It has been reported by many international media outlets that the Pyongyang chain of restaurants is a major North Korean overseas business that earns precious foreign currency.

The restaurants first opened in Chinese cities near the northern border such as Yanji in Jilin Province, Dandong and Dalian in Liaoning Province and Qingdao in Shandong Province, and they soon expanded to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian nations.

Named after the North Korean capital city, these Pyongyang restaurants are similar in terms of pleasing decor, menus with authentic Korean dishes and beautiful young staff who are well-trained and focus only on the food. They don't engage in much chatter with customers.

The same is true in Shanghai. There are three in the expat-heavy Hongqiao area in Changning District, one in central Xuhui District, two in the Pudong New Area and one newly opened in Jing'an District.

The clientele is predominantly South Korean and Japanese.

The troupe of pretty North Korean waitresses wear traditional Choson-ot dress and paste-on smiles as they welcome guests and perform. The shows remind one of the once-popular mass games in China, which are still popular in North Korea, taken to a high level of synchronization.

The young women each play a few musical instruments, traditional and modern, including guitar, keyboard, drums and accordion.

Their Chinese language skills are limited, or at least seem to be. They can recommend the pricier seafood dishes on the menu but don't seem to understand questions not related to the menu or restaurant. They often answer with a beautiful smile, "Sorry, I don't know."

The stage is decorated with a long landscape painting of Baekdu Mountain (known in China as Changbai Mountain), on the border of the two nations. In North Korea it is known as the sacred mountain where Kim Il Sung organized resistance against Japanese invaders and where his son, the late Kim Jong Il, was said to have been born.

After the death of Kim Jong Il was announced on December 19, two of the seven venues were briefly closed for a few hours. All restaurants are operating as normal, except performances have been canceled due to mourning.

When Shanghai Daily calls, a North Korean waitress at Pyongyang Qing Qiu Guan (literally Green Willow Place) in Hongqiao area says they are not sure when performances will resume and keeps saying "I don't know" when asked whether it is due to the death announcement.

A Chinese employee at Pyongyang Restaurant in the Pudong New Area said, "We will have performances again in January, currently we don't have it since all our staff members are North Koreans and something happened in North Korea." The other venues all say they may resume shows in January.

"I can't really tell the difference in the South and North Korean food, but the performance is absolutely fantastic. After all, where else can you see so many authentic North Korean women? They are North Koreans, not Korean Chinese," Leslie Liu, a 29-year-old market strategist with a joint venture, tells Shanghai Daily about her favorite Pyongyang Qing Qiu Guan.

"Everyone says that you can get some idea of China in the 1960s by visiting North Korea. I have never visited, but I can still get some feeling from the performances, the alert faces, the old revolutionary songs' music videos and old films played in this restaurant, which is quite a rare experience," she adds.

The waitresses are very patient and well-trained to explain anything about the food, with their limited Chinese vocabulary. They often repeat, "It is North Korean (Chaoxian) food, not South Korean (Hanguo), it is different."

Their most recommended dish includes the seafood hotpot, which contains one crab from the North Korea East Sea.

Liu once asked the waitress who they were, and got the answer, "We are all students from Pyongyang University." She also asked "Do you want to stay in Shanghai?"

The smile froze and the voice got dry, "No, no, Pyongyang is better," the waitress said.

Liu says that she will never forget the intensity in her eyes.

It has been reported before that two such restaurants were forced to close in Yanji and Qingdao, due to the attempted escape of waitresses, which led to repatriation of all of the staff members. It is said that such venues are run by local businessman who pay annual fee of US$10,000-30,000 to the North Korean government, who provide the staff.

Pyongyang Miao Xiang Guan (literally Awesome Fragrance Place)

Address: 2/F, 1665 Hongqiao Rd

Tel: 6295-1355

Pyongyang Yu Liu Jiujia (literally Jade Flood Restaurant)

Address: 3/F, 439 Caoxi Rd N.

Tel: 6481-1569

Pyongyang Qing Liu Guan (literally Green Willow Place)

Address: 6/F, 100 Zunyi Rd

Tel: 6237-1076


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