China's "culinary revolution" causes a stir

Tue Dec 9, 2008 10:32am EST
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By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - Liu Guixian became an unlikely revolutionary in Communist China three decades ago -- and all she did was open a restaurant.

At 76 and in declining health, Liu is still a celebrity for her bold step in setting up China's first private restaurant following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and its brutal attacks on those labeled "capitalist roaders."

She was at the forefront of an economic liberalization which brought China out of self-imposed isolation and catapulted it back on to the world stage, in the process lifting millions out of poverty.

The contribution of Liu and her husband, Guo Peiji, may not seem like much in today's booming Beijing, with its bustling and eclectic food scene. But in 1980, it was positively shocking.

"I didn't really have a plan at first. Our family was in straitened circumstances, and it was hard to get enough to eat, even with government subsidies. So I thought I could start a small restaurant to earn a little cash," Liu told Reuters.

"But nobody knew who I was supposed to apply to for permission. It was hard. There were no policies for starting your own business. Nobody even knew what 'reform and opening up' meant," Liu said, referring to the expression coined by the leadership in Beijing for the economic reforms.

After repeatedly badgering officials, Liu and Guo were finally given the go-ahead to start their restaurant. They named it Yuebin, meaning "Happy Guest."

With just 12 seats and what today would be considered a very sparse menu, Yuebin became a sensation in a country where at the time eating out was an almost unknown concept, and food hard to get hold of anyway.   Continued...

<p>A waitress serves customers at Yuebin Restaurant located in the Cuihua Hutong (Lane) of Beijing in this November 17, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Jason Lee/Files</p>