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.
“So many people came. The lines stretched round the block,” said her husband Guo, looking at faded old pictures in which almost everyone was wearing a Mao suit.
“It was all so basic then. Look at the old stools we used to use. And behind that window we did all the cooking.”
With this year marking the 30th anniversary of those reforms, Liu is getting a little fed up with all the attention — barely a day goes by without at least one visit by reporters.
“There’s not a television channel I’ve not been on. I’ve been in the People’s Daily too,” she said, referring to the Communist Party’s mouthpiece.
But the couple never expanded beyond Yuebin, and another slightly larger restaurant just around the corner called Yuexian, or “Happy Immortal.”
“I’m happy with these two restaurants. They still earn a lot of money,” Liu said.
The menu has stuck to its simple roots too, with a focus on uncomplicated, family-style, northern Chinese cooking, featuring hearty portions of meat and vegetables with a liberal use of garlic.
Both Yuebin and Yuexian have kept their popularity, despite Beijing’s now highly competitive and varied dining scene. Many of the diners come as much for the history as the food.
“To dare to open a private restaurant in the very first stage of reform and opening up and start Beijing’s restaurant industry, I think she’s really brave,” said Tang Jie, 33, a Beijing property developer finishing up a meal at Yuebin.
Liu herself is modest about her contribution to China’s economic reforms.
“I do have a sense of making history, but it was never my intention,” she said. “I just wanted to do what was good for the country — and could earn me a bit of money.”
Additional reporting by Reuters Television; Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates