The odd reality behind Shanghai's Pyongyang restaurants
For most North Koreans, foreign travel isn’t just avoided, it is prohibited -- mainly out of the fear that any contact with the outside world would provide the possibility of unraveling a lifetime of systematic inculcation.
But how are the staff at Shanghai’s Pyongyang restaurants -- a chain of restaurants found across Asia that employs North Koreans abroad -- kept in check?
The odd experience served up to Chinese and foreign customers may give some clues.
Pyongyang restaurants are part of a chain run by the North Korean government. They serve mostly familiar Korean dishes (excluding North Korean cold noodles, or naengmyeon) accompanied by warbling songs and dance performances.
Sure, similar or better quality dining can be found at any typical South Korean restaurant -- an outing to a Pyongyang restaurant isn’t so much of a gastronomical exercise. Instead, it's more about controlling intractable observation.
Though photography is allowed, a look-but-don’t-touch attitude is tacitly and mutually understood.
Other branches unknown to waitresses
Graceful, decorous and wearing an expression far from a frown, this is how waitresses present themselves at Pyongyang restaurants.
Located in Xuhui, Changning and Pudong, Shanghai’s three Pyongyang restaurants have been open for eight years, seven years and six months respectively.
One would think some interaction between the sister establishments is certainly feasible. However, several phone and in-person interviews with waitresses conclude that staff are unaware of the existence of other operations.
The Changning branch even confidently claims it is the only Pyongyang restaurant in Shanghai.
Sapping out information from a North Korean is a delicate task.
During my visit to the Xuhui branch near Xujiahui, I asked for the laoban, or owner, and was directed to a woman standing behind a counter next to a glass jar of ginseng.
When asked about the existence of other Pyongyang restaurants, she gave a terse response: “There is one is Pudong, but that is all I know of.”
Amateurs, not Arirang
As most patrons finish up main courses at around 7:30 p.m. every night, the waitresses put on a tag team performance of intermittent paeans to the “Great Leader.”
Beside them is a glowing karaoke TV blasting out the Chinese pop renditions of the tunes so the audience can follow along.
While some of the waitresses are talented musicians and singers, the performances are much like the food: reasonably attractive, but ultimately without notable taste.
According to phone interviews, the performers at all three restaurants are just … waitresses.
They are amateurs, whose only requisite is a conversational ability in Mandarin -- not at all comparable to those putting together the infamous Arirang Festival Mass Games.
It seems the North Korean government selects top-tier women of no particularly remarkable talent to go abroad. Their social circles are ostensibly kept to the confines of the restaurant -- a cocktail of characteristics most likely aimed at discouraging defection.
All of the staff working in the front of Pyongyang restaurants are invariably from the North Korean capital, the only city in the country with any amount of available electricity at night.
According to U.S. journalist Barbara Demick's book "Nothing to Envy," most families living in the capital are well-entrenched in the North Korean caste system. The system is based on ranks doled out during the creation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea based upon their family’s historical background and loyalty to the Workers’ Party.
Since all of the overseas waitresses come from privileged backgrounds, any departure from the accepted norm is unlikely -- or so it would seem.
More disconcerting is the demographics of the workers. There's a noticeable lack of males in the front of the restaurants.
Because North Koreans are devoutly Confucian (a philosophy that expounds the value of a male heir), there must be a man somewhere in the business structure. Being left out of sight infers there is likely one managing from behind the scene, or from the kitchen.
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There are many Pyongyang restaurants in China, mainly on the Chinese-North Korean border. Besides China, Pyongyang restaurants are reported to have branches in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nepal and United Arab Emirates.
Pyongyang restaurant Xuhui branch (平壤玉流酒家)
3/F, Jianguo Hotel, 439 Caoxi Bei Lu, near Nandan Lu
+86 21 6439 9299
11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
Pyongyang restaurant Pudong branch (平壤高丽餐厅)
1/F, Tongmao Hotel, 357 Songlin Lu, near Pudian Lu
+86 21 5830 0000
11 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Pyongyang restaurant Changning branch (平壤青柳馆)
Booth 6-2, 6/F, 100 Zunyi Lu, near Ziyun Xi Lu
+86 21 6237 1076
10 a.m.-10 p.m.