Relive the Cultural Revolution (aka The Weirdest Dinner Theater in Beijing)

Update: read the story below, but don’t miss the video of the performance!

“Two foreigners in the RED restaurant?” Reverb howled, “I think this will be more fun than the restaurant itself!”

Red Restaurant, in the east of Beijing, is an opportunity to relive the passion and pain of China from the late 50s through the late 70s. It’s the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, all rolled into one grand meal. The chance to experience the beating of teachers and parents, the melting of pots and pans, the years of starvation, decade of torture, and the tearing down of anything old. And get dessert, too.

Who would go to a place like this? Reverb and E.T. did. They’re a married couple in their 30s, friends of ours from Shandong Province who now work in Beijing.

“Some people remember those years fondly,” said Reverb. “Our mothers had a very nice time during the cultural revolution. They traveled all over the country because the trains were free to ride. They walked to Beijing to see Chairman Mao. It took a month to get there. All the people would walk arm in arm down the street, singing revolutionary songs, and E.T.’s mom even saw Chairman Mao. They are happy when they remember these times.”

And remembering was going on. The waitresses all wore braids and bangs, the mandatory haircut of the day, and were dressed as red guards, the student army force run by Mao’s psychotic wife. The walls were smashed, representing perhaps the years of war, or — more likely — the destruction of the four olds (the red guard were urged to smash anything old.) Revolutionary posters, some depicting big-nosed Americans being jammed with a bayonet, plastered the walls. And red flags, made of chopsticks taped together and a ripped shred of red cloth, were distributed to every table.

“东方红,太阳升. 中国出了个毛泽东,” the crowd sang, flags waving and tears in their eyes. “The east is red, the sun is rising. China has brought forth a Mao Zedong.” Several tables were taken up with a massive wedding party, and another with a birthday party. Old ladies were standing and waving their flags, tears in their eyes.

“The first time I came here,” Reverb said, “I was frightened. Sometimes when everyone was singing, I felt like maybe these times were coming back. Maybe this could happen again. But then some songs made me so happy, too.”

Songs like Dongfang Hong, the tribute to Mao.

“I still feel proud when I think of him,” she said. “I worship him. No, worship is the wrong word. But I don’t know how to say it in English.”

Sometimes in the restaurant, it did feel like worship. When waitresses did The Loyalty Dance, a fixture from the cultural revolution, dozens of diners hopped up from their chairs to join in. “No matter how close our parents are to us,” they sang, “they are not as close as our relationship with Mao!”

In a stage show, a small boy kills a landlord — it’s a scene from the 70s movie “Sparkling Red Star” — and the restaurant broke into cheers. Dancers came out with huge red stars while the boy skips and laughs around the stage. Everyone joined in on the theme song to this famous film. “Imprinted in my mind the teachings of the party,” they sang, “One after another following the party. Smashed the evil of the old world!”

It was weird.

The menu, doused in Chinglish, was filled with dish names like, “The peasant family is happy” (root vegetables and a few bread rolls) and “Recalls past suffering the food” (grain with sand in it, to remember the hard life).

Dishes from Mao’s home province took up a large part of the menu — “Hunan earth, Hunan passion,” read the top of one of those pages — as did those from Deng Xiaoping’s own Sichuan province.

“Oh, I remember this dish,” Reverb cried, about corncakes stuffed with wild-growing greens, like nettles. “My mother used to make this when I was little.” She took a bite. It was stale, hard, rough and flavorless. A massive smile broke out on her face. “Yes, this is just the same!”

Have you been to a weirder restaurant than this? And is there an American or European equivalent??? Maybe those Stasi restaurants?

Red Restaurant (红色经典), 266 Baijialou, 5th Ring Road East, Chaoyang

Extraordinary Eats, Historical Wonders / ,

6 Responses to Relive the Cultural Revolution (aka The Weirdest Dinner Theater in Beijing)

  1. chloe says:

    very nice pictures.

  2. Dean Pickles says:

    On BoingBoing, someone asked why Reverb’s mom walked all the way to Beijing, when the trains were free. I’d assumed that it was just to experience the thrill of the countryside, but asked, to make sure. My pal “Little Yellow” (strange name, I know) then did some additional research for me…

    大串联 (“dà chuànlián”), or 全国大串联 (Quánguó dà chuànlián) was a movement from late 1966 to early 1967. After Mao personally greeted some red guards who came from other provinces, young people from all over the nation flooded to Beijing hoping to see Mao.

    The trains and buses were all free, but China’s huge, and everyone took advantage of this — so all the transportation became insanely overcrowded. So the students started to walk. All to Beijing.

  3. Reverb says:

    i said that… but that’s not what I meant. At that time, all the “hong xiao bing” can take trains to Beijing to see Mao Zedong for free

    but most people still chose to walk to Beijing, because it’s popular to do that just… they walked team by team

    100 li one day, and free accommodation

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