The story of Lanzhou Lamian, the popular noodle chain, from the perspective of Maysoon, a loyal, yet curious, noodle eater.
If you have visited China in recent years, you've no doubt noticed a small restaurants chain called Lanzhou Lamian (兰州拉面).

It should be noted here that by the word small I refer to the size of the restaurant's room, certainly not the number of Lanzhou Lamian branches found in China. Indeed, in some cities, it is almost impossible to walk more than 10 minutes without running into a new opening of the popular chain.

One feature of this chain is that it's owned by the Chinese Muslim Hui minority.

These restaurants are easy to recognize because the majority of the women working there have their hair veiled and men wear a Tagyah, a hat that Muslim men wear at prayer. In China thought, they seem to wear it as a way to recognize each other and inform the others of who they are.

Moreover, the name Lanzhou (兰州 ) refer to one of the cities from which the Hui minority comes from, in the Gansu (甘肃) province.

The restaurant's specialties, in case you are still wondering, are noodles, but not any kind of noodles: hand-pulled Chinese noodle. If you happen to be in the restaurant while the men are preparing the noodles, you will understand why they have such muscular arms on their very thin and small bodies.

The menu is exactly the same throughout the country: composed of the same photos and charging the same price, which from memory, was raised by only one RMB since 2007!

Me and my friends had become accustomed to frequent a particular restaurant near our university, when I was enjoying my exchange program in Wuhan University.

We were always greeted the same way by the owner while passing there and looking inside the restaurant to see if there was any place where we could sit: '进来 (jin lai), 进来, 进来' which means 'enter, enter, enter!' He always made sure to yell it, which made us feel we had no choice but to enter: let me tell you that I was always too scared to enter any restaurant next to his, fearing this my result in a long lasting grudge by his side!

As I went there many times a week, I realised that the owner had several tasks:
  • Drag you into the restaurant by making you feel it was your own choice every time.
  • Assign you a place and I really mean a place, not a table, as he did not care to separate a group of friends who came together to eat by placing them on any table which still had an available chair, creating new eclectic combinations around his tables.
  • Yell at the boys in the kitchen to work faster.
  • Ask the boys in the kitchen to work faster.
  • Put pressure on the client to eat quickly so he can drag another client in, landing him in your place.
  • Collect the money.
  • Wishing you a fast 慢走 ('man zou', 'walk slowly', a common greeting said to a customer when leaving the business) while giving you back your change, without even looking you in the eyes.

Though I must admit, his yells weren't the only reason for returning to Langzhou Lamian for most of our meals.

I also liked to eat dishes with tastes and ingredients overlapping with a menu that could be found in Western countries: rice, potato, onion and a small portion of beef, without soy sauce or an overdose of salt (or MSG), altogether for the small sum of 9 RMB. For one extra RMB, one could even spoil himself and order a cold (quite rare in China) glass bottle of Coke or Fanta! Apparently many foreigners feel relatively safe under the Lanzhou Lamian roof, enjoying spicy sweet flavour, and the fact (especially when it comes to members of certain religions) that no pork is sold.

In addition, the waiters were very friendly and warm (unlike the big boss). I even became friend to a young waitress of 19 years, whose smile never left her face despite the fact that (if my memory is still reliable) she never took one day off.

To my big surprise, when I went there one day after class to eat my usual dish of potatoes, I discovered, with dismay, that all the employees had been changed!

Maybe they are on leave, I wondered to myself, although I felt deep inside of my empty stomach that such thing would've been surprising, not to say impossible. 

Less than two days later, a rumour had spread in our small neighbourhood that the former employees had all left for other locations in China.

I tried to understand the factors behind such a decision, but the new workers refused to answer. Well, they always answered back with a smile and a look in their eyes that meant: « I don't understand what you are asking me, so I will wait until you point a picture from the menu to take your order».

The famous 兰州拉面 menu, new edition coming soon...

One day, the owner, or the one we thought was the owner, returned to the restaurant. I then learned that he had been "transferred" to another city. Moreover, all other employees were transferred. As for our favourite waitress, the chilling city of Harbin was now her new home.

«But why?»  I asked. 
«Decision of the community» he then replied.
«But who owns these restaurants? Aren't you the owner?»
« I don't own them, I make a cu...its owned by the community»
«But why would the community want that? And what does the community gains from replacing you in such way? » Even his wife, who used to work there, was sent to another city.

I didn't get his answer.

I then decided to ask our friend a sensitive question:  Why are all the Hui employed in Lanzhou Lamian (兰州拉面) restaurants? Why don't they work in other sectors or businesses like the other communities?

His answer was as simple as heavy with sense: 没 办法! (mei banfa) - 'There's nothing to do about it!'

Written by Maysoon H.S.