Newly opened restaurant Alilan Beef Noodles has already been through a lot, including a name change. A tense, weeks-long dispute with the owner of two neighboring restaurants was settled on Wednesday, and it goes back to a decades-old cartel treaty.
Alilan opened on July 1 near Shanghai’s bustling pedestrian thoroughfare, East Nanjing Road. The restaurant’s owner, Xian Guolin, told Sixth Tone he had spent a month renovating the place. A Hui Muslim from Gansu province in northwest China, Xian had used up all his savings and even mortgaged his house for a bank loan to open up shop in Shanghai. But his joy quickly turned into fear as the restaurant soon attracted groups of men from two nearby restaurants who took offense at the fact that Xian had opened a rival beef noodle restaurant in “their” neighborhood.
Alilan’s signature dish is hand-stretched noodles, served in tasty broth with thin slices of beef and garnished with cilantro and spring onion — a Hui specialty that’s known across the country as Lanzhou beef lamian (literally “pulled noodles”) after the capital of Gansu. But despite its popular moniker, many of the restaurateurs serving up the dish are not from Lanzhou, but Hualong County, an autonomous Hui minority area in neighboring Qinghai province. The county has essentially cornered the market on the popular dish, with 60 to 70 percent of beef noodle restaurants across the country run by Hui people from Hualong, according to research quoted in the Beijing Morning Post.
On opening day, Xian said more than 100 people surrounded his restaurant. “Some held the door and stopped customers from coming in, while others hurled abuse at me and the waiters,” he said. “They smashed some of the tables and threatened that my relatives would be killed unless I closed the restaurant.” They told him he needed to shut down his business because it violated the “Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia treaty,” which bars anyone from opening a beef noodle restaurant within 400 meters of a Qinghai Hui restaurant. Xian reported the incident to the nearest police station on East Nanjing Road.
Ma Jinlong was one of the organizers of the protests. He’s a Hui Muslim from Qinghai province, and he owns two beef noodle restaurants near Alilan. He told Sixth Tone the treaty was created two decades ago. “Muslim restaurateurs observe the treaty even though it doesn’t have any legal standing,” he said. Ma said he’d heard that Xian wasn’t a Muslim, and so wasn’t qualified to run a halal Hui restaurant. “I have a big family to support,” he said. “If one restaurant ignores the treaty, the rules will be broken, and more restaurants will follow suit.”
Xian took to social media to document the siege around his restaurant. “In the first few days, there were almost no customers to be seen, and my chefs were sitting idle,” he said. “But then business got better day by day, with support from Gansu natives and netizens.” He says that Qinghai noodle restaurateurs offered him 300,000 yuan (almost $45,000) to close up, but he refused because he’d already invested 1.5 million yuan into his business.
After 20 days, authorities finally intervened to resolve the stalemate. Through mediation with the East Nanjing Road police station, official representatives from both Qinghai and Gansu provinces, and the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee, Xian agreed to drop the halal logo and remove the word “beef” from his restaurant name.
One of Alilan’s customers, a woman surnamed Shen, told Sixth Tone she’d been a regular patron since the restaurant opened. She’d witnessed the intimidation over the past weeks but said that it had no effect on her. Shen said she felt the treaty was ridiculous because a market economy should encourage open competition. “For me, the flavor of the noodles comes first,” she said.
(Header image: A Muslim man makes hand-pulled noodles at a ‘lamian’ shop in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, April 15, 2011. An Xin/VCG)