Shrouded in secrecy and isolated from the world, North Korea exudes an air of mystery. Hardly anything is known about the country except media stories about their dear leader, Kim Jong Un – his unrivalled cult-style of governance that has bred a nation of adoring people who hang on to his every command. And yet, amidst the uphoria of living in utopia, stories have emerged about defectors who have risked it all to leave everything and everyone behind – to start anew. Most recent are defection reports about a senior North Korean official in London and 13 restaurant staff in Ningbo, China.
Apparently there are 130 state-owned North Korean restaurants in 12 countries. Most are in China, but they can also be found in Russia, Dubai, Malaysia, Cambodia, Mongolia and Vietnam.
In Shanghai over the weekend and curious about the hype, I decided to visit one of these elusive North Korean state-owned restaurants and here’s what I discovered:
Not One But Three Such Restaurants In Shanghai!
There are apparently three North Korean restaurants in Shanghai (Pudong, Changning and Xuhui). The one I went to was called Pyongyang Koryo and this was the one located at the Tong Mao Hotel in Shanghai. You won’t find this listed on Shanghai’s Trip Advisor nor will you find a link to the restaurant’s website. Our visit to the place felt like a very covert trip to discover something revered or forbidden which probably added to my overall fascination.
Off The Beaten Track
There are only a handful of articles about the restaurant which I have tagged links to above. Otherwise, it is not an easy find as you can’t simply google it as there is no website. The staff at the restaurant according to this CNN article are not even aware that other similar restaurants exist or even if they are, they are unable to give you details and locations. There are also no facebook pages, trip advisor mentions and even the Hotel that it is located at does not even list it on it’s official website.
The Tong Mao Hotel is a four star typical Chinese-style hotel, located in Pudong, slightly off the beaten track and oddly surrounded by austere office buildings. The Hotel website only recommends their Chinese and Western restaurant and not their North Korean tenants – strange, because the first thing that you see after passing through the Hotel’s revolving doors – is the more casual Pyongyang Cafe on the left. Climb up the stairs and at a discreet corner, is the main Pyongyang Koryo restaurant.
Stuck In Time
Just walking into the restaurant is a step back into a time warp spiralling back (not even to the 80s which would have been acceptable) but more like going all the way back to the 50s. My parents would probably recognise that era, as none of us reading this would have even been born then.
Strangely, it is not the ambience or the dated decor that is the giveaway. It is the fact that every staff member that you encounter there looks like one of the actresses in the old video tapes of the weepy Chinese TV serials from the 70s that your parents refuse to throw away. Except that the look is even more dated than that – from the hairstyles of the serving staff who wear their hair tied back into a single braided ponytail (even when dressed in Western attire on stage) to their style of makeup (heavy foundation, fair two-way caked faces themed with bright red lipstick against jet black hair), their choice of glittery hair accessories and the very unflattering 1980s office girl white pumps with heels.
Stepping into the restaurant, you almost get this feeling that you’re the real outsider – completely out of place and dressed strangely with your highlighted wavy tresses, boho sling bag, frayed denim jeans with rips in the knees, off shoulder Summer blouse, strappy sandals and the latest iPhone in hand.
Don’t mistake my comments – the girls are stunning. Way above average. These are not your short, stubby Aunties serving you. Almost every waitress was young (definitely in their early 20s), tall, slim and willowy. All educated, well mannered and soft-spoken, graceful and able to speak fluent conversational Mandarin.
Small Talk But No Photos
We found out that the girls are all from elite North Korean families. The one that served us shared politely that she has worked at this restaurant for one and the half years and all of them are University graduates who consider this their duty and only opportunity to work and serve their country by sharing their culture and food.
I complimented her on her mandarin which was probably better than mine and she replied graciously and coyly that she had to take the initiative to study it on her own before coming over and after she came over to China she had lessons. She brushed up her understanding and accent picking it up along the way from speaking daily to customers. She added humbly and with a gracious smile, “顾客足是我们的老师”！- “the customers are our teachers”.
As the orders were taken and the food started arriving, another crew of girls came out from the kitchen entrance and behind stage to set it up. I took out my mobile phone to snap a few pictures. Our waitress quickly placed her hand at the back of my phone camera and firmly said, “no photos!” bringing our attention to the sign board above us that read – NO PHOTOS.
Of course, a meal at this restaurant would not be complete without a few stolen shots so when she disappeared to get our orders, I quickly snapped a few, just in time, before she hurried back. Throughout the rest of the meal and performance, the same girl stood politely about 2 metres behind me, at a discreet corner of the restaurant, keeping a watchful eye on my phone.
An All-Girl Crew
Strangely we saw very few men in the restaurant. No male Manager just a slightly older ‘host’ who must have been only in her 40s, standing mostly at the door and making the announcements on stage later.
Perhaps the men were sitting amidst the crowd, posing as customers but were actually minders watching out for rowdy and possibly drunk customers but their presence was not obvious. At most there may have been a male cook inside the kitchen but otherwise, this was strictly an all-girl crew. The performers who took to the stage also took on male roles when required, which was even stranger.
We heard that the girls stay in the Hotel (yes, upstairs) and they are seldom allowed out and that they do not get paid or if they do, the amount is for pocket money as everything from food and lodging to basic necessities are provided by the State. Free time is allowed but limited and strictly monitored. The waitress I spoke to shared that she expects that most restaurant postings would be for a minimum of 2 to 4 years before they return to their homelands.
Korean Food But Just Not The Way You Are Used To Eating It
The food – hmm – let’s just say that you should not expect your South Korean BBQ. You don’t DIY at these North Korean restaurants.
The food (even BBQ items) is all cooked in the kitchen and served to you. So forget the little plates of garlic, kimchi, seasoned nuts that arrive when you are at the South Korean eateries. Also forget the delicious pork ribs dripping with melted cheese, and the lovely egg dip that swims around the side of the hot plate as you barbecue your meat.
In terms of fashionable food and cooking style – North Korean restaurants are strictly traditional. Probably a menu of what you would have expected to eat in South Korea in the 60s. There are though, some interesting specialties that we tried that you might want to order if you venture there.
This is a Black Rice rolled up and sliced like sausages. Very good. It tasted like glutinous rice with a hint of chestnut and perhaps some pork.
Barbecued prawns – these were pretty much like the usual barbecued fare but I liked the fact that there were big and meaty and well seasoned.
Not quite bulgogi but this marinated beef dish was pretty tasty and cooked in the kitchen and then brought out with a side plate of veggies that you have to order to wrap them in.
The tuna sashimi was chilled and very fresh but not quite my thing although very colourful and appetising with that little orchid embellishment on the left corner.
KTV North Korean Style
The entertainment is perhaps what sets aside a North Korean restaurant from its neighbour in the South. Dinner comes with a show which starts about 730pm for the first seating. You are requested to arrive and be seated at 645pm if you are booked for the first set. Yes there are two seatings to presumably maximise profits. The North Korean restaurants largely operate not as a form of cultural exchange but more as a means to bring foreign currency back into their economies.
I am stumped just trying to describe the show. The show starts with a ‘cool rocker-chick’ (pictured above) getting on stage and picking up her electric guitar.
Ms ‘DPRK rocker chick’ (lets call her that for now) is fully made up and has hair braided behind her head into a tidy ponytail with glittery rhinestone style clips at the side. She is wearing a black tight dress that even Joan Jett would cringe at as its made of a lace top half with three-quarter sleeves and a princess cut bust line in front. The look is complete and resplendant with panty-hosed legs and white pumps with heels.
She picks up her electric guitar (Hard Rock Cafe – NOT!) and we are off to a rousing start (K-pop NOT!). I have to confess I have never heard Korean folk songs played on an electric guitar and after a few chords she is joined by an accordian player and someone on the electric keyboard and another girl on drums. It was like attending a rock concert on another planet. Behind the two musicians, off stage is a large screen TV playing silent footage of montages and homeland scenes of North Korea.
An emcee of sorts appears in a flowery gown on stage. I actually liked their beautifully embroidered and brightly coloured native costumes and truth be told, if they had stuck to that, the whole experience would have been less bizarre!
An emcee comes onstage and introduces the performance and welcomes everyone in high pitched mandarin. The show is about an hour long. From Korean folk songs, the repertoire expands into a few popular Chinese songs (again songs from the 70s all about wholesome friendships and young love) and then the floral bouquets make their debut.
Plastic flowers wrapped in tulle and cellophane in large bouquets that look like they have been around for some time are given to the female members of the audience. I got a bouquet which they took back afterwards as it was a prop and just ‘part of the show’.
The children are given smaller bouquets and encouraged to go up on stage to award them to the singers after each performance amidst the rowdy clapping. The music gets louder and louder and then it breaks into dancing.
You realise that there are more performers on stage and some of them were serving food earlier on the floor but have now got into fancy costumes. 3 such girls get on stage to do a tap dance followed by 3 more who come up to stage performing a folk dance with pots that they skilfully balance on their heads and then proceed to whirl around with on stage at dizzying speeds.
After this, people celebrating engagements or birthdays get invited on to stage to pose under a flower canopy held up by the performers. They get serenaded to with a mix of Korean and Chinese love songs that I don’t quite recognise.
The show ends with a carousing song and dance. Head bands with rosettes and leis are handed out to members of the audience. Everyone joins in from Ms ‘Rock-Chick (see above left in picture) to waitresses.
Expect to join in or get dragged onto stage, yes kids, adults and all – no exclusions. Definitely not for spoil sports or the faint hearted. Think ‘Ring Around The Roses’ done on stage – yes, in a circle!
At the end of dinner and the show, the bill is presented and the same waitress hastens towards us to ask us if we enjoyed ourselves and to get some feedback on the food. I have to say that the training and the service is close to excellent here. Probably way beyond what you would get at any other restaurant in China.
A senior waitress or lady host says goodbye at the door and we hurry out .. back into the black night .. a little stupified at what we had just experienced .. amazed that for that two hours, we were given a tiny glimpse and taste into the secret world of North Korea.
Interested to try the experience for yourselves? You might want to before they all close down.
The closest North Korean restaurant to Singapore is in Malaysia and for readers in Hong Kong, there are several North Korean restaurants in China, mainly in Shanghai and Beijing.