An entrepreneur agrees: 'To get rich is glorious'

Once a factory cook, Guo Peiji heeded Deng Xiaoping's call and has made his family wealthy as a restaurateur.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Incentive: Guo Peiji chats with guests at one of his two restaurants. He's instructed waitstaff to try to please customers – an unfamiliar concept before 1978, when restaurants were state-owned.
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    Chef: Guo Peij, a canteen cook turned restaurant owner, has prospered under 'reform and opening.'
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China has been transformed beyond recognition since the ruling Communist party decided 30 years ago this week to abandon Maoism, build a market economy, and dismantle the "bamboo curtain" that had isolated the country from most of the world. This series explores what "reform and opening" has meant to the everyday lives of six individuals.

BEIJING - The carefully calligraphed injunction hanging on the whitewashed wall of old Guo Peiji's cramped hutong restaurant here could serve as a summation of the last 30 years of "reform and opening" in China.

"Taste it and see," the Chinese characters exhort diners hunched over plates of fragrant fishballs or bowls of steaming hot pot. And just as the lunchtime crowd seems to appreciate Mr. Guo's food, the proprietor of modern China's first-ever private restaurant is delighted with the results of his country's economic transformation.

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"I have become rich," beams the old man through creased eyes.

He doesn't look it, still dressed in the same kind of black cloth slippers and dark-blue padded waistcoat that his neighbors all wore when they filed into "Please the Customer" that first evening in October 1980 and took their seats at the only four tables Guo had room for to taste his duck.

Today, the customers whom Guo guides to tables in the expanded dining room (between quick checks on the kitchen staff) are all smartly dressed office workers from tower blocks overshadowing the hutong, for whom China's economic revolution is a natural part of their daily lives.

"I came here for a taste of the past, but it is gone," says Chang Ming, who owns his own wastewater treatment firm. "The food is as good, but there is air conditioning now, and clean tables. Things change so fast in China, the past is a long time ago."

When the government announced in December 1978 that private enterprise would be allowed again in China, Guo was a canteen cook in a state-owned factory. "I just went to work and got off work, that was all," he remembers. "This seemed like an opportunity."

He and his wife grabbed it, scrounging building materials and furniture from their work units, raiding their savings to fit out a tiny kitchen, and instilling a new service-oriented ethos into the sons- and daughters-in-law who joined their enterprise.

"Pleasing the customer" was a new concept in 1980, he points out. "We were really modest and polite. Waitresses in the state-owned restaurants were trained to smile but because they weren't in their own business, that affected their attitudes to the customers," Guo says.

Guo and his wife "cooked whatever we could find, and our food was cheap and delicious," he recalls. Business was good from the outset, as local diners and curious foreign diplomats crammed in for a taste of the new China. "This is a big country and ours was the only private restaurant," laughs Guo today. "We'd have needed hundreds of tables to feed everyone who wanted to come."

Mutterings among some of the neighbors about wicked "capitalist roaders" soon died down. "There was a government policy and I was following it," Guo says. Before long, he was not the only one. Impressed by his success, others struck out along the same path and within a couple of years 30 more family restaurants had sprung up in the district, though most have since closed, unable to deal with the competition.

Today, according to the People's Daily, there are more than 4 million restaurants around food-mad China. The contribution that private business makes to China's wealth has jumped from zero to 65 percent, according to figures from the Federation of Industry and Commerce.

"It's not just me getting richer," says Guo. "Everyone is better off."

Since their humble beginnings 28 years ago, Guo and his wife have opened a second restaurant around the corner from "Please the Customer," calling it "Please the Gods." They have bought the premises of both establishments. They have purchased themselves a car, built themselves a 12-room home on the outskirts of Beijing, bought homes for all five of their children, and set up the two sons who didn't like cooking in their own furniture businesses.

Today, Guo employs 20 cooks and wait staff, his prices have gone up, and his menu has expanded. Some items, he regrets, such as river turtle, are hard to find today, but modern markets are a far cry from the scarcity-plagued ration-card days he used to know.

"We can get everything now," he says, and because better transport has linked a nationwide network of businesses "it is affordable to ordinary people. If you want a watermelon in winter you just buy one off the street. That wasn't possible in the old days."

The explosion of private business has led people in today's China to take much for granted that was not possible in the old days; pig farmers, software developers, motorbike manufacturers, and millions of other entrepreneurs have contributed to a cornucopia of consumer choice undreamed of only a decade or so ago.

"I wouldn't dare call myself a pioneer of reform and opening, but, after all, we were the first ordinary people to open a restaurant," says Guo. "Then the rest of China followed.

"Ours is a little restaurant, but it has been a big deal for the country."

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