emer­ald in the rough

Two gen­er­a­tions’ dreams and dis­il­lu­sion­ment in a Chi­nese restau­rant in Prague他乡居不易:布拉格中餐馆的一天又一天

The World of Chinese - - Diaspora - TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY TINA XU (徐盈盈)

Smarag­dova Zahrada is an odd oa­sis in the cen­ter of Prague. A stone’s throw from the Mozar­teum con­cert hall, a pair of Art Deco iron gates lead to a sub­ter­ranean shop­ping mall. At the bot­tom of the steps, one is greeted by life-sized painted stat­ues of the monk Tang Seng and his ap­pren­tices from Jour­ney to the West.

One of dozens of Chi­nese restau­rants, or čín­ská restau­race, in the cen­ter of Prague, Smarag­dova Zahrada, Czech for “Emer­ald Gar­den,” is owned by Wang Chun­hong. He has streaks of grey hair pep­per­ing his tem­ples and is gre­gar­i­ously hos­pitable. It’s a slow af­ter­noon when I walk past the en­trance, and he shouts out the tra­di­tional Chi­nese greet­ing: “Have you eaten yet?”

In 1997, Mr. Wang bor­rowed 200,000 eu­ros and moved from Qing­tian county, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, to open Smarag­dova Zahrada. It took two years to start earn­ing money, but now he has his own apart­ment and car, and grand­chil­dren born in Prague.

Chi­nese mi­gra­tion to the Czech Repub­lic be­gan prior to World War II, many ar­riv­ing as trav­el­ing sales­men from Wen­zhou, Zhe­jiang prov­ince. Some fled to West­ern Europe af­ter 1949, when the Com­mu­nists con­fis­cated their busi­nesses. The pop­u­la­tion swelled dra­mat­i­cally in the 1990s as China loos­ened travel re­stric­tions; as many as 9,000 en­trepreneurs and im­port-ex­port traders, mainly from Zhe­jiang and Jiangsu prov­inces, ar­rived and, in some cases, set­tled. In 2017, the Czech Statistical Of­fice counts 6,885 Chi­nese na­tion­als in the Czech Repub­lic, with 4,374 hold­ing per­ma­nent res­i­dence.

As res­i­dence per­mits in the EU’S Schen­gen Area have be­come more de­sir­able, the Czech Repub­lic has tight­ened its im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy in the last decade. Mean­while, Mr. Wang’s busi­ness has flour­ished as Chi­nese tourism to Prague has sky­rock­eted, with a 38 per­cent in­crease of Chi­nese vis­i­tors be­tween 2016 and 2017, to­tal­ing 491,648 Chi­nese vis­i­tors last year. At peak lunch hours, it seems, a tour guide marches in ev­ery 20 min­utes with a col­ored flag and shouts a greet­ing to Mr. Wang, fol­lowed by an ensem­ble with floppy hats shad­ing their faces and DSLRS slung over their shoul­ders.

Mr. Wang’s big­gest ob­sta­cle at the Smarag­dova Zahrada now is not a short­age of guests, but work­ers. He es­ti­mates that visa spon­sor­ship for a Chi­nese na­tional runs as high as 5,000 eu­ros, paid by the worker. He has re­cently hired a Czech dish­washer, his first non-chi­nese em­ployee.

One of the bussers in Mr. Wang’s restau­rant is Bian Shengjie, a young man in his 20s who ar­rived less than a month ago. Also from Zhe­jiang, he knew Mr. Wang’s fam­ily through his par­ents, who loaned him the money for pas­sage to Prague. Dressed in a neu­tral black but­ton-up, Bian has a

pen­chant for tak­ing self­ies in funky glasses out­side of work.

“I re­gret it, I re­ally re­gret it,” Bian tells me, stack­ing dirty plates from a large ta­ble. “If I’d known what it was like, I never would’ve come.” He ex­plains that by clos­ing time (10:30 p.m.), he is usu­ally dead tired and on a bus back to his boss’s apart­ment, where he also lives. He laments that at this time in China, his nightlife would have just be­gun. Mean­while, in Prague, “I just swipe through my phone un­til I fall asleep. And then it’s back up at 7 a.m. next morn­ing to go to work.”

Mr. Wang ad­mits that he has trou­ble keep­ing work­ers for long. Three of his four Chi­nese em­ploy­ees have been with him less than a year. Bian is al­ready try­ing to learn Czech as fast as pos­si­ble so he can find a less gru­el­ing job.

Restau­rant work is ar­du­ous work, con­sist­ing of be­ing on one’s feet 12 hours a day, six days a week.while many Chi­nese once em­i­grated for man­ual la­bor—build­ing rail­roads in the Amer­i­can West, work­ing plan­ta­tions in the Caribbean and South Amer­ica, and open­ing restau­rants al­most ev­ery­where— many of the younger gen­er­a­tion want to study, en­joy leisure time with their friends, and pur­sue eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties back home over over­seas or­deals. The coun­try Mr. Wang left be­hind two decades ago is not the coun­try Bian left last month.

De­spite the young man’s com­plaints that the laoban works them long hours, when the restau­rant is busy, Mr. Wang stands at the cash reg­is­ter and wipes down dirty ta­bles along­side his work­ers. He doesn’t sit down to eat his din­ner un­til things quiet down, at 10:30 p.m. or 11.

Tonight, Mr. Wang is shov­el­ing down a full plate of egg fried rice while count­ing up the cash. He tells me that he hasn’t taken a day off for 30 days. How­ever, af­ter busi­ness qui­ets down in Oc­to­ber, he some­times takes up to two months off.

“There is bit­ter­ness in hard work, that’s how it should be,” Mr. Wang says. He fills a glass from the boil­ing water tap and swerves, some water spilling onto his fin­gers. He puck­ers his lips for a mo­ment and rushes on.

"Isn’t it past clos­ing?" I ask a wait­ress who rushes past with ver­mi­celli soup for cus­tomers just sit­ting down. She has al­ready changed into her street clothes, a black sweat­shirt and trendy cap, and tells me she is in the habit of run­ning for her bus ev­ery night. She just smiles at me.

“Do­bry den,” she greets an­other group that’s just walked in.

The guests have a full meal. Mr. Wang stays un­til they are done, and so do the staff. As a group of tourists pay, Mr. Wang comes over, all smiles, and re­minds them to write a re­view on Dian­ping.com: “Say that the laoban stayed past clos­ing time to serve us!”

On Dian­ping, “Cui Yuan,” as the restau­rant is known in Chi­nese, has five out of five stars from 650 re­views, with the top rec­om­men­da­tions be­ing “good ser­vice” (199) and “good taste” (92). A re­viewer from Wuhan wrote, “Tour­ing Europe for 10 days, I couldn’t take the Chi­nese food here any­more…[the buf­fet] saved me!” The most rec­om­mended dishes in­clude braised egg­plant in fish sauce ( yux­i­ang qiezi) and steamed chicken in chili sauce ( koushuiji). One Chi­nese tourist on Google thanks Mr. Wang for al­low­ing him to use the re­stroom as he walked by.

Mean­while, on Tri­pad­vi­sor, Smarag­dova Zahrada has three out of five stars from 77 re­views, with 36 per­cent rat­ing five stars and 42 per­cent rat­ing one star. Some of the one star re­views in­clude, “Ter­ri­ble food, ter­ri­ble ser­vice, aw­ful at­mos­phere. There’s a Burger King op­po­site! Save your­selves!” and “Lots of mys­tery meats or what­ever.” Nev­er­the­less, reg­u­lar Czech cus­tomers greet Mr. Wang with a shout and a wave when they en­ter.

As Bian hur­ries past with the cart of dirty dishes, he says, “The one good thing about work­ing among for­eign­ers is that you can curse at them, and they don’t even know it.”

Fi­nally, around 11 p.m., the day is over. As we exit into the daz­zling streets of Prague’s city cen­ter to the shouts of drunk tourists and the faint pulse of club mu­sic, the young man who washes dishes in the kitchen emerges for the first time, mus­ing aloud, “It’s so dark.” He looks ten­ta­tively at me. “We barely see the sun in the morn­ing, and it’s al­ready dark when we go home.”

He glances up at a street­lamp and then down to his feet, where the cob­ble­stones glis­ten with sliv­ered edges of gold.

The Smarag­dova is one of dozens of Chi­nese restau­rant in the city cen­ter of Prague

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