Chinese restaurateur’s experience in Nepal during the Maoist insurgencySince Zhang Yiwu took charge of the China Mountain Restaurant, every Nepali prime minister has visited the place.
Zhang Yiwu, a lanky man in Nepal's turbulent capital, Kathmandu, is already somewhat of a celebrity, even though he is still in his 30s. The young man from Chengdu runs the most popular Chinese eatery in Nepal, “China Mountain Restaurant” (中国山饭店). The reporter became good friends with him shortly after arriving in Nepal and knew that his business was struggling to keep up with the sound of cannons, gunshots, and screams. In April, he experienced a local political storm when Nepal’s seven political parties suddenly staged a general strike. Kathmandu was the first to witness mass demonstrations, and chaos erupted outside the China Mountain Restaurant. Fortunately, Zhang and his restaurant were not badly affected.
Host to almost every important personality in Nepal
In the summer of 1994, Zhang, who had just graduated from university, came to Nepal alone, looking for business opportunities while travelling. By October 2004, Zhang, who had travelled to Nepal over 10 times, finally took over the “China Mountain Restaurant”. Now, Zhang is an “old Nepal” (Chinese slang referring to Zhang as a local). He is not only familiar with the local scenic spots but can also speak some half-cooked Nepali.
There are about a dozen Chinese restaurants in Kathmandu with a wide range of customers, and most are doing well. The China Mountain Restaurant is located on the 8th floor of the four-star Royal Singi Hotel, which is very close to the palace. It is the “highest peak” in Kathmandu, higher than the palace. This restaurant offers a panoramic view of Kathmandu. As the owner of a famous Chinese restaurant in Kathmandu, Zhang has received almost all the important people in Nepal. Crown Prince Paras, son of King Gyanendra, has visited his hotel at least three times. Due to his conspicuous status, Prince Paras always arrived at around 3 pm, when there were fewer guests. Although the Nepali royal family is very wealthy, Crown Prince Paras usually only orders ordinary dishes such as chicken and vegetables. When he is in a good mood, he orders a Peking duck and a small glass of Moutai wine, which the family can enjoy quietly. King Gyanendra has yet to visit, possibly due to status restrictions, but the palace has sent people here on several occasions to take away food for the King.
Since Zhang took charge of the restaurant, every Nepali prime minister, without exception, has visited, which makes Zhang the proud owner of the restaurant.
The anti-government rebels would ask for “donations”, but Zhang is usually wary of making a show of it, as he has seen everything from strikes to gunfire and demonstrations to blockades. Regardless of his caution, he still experienced danger. Last April, Zhang drove alone to Zhangmu, a small town on the Tibetan border more than 100 kilometres from Kathmandu, to buy Chinese food. On the road just over 30 kilometres from the border, he was stopped by three Nepali people armed with guns. “At the time, I thought this was the end. These anti-government militants were going to steal the car and all the money.” Zhang said. He was aware that since February 1996, more than 13,000 people have been killed in the crossfire between Nepali rebels and government forces. Regardless, he braved the route.
The three-armed men, dressed in shabby clothes and wearing slippers, told him that according to the regulations of the anti-government armed forces, everyone who passes through their controlled area must donate to them, and the price was $15 for foreigners and $4 for Nepali nationals. Zhang Yiwu quickly handed over the money and wanted to leave. He certainly did not expect them to stop him to give him a receipt, which noted the donor’s name, the amount of donation, time and place, and said that they would return the money after their ‘victory’.
Zhang said that when encountering rebels in Nepal, one should not “fight” them. Otherwise it will be very dangerous. Last year, during the National Day holiday, more than 10 Chinese hiking in Mustang came across a group of rebels demanding donations. The group of Chinese tourists asked for a “discount”. However, the rebels locked them up for several hours until the tour guide intervened and handed over the “donation”.
There are many other dangers. One morning in mid-January, Zhang was driving out of town on errands when he encountered thousands of people marching near the Birendra International Conference Center. His first thought was to turn around and go back, but he found himself surrounded by a sea of people. His car had an ordinary license plate, and the demonstrators thought he was a Nepali who refused to support the strike. Many people started shouting slogans at him, and some just picked up stones and smashed the car.
When Zhang escaped in an escort by a police car, the window glass had been shattered to pieces, and the trunk was also damaged. That experience still sends chills down Zhang Yiwu’s spine.
Heavy gunfire heard in the restaurant
In the past few years, Zhang has witnessed various political turmoil in Nepal: the rebels declaring curfew and blocking major roads and prohibiting people from going out. The opposition parties would organise general strikes and close down all businesses. The Nepali government has declared a curfew or martial law, banning all public activities during daylight hours... No matter which side organised activities, ordinary people were confined to their homes, students could not attend classes, businesses could not run, and even the streets were not cleaned—society had come to a standstill.
In June 2001, when Nepal’s royal family was massacred, heavy gunfire could be heard from the hotel. In April this year, during the peak days of demonstrations on streets in Nepal, Zhang’s restaurant was deserted at night. He said that although the situation in Nepal has improved, strikes and demonstrations would still be the norm in this country, and the danger would continue to exist.
As far as the reporter knows, in addition to the expatriates from the embassy and Chinese-funded institutions, there are more than 1,000 overseas Chinese in Nepal, and most of them come from Qinghai, Shanxi, Sichuan and other inland provinces. They mainly live in large and medium-sized cities such as Kathmandu and Pokhara. Engaged in industries such as catering, tourism, clothing and clinics, their living standards are generally higher than that of the locals.
According to the reporter's observation, the “danger” in Nepal for the Chinese is different to, say, terrorist attacks in Iraq and Pakistan. Regardless, it was still risky and unpredictable. In early April, after the demonstrations in Kathmandu, chaos spread rapidly. The opposition took the opportunity to launch attacks on government forces, shelling two military bases and attacking a police station. The serious deterioration of the situation in Nepal became a concern for our government. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao made important instructions respectively, urging relevant departments to do their utmost to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens’ lives and property in Nepal.
On April 24, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dispatched a task force to work with the Chinese Embassy in Nepal to protect overseas Chinese. The staff of the Embassy went to the residences of Chinese tourists and Chinese-funded institutions on many occasions to help them evacuate in an orderly manner. The embassy also maintained close contact with compatriots from Hong Kong and Taiwan in Nepal and provided them with needed assistance. On April 28, the task force successfully completed the work of protecting overseas Chinese and left Kathmandu for China.
With the establishment of Nepal’s new government in late April and negotiations with the rebels, security concerns could ease. However, after the interview, when the reporter asked Zhang to provide a photo for our publication, he refused for safety reasons. It seems that the years of “adventure” experience in Nepal have made Zhang accustomed to tense nerves. This may be the truest portrayal of the living conditions of the Chinese people in Nepal.
This is a direct translation of an article that originally appeared in Chinese by Global People in May 2006.