An Immigrant Becoming a Part of the Alleyway Culinary Community
This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Okinawan Restaurant Akai Hana, a community watering hole on Willow Alley, Nishiogi’s signature drinking street. Although the restaurant’s actual owner is a woman about seventy years old, who migrated from Taiwan to Japan about forty years ago, the founding manager was a man from Okinawa who suddenly passed away, leaving the viability of the business in question. The young woman who had to fill this void was an untested manager in her late thirties from Mainland China. Sociologically, her story is a tale of successful incorporation of an immigrant manager into a niche in the local culinary community.
Yu-chan, who is in her late thirties, hails originally from Suzhou, Jiangsu province in China. “Yu-chan” (“little Yu”) is the nickname that customers and neighbors call her by. Arriving in 2003, like many Chinese immigrants, Yu-chan did not expect to stay in Japan. As she said with a lovely smile on her face, “At first, I planned to come for several years and make some money, then go back, because Suzhou is a good place, too.”
Yu-chan became the manager of Akai Hana about five years ago. Before that, the restaurant was managed by the Japanese man from Okinawa, who was also the chief chef. After he died from cancer in 2012, Yu-chan’s boyfriend, the nephew of the owner, took over the restaurant and became the manager and chef. During the last four years of the Okinawan man’s tenure, Yu-chan’s boyfriend had worked as a cook and learned to prepare all the dishes on the menu. Her boyfriend was slated to manage the restaurant from then on. However, only half a year later, for some personal reasons, he had to go back to Taiwan. At that time, Yu-chan was already a part-time waitress at the restaurant, and she fell in line as the only person who could manage it. As she repeated in our conversation, “It was an accident that I could become the manager of this restaurant.”
At first, it was hard. “In the beginning, I did not have much confidence in myself at all, because my Japanese was not good, and the restaurant made Okinawan cuisine. These were big challenges to me. I did not have anything to do with Okinawa. Japanese people see it important that a chef should make the food of his or her hometown. So, I thought it would be impossible. I told the owner that I did not know how long I would be able to do it.”
Yu-chan also faced some challenges as a newcomer in a bar street where most of the owners had already been there for a long time. As she recalled, “In the beginning days when I just took over the restaurant, they were, in fact, not confident in me for quite a while. Now, they can say that to me. Because they felt, ‘you are a woman, and moreover, a foreign woman. You are not Japanese.’ They felt, ‘You would just do this a few days and leave, and you would not be able to endure the difficulties, because it was a late-night business.’ Customers didn’t come. In the first six months, there were very few customers. They stopped by, but when they saw it was me and not Chao-san (her boyfriend), they just left. They just walked right past me.”
In the end, however, she won the hearts of both customers and the neighbors. “I persisted and persisted. I waited until 3 am everyday even though there was not a single customer. Sometimes, I stayed open much later than that, when customers wanted to drink more. In this way, gradually, they accepted me. So, in the past three years, this restaurant has functioned well. It became increasingly popular especially in the last two years.”
Customers at Akai Hana have a feeling of ownership of the space. As Yu-chan described it, “In this restaurant, everyone feels a sense of freedom. They like it here. They can relax here at the end of a busy work day. Everyone can talk to each other. They know I am very busy. Sometimes the part-time worker leaves early, and so, except for the Orion draft, they will get a bottle of beer themselves and then tell me. They know where we have what they want. Some customers know where the bill is. So, they just write it by themselves. Japanese are very conscientious.”
These friendships extend outside the restaurant. Yu-chan said in our conversation that she would go to Taiwan for a holiday with six of her Japanese customers. For her, this is far more than a strategy of maintaining a sound relationship with customers. As she said, “Customers are very good. Why do I want to go to Taiwan with them? I don’t see it as a business strategy. I don’t think it part of my job to take my customers to Taiwan. No, because I am fully friends with them. I don’t want to be with them just because I am the manager of the restaurant and they are customers. I want to go out and drink with them. As friends, we are just friends drinking together. Because I separate it very clearly at the restaurant. I provide service. They are customers.”
Yu-chan also maintains good relationships with the neighboring restaurants. When asked about it, she replied confidently: “Yes, I’m very good with them. We generally know each other. They already knew me when I just took over the restaurant, because I worked at that knife-shelved noodle restaurant nearby. But, they only saw me. They didn’t greet me. Now, we greet each other. I also greet them enthusiastically. They know my character. Greeting is important. People around me see me working hard and they appreciate me. Japanese appreciate you if you work hard. If your restaurant often is closed, they will not appreciate you. They introduce customers to my restaurant. I introduce customers to theirs, too. For example, that mama [we saw passing by] wearing kimono, we do such exchanges. Customers who just moved into the area also ask me about nearby restaurants. If you have a good relationship with your neighbors, you will not be excluded. You know Japanese are strict, especially to foreigners. In the beginning, we just nodded to each other. At first, people do not greet you. But, you should greet them proactively. Now we have such a habit and we have a good relationship.”
The food menu has remained the same as it was when the Okinawan man was the chef. Yu-chan did not make any changes to it. However, she did impart her own flavors into the dishes she prepares. On the day when we visited her restaurant, for example, we ordered Okinawan rafute (braised pork rib). We thought it was a new dish added by her. However, she said, “It was on the menu. But I made it with a different flavor from that Okinawan chef.” Indeed, as she pointed out, her rafute had the flavor of a Southern China hongshaorou (red braised pork).
Surprisingly perhaps, this blending of Chinese into Okinawan cuisine did not bother customers at all. When asked about the customers’ reaction to her dishes, Yu-chan answered with a broad smile. “Customers know that I come from a place near Shanghai. Actually, they don’t care what food this restaurant makes. They care about me much more. If I am not in the restaurant, they don’t come. For example, every time when I went back to China, the restaurant was open on weekends, because otherwise it’s not good if it’s closed for about two weeks. A part-time Japanese young woman helped take care of it. She can cook some dishes. But when I came back I found sales went down a lot. Customers joked saying that ‘Yu-chan is going to be angry. Horrible!’ I always told her it didn’t matter.”
Besides Yu-chan, the old and “dirty” (Yu-chan’s word) atmosphere of the restaurant also attracts a lot of regulars. “There are a lot of fashionable places in Japan. But, those bars lack a certain kind of atmosphere. These are places in which one or two persons can sit to read a book or have a quiet meal. But they [her customers] want to blow off steam after working a whole day and chat with people. But, these things are difficult to do in those fashionable places, because those places are quiet and not convenient for talking [with strangers]. My restaurant is different. They can say whatever they want and brag about whatever they want. They release all their stress. They drink several glasses and eat some noodles, then go back to work again next day. It is like this. I think this is the feeling that my restaurant can give people. It doesn’t make people feel pressure. Japanese people are often very reserved.”
Every night, Yu-chan works hard at her restaurant to provide customers a comfortable environment and food. She has made her little restaurant into a community spot on Nishiogi’s most famous gastronomic alleyway (Chuanfei Wang, James Farrer, Aug. 10, 2017).