The End of Tokyo’s “Neighborhood Chinese” Restaurants?
Tokyo’s neighborhood Chinese restaurants may be bad for the health, not for their customers but for their owners. At their peak, Watanabe Yoshihiko and his friends owned five local Chinese restaurants using the name Hachiryu (“Eight Dragons”) in different parts of the city. “That was at the end of Showa era, or early Heisei,” Watanabe said. “Each of us owned a restaurant. The first one was in Omiya—Omiya, Kokuritsu, Kokubunji, Shinjuku, Roppongi, Akasaka, then Nishiogi. However, now it is just the one in Omiya and here.” When asked why there are only two left, Watanabe-san replied drily, “They are all dead. They all died before turning sixty. People who run Chinese restaurants, they are not straight-laced people—for some reason there are a lot of gamblers. They go gambling after work. Instead of sleeping, they play mahjong and drink and smoke. They get complaints the next day, and they lose business too. They all died. The only one who is still alive now is the first owner, my friend from Hokkaido.”
Three hundred meters south of JR Nishi-Ogikubo Station, Hachiryu is a typical Showa period “neighborhood Chinese” restaurant, festooned with scarlet awnings and backlit photos of signature noodle and rice dishes. Directly inside the red framed doors, a long counter faces the steamy kitchen. Red upholstered booths line the walls, from which diners can observe the busy staff at work. Hachiryu is a family business. The cook manning the stoves is the owner—Watanabe-san. His wife serves the dishes, and his sons handle deliveries. They have part-timers helping out too.
Watanabe-san is originally from Niigata. He moved to Tokyo when he was fifteen years old. “The family living close to us was running a soba shop in Tokyo. The grandpa, who was also the owner of that soba place, started asking me to come over and work at the shop ever since I was in elementary school. So, I came to Tokyo right after I graduated from middle school and started working at a soba restaurant. I was there for thirteen years.”
Later, invited by a friend whom he met in Tokyo, Watanabe-san switched from soba to cooking Chinese. “That friend was running a Chinese restaurant for some time. I learned Chinese from him as well. He’s from Hokkaido, and is three years older than me. In order to be able to open his own restaurant, he was cooking Chinese at night while working part time delivering for the soba shop I used to work for. Then he saved up enough money and opened his own place. That had always been his dream.”
Since he used the term “neighborhood Chinese” (machi chuka) a few times, we asked him to define it. “Well, you can find noodles, rice, and appetizers on the menu. When you eat it, it will surely fill your stomach up. ‘Ah, that was filling,’ kind of feeling. And when eating Chinese, once you are full, you are really full.” For Watanabe, and perhaps for other Japanese of his generation, Chinese represents comfort food, an image quite different from the older American stereotype of Chinese food leaving you hungry after an hour.
In a wistful tone, Watanabe-san laments the current situation of neighborhood Chinese restaurants. “In a few more years, there will only be chains. It will all be places like izakaya. I am already sixty-three, and I pretty much belong to the last generation running places like this. Once my generation is gone from the business, less than half the neighborhood restaurants will remain.” Watanabe continued, “There are not many people doing Chinese anymore. This business is not profitable so no one wants to do it. The work is hard. You have to work long hours, and there is a lot of physical labor. A lot of people shut down their places because of old age. And, young people are not keen on this business either. It is hard to just hire some part-timers.”
Most dishes served at Hachiryu feature standard Chinese recipes, yet they are also quite unique in a sense that you cannot easily find the exact same ones at other places. There was one noodle dish called Inchon Ramen, named after the Korean city Inchon. Watanabe-san explained this naming practice. “The food here is basically all made my own way. Well [speaking to Liu Tong], it means they are not your authentic Chinese cuisine. A lot of dishes are created here. The best and the most important thing is to make something that I find delicious as well. There are a lot dishes that are named after a city name out there, right? Because it is easy to remember that way. So, we also name our food like that — Hong Kong Ramen, Taiwan Don, and so on. It is simply a lot easier for people to remember.”
Like Nishiogi’s Manfuku Hanten (or the Chinese owned Chinese 21 and Jyokasa) Hachiryu is the type of “neighborhood Chinese” that can still be found on street corners all over Tokyo. The dishes are cheap in price and big in volume. You can walk in by yourself in your pajamas on a late Sunday afternoon, or you can come in with family and friends, have a couple beers and some warm food together. For Tokyoites, it is the type of restaurant that is not so special that you would miss their passing, and are still so ubiquitous that you take them for granted. Watanabe-san’s story showcases the severe working environment of these neighborhood Chinese restaurants and how they are struggling to survive in this fast aging society. A sad ending would be that one day they completely disappear from the street corners and we do not even realize it (Liu Tong, James Farrer, Dec. 20, 2017).
(text by Liu Tong and James Farrer; interview by Liu Tong; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; transcription and Japanese translation by Liu Tong; copy editing by Jason Bartashius; copyright James Farrer 2017)