I can picture people sitting down to eat here and asking themselves, "What the hell is this place?"
This is a modest attempt to explain what the hell this place is.
Beijiang Restaurant (Běijiāng Fàndiàn 北疆饭店) (1075 - 8580 Alexandra Road
Richmond, BC), the first foreign outpost of a branch that got its start in Sūzhōu (point to Shanghai on a map and Sūzhōu will be in its shadow), is the latest addition to Richmond's strip mall restaurant scene.
While the Mainland branches of the Sūzhōu mini-chain are known for unrestrained opulence, the strip mall setting and size constraints of the local branch give us a far more modest dining room.
Beijiang can be easily slotted into a quite well established genre: the Xīnjiāng theme restaurant.
The name of the place is a vaguely classical term for the northern (北) frontier (疆): the edges of the empire; the final destination of banished criminals or unlucky imperial bureaucrats; and home of biānjiāng mínzú, the non-Han denizens of the borderlands. And it's also an immediate signal (if you're a Mainland Chinese diner, I mean) of what to expect: a Sinified recreation and reimagining of China's furthest west territory (a zìzhìqū 自治区, to be precise: "autonomous region"), that massive lobe of Central Asia (three times the size of France) that has come--through historical happenstance and very intentional scheming--to rest within the territory of the People's Republic of China.
Okay. That clears up some of the potential confusion, but...
...the room, to begin with: the overall effect at Beijiang restaurant is something similar to how I picture the Big Tymers' breakfast nook, heavy on the fake marble and gold leaf accents (and I think I saw a dude enjoying lunch in a Burberry tracksuit). It's slightly less garish than its parent chain's restaurants in the Motherland, but still gaudy as hell.
The room is filled with knick knacks and pictures meant to evoke a romantic image of the mysterious west, Orientalism with Chinese characteristics.
While a restaurant run by the Uyghur (former-)majority of Xīnjiāng would likely be decorated with images of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, and plastered with warning signs about bringing in outside food or drink (this isn't universal, but there's a tendency to not be completely cool with pork and booze), the decorators of Xīnjiāng theme restaurants (like the chain of restaurants that has given birth to Beijiang in Richmond) lean heavily on exotic Central Asian pinup girls and camels. That's the basic approach at Beijiang. Minus the doe-eyed Kazakh Betty Grables, sadly. (At Mainland Xīnjiāng theme restaurants performances by Uyghur dancing girls or musicians are also common, as is the practice of dressing the front-of-house staff in vaguely Central Asian costumes).
The way the dining room looks in a Xīnjiāng theme restaurant is definitely the rest of a certain history. Central China has had a... strained relationship with its outer territories (say: Tibet, Xīnjiāng, all those hot, wet places down in the south, the big, empty places up in the north) and the people who live there.
Xīnjiāng has been contested since long before the Qīng and the chaos that followed its fall in 1911, but it was only in the modern period that the central governments of the Republican (Guómíndǎng) and Communist (Gòngchǎndǎng) decided it was worth having a serious presence in the region. The situation under the Communists is the most relevant to unpacking the phenomenon of the Xīnjiāng theme restaurant.
In the early-'50s, as the first cadres arrived in Xīnjiāng to spread the Gospel among Uyghur herdsman, there was befuddlement on both sides. The cadres couldn't quite wrap their head around pastoral, and usually Muslim, Uyghurs, who spoke a language from the same linguistic family as Turkish. The Uyghurs (and Kazakhs and the other minority ethnicities) couldn't quite wrap their heads around ideas like collectivization of agriculture or the equality of men and women. But, for the most part, everybody was basically pretty chill, or as chill as these kind of situations ever get. There are lots of examples from the early days of the mostly Han Chinese (with some Huí Muslim Chinese sprinkled in) learning the languages of the region and going native.
But, in '61, with the beginning of the Soviet-Chinese mini-Cold War, the Xīnjiāng situation changed. Xīnjiāng was no longer the PB&J in a big ol' Socialist Sandwich: it was all that stood between two nuclear-armed heavyweights. Central Asia has always been a battleground for imperialist powers and the Russians and Chinese continued that bloody tradition. The Russians attempted to turn the region to the Soviet side, reaching out to Uyghur activists that were dissatisfied with Beijing's policies. In response, China tightened its grip on the region and began a policy of flooding the area with Han Chinese settlers.
Beginning in the late '50s, intensifying in the '60s and '70s, and continuing today, the demographics of Xīnjiāng tilted wildly in favor of Han Chinese, who became the majority in the region's urban centers. In recent years, Xīnjiāng's cities have been the scene of deadly race riots. Uyghur and minority ethnic culture in Xīnjiāng has been under assault: language policy has been severe, historic sites have been torn down, imams and their mosques have regulated into insignificance, radio stations and newspapers and websites (for most of the last year, Xīnjiāng's internet, when not completely shut down, has been limited to Chinese government websites) have been shut down, and activists have been intimidated, tortured and murdered.
So, it's kind of ironic that under this cloud of racial violence there's been a simultaneous growth of interest in Xīnjiāng (and Tibet, too, which is another place with a similarly fucked up recent history [the political situation in both regions is sorta similar, but Xīnjiāng has traditionally received less Western sympathy (maybe when Central Asian Islam has as much appeal to white people as Tibetan Buddhism?)]).
In a way it's nothing new, since the culture of the China's far west has long appealed to Central Chinese, especially after Liberation in '49. But the recent appearance of Xīnjiāng(-ish) restaurants in cities like Sūzhōu is something new and is definitely the product of Han Chinese establishing a presence in the region. As interest in Xīnjiāng grows, the simultaneously exotic and Sinified image created by Han settlers and Xīnjiāng-born Han has become the Central Chinese image of the region. (The situation is a bit like dishes co-opted during the British Raj in India being brought back to the Homeland by British Colonials: kedgeree for breakfast, while the 93rd Highlanders massacre rebels. Maybe).
The food, then, is also the product of this Han and biānjiāng mínzú cultural exchange ("exchange" is probably too cheerful of a word to use but...). So, despite the claims on the signboard, there's no particular attempt to keep it real with Central Asian cuisine done the way that Uyghurs or Kazakhs do it. At Beijiang (and at the other Xīnjiāng joint in town, Richmond Public Market's Xin Jiang Delicious Food), the chef was born and raised in Xīnjiāng and grew up eating this style of cooking.
There are some purely Chinese dishes, like the ol' sweet-and-sour fish covered in McDonald's-grade neon red translucent goo, or something more tasteful, like pídàn dòufu 皮蛋豆腐, a simple arrangement of preserved eggs and silken tofu.
And there are some dishes that are definitely Central Asian in origin, but which have been subtly tweaked or completely remade with Central Chinese ingredients or methods.
So, sitting down with all that in mind, it's a bit easier to figure out exactly what's going on with the dining room and the menu. On my first visit I was steered away from the few slightly exotic choices on the menu ("Oh no, you aren't used to food like that! You won't like it"), which included most of the Central Asian-inspired dishes. But a few visits after that, I worked through most of the the straight up crossover classics of Central Asian-Chinese cuisine, which now pop up on standard restaurant menus.
Those dishes are the standouts of the colorful but basically uninspiring menu. The premium price tag and finicky plating aren't something that I really dig, either. But... the lamb and cumin (zīrán yángròu 孜然羊肉)... "big plate" chicken (dàpánjī 大盘鸡), a rustic plate of chicken stewed with whatever is on hand (chilies, peppers, potatoes, garlic)... effective beside a thick slab of chewy náng 馕 bread... served extravagantly, nestled in baskets and topped with a bright purple floral garnish...-- the gold-rimmed china on the table suddenly looks less out of place....
End on a high note: the lamb skewers are tender and cooked over real charcoal and are possibly the best in the city.