The Creation of a Japanese Culinary Field in Contemporary Shanghai
Japanese cuisine restaurants returned to Shanghai and other cities first in the form of hotel restaurants. In Shanghai, by far the most famous were the two restaurants at the Okura Garden Hotel that opened in 1990 on the premises of the former French Club of Shanghai, fronted by the club’s elegant gardens. The Garden Hotel was the most elegant in Shanghai in the 1990s, and the associations of Japanese food with excellence and luxury were enhanced by its reappearance in Shanghai in such illustrious surroundings. The two Japanese restaurants at the Garden Hotel pioneered the import of the vast array of Japanese food products necessary for making high-quality Japanese cuisine, many of which were (no longer) known in Shanghai. The head chefs from Japan trained the first generations of Chinese chefs making Japanese food, and these went on to staff the Japanese restaurants that would appear later in the decade. This was a pattern also noted in the Western hotels that opened around the same time, whose kitchens also became culinary training grounds. The customers at Japanese restaurants in the 1990s were mostly business travellers from Japan and their Chinese business clients.
Japanese expatriates were significant stakeholders in the early development of this culinary field, as investors, operators, and customers, as Shanghai became again the centre of Japanese business on the Mainland. In addition to the area around the Okura Garden Hotel, a larger Japanese restaurant scene developed in the Hongqiao area, the centre of Japanese business activity in Shanghai. These included many small venues that featured nijikai (afterparty) drinking sessions with Chinese hostesses, perhaps not so different from the geisha services decades earlier.
By the end of the 1990s, experienced restaurateurs recognized that the international restaurant market in Shanghai was ready to break out of the confines of the hotel restaurant scene. The first fine dining French restaurant, ‘M on the Bund’, appeared on the Bund riverfront in 1999. One of the first fine dining Japanese restaurants to be opened outside a hotel was Shintori, founded by a Taiwanese entrepreneur surnamed Kuo at a location on Wulumuqi Road near Jianguo Road in 1997. According to Shintori’s manager Germaine Zhou, a Shanghai native who has worked at the restaurant since it opened, it was the wrong business model at the time. Chinese were not ready for such high-end dining, and the Japanese business market was never large enough to sustain more than a handful of such eateries. Moreover, the cuisine at Shintori was traditional kaiseki cuisine, whose elaborate and dainty presentation did not appeal to a wide range of patrons.
While Shintori struggled, Kuo achieved great success with a chic ultramodern Chinese restaurant called ‘People,’ requiring a ‘secret’ code for entrance. This restaurant showed that modern design, even gimmicks, would be key to success in the high end of Shanghai dining. The team decided to move the Japanese restaurant to a similarly modern venue on central Julu Road. A Japanese architect redesigned the new premises, originally a small theatre, as a radically open space, with a kitchen entirely open to view in the area that would have been the stage in the theatre. According to Zhou, this was the first truly ‘transparent’ restaurant kitchen in China. The narrow entrance off busy Julu Road is through a grove of bamboo that conveys a Zen-like austerity. When you reach the restaurant the massive doors open automatically and you are astonished to emerge into a cavernous industrial concrete and mirrored space. Mirrors give a quality of indeterminate dimensions that is more like a nightclub than a restaurant. The menu was also redesigned to feature larger portions and a fusion appeal, including salads. A sushi bar seats close to 20 people. Chinese regulars sit there, receiving recommendations from the chefs about the best items available that day. The non-Chinese regulars, mostly Europeans and American expatriates, usually sit at tables. Along the dining balcony overlooking the kitchen there are tables for two, usually couples on a date. In the back there are three separate spaces partly concealed by bamboo blinds behind which noisy groups of business associates eat.
According to Zhou, the majority of the customers in the boom years of the 2000s were Western expatriates, particularly Americans. This surprised even the management, who were aiming to attract young Shanghainese. However, in the years after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, it experienced a boom in foreign direct investment and an explosion in the expatriate population that did not taper off until after the financial crisis of 2008. The 2000s also coincided with a global boom in Japanese cuisine, meaning that expatriates were eager to explore a fashionable Japanese eatery such as Shintori. The cost of the average dinner according to Dianping.com is 475 yuan (approx. $72 USD) per person.
One of the reasons for the popularity of Japanese cuisine in Shanghai, as globally, is presentation, including the elaborate and particular use of small plates. When Shintori opened, the management found that buying pottery in Japan was too expensive, but when they visited the famed pottery making centre of Jingdezhen in China they found only traditional Chinese motifs, and nothing suitable for modern fine dining. So Kuo decided to start his own pottery kiln on the outskirts of Shanghai with a potter from the USA. Kuo thus pioneered a practice of making and designing tableware that the other restaurants now also employ. This importing of Japanese and international artistic sensibilities, along with the employment of Chinese chefs, Chinese management and the focus on expatriates from around the world, indicates both the simultaneous indigenization and transnationalization of the Japanese culinary field in Shanghai in the 2000s.