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Still Swimming

Qi is one of the owners of a well-known chain of fish restaurants and the storefront he manages is the major store in this county, located at the exit of the highway where there are huge traffic flows of people and vehicles. The other branches are scattered around the county, managed by other relatives of his family.


When I first met him, he was just coming out of the kitchen after finishing his work. He greeted me, beckoned me to sit down and asked the waiter to serve tea. I quietly looked at him - a man in his early forties, with short hair, a round face, not too tall, and slightly chubby. On his left chin, there was a very noticeable mole.


I sat at a large round table and looked around at the restaurant's furnishings.


Most of the tables in the hall were this round style, all of which were laid with overlapping red and white tablecloths. The red cloth was put at the bottom, about to fall to the ground, forming a closed cylinder space under the table; the white cloth was much smaller, covering only the tabletop. Above the tablecloth a transparent glass turntable was placed. The round table was surrounded by eight to ten wooden chairs, covered with similar clothes. In addition to the round tables, there were also smaller, square tables for smaller groups of diners.


Those neatly arranged and decorated tables, combined with the marble floors, shiny metallic ceilings, and dense chandeliers, all contribute to a hotel-like atmosphere, while a place like this is in fact selling Jianghu Cuisine*, which made the furnishing style a bit gaudy.

(*A cuisine of folk origins, as opposed to courtly cuisine.)


The fish restaurant was first opened by my father-in-law. He initially worked out over twenty ways to cook fish, but in the end only the most popular three or four kinds were handed down and formed a Jianghu Cuisine.


According to him, this fish cuisine originated from a ferry port in the early 1980s. Qi's father-in-law, Wen, was a stonemason in his forties. He often asked the boatmen to help him transport the stone, and then he cooked fish for them in return. His cooking skill was well recognized by those people. So by some fortuitous chance, he decided to abandon his old profession and open a restaurant selling fish instead.


At that time - just shortly after the Reform and Opening Up Policy of China - the country was still very sensitive to this kind of self-employment. People were allowed to open a store, but they were not allowed to hire people from outside, or else they would be considered to be engaged in capitalism. So around that time, many stores were run by family members.


Wen's fish restaurant was just a small cottage at the beginning. The inner hall could only hold three or four tables, so the spaces at the door were frequently used to add two extra when meals could not be held within. The initial diners were mostly truck drivers who passed by on the road where the fish store was located. In the early 1980s, the country's road development was still in its infancy and road resources were quite scarce. As that road was the only one linking the city to the neighboring cities, the daily traffic flow was high, and therefore the potential for customers very rich. Over time, the number of diners increased, and the cuisine’s reputation spread. When Wen got a certain amount of savings, he relocated his fish restaurant to a larger location on that road, erecting a two-story building to accommodate diners.


When other people saw you making money selling fish, they opened the same fish restaurants. So there were about forty such fish restaurants on that route at the time. Some of them simply did not know how to cook the cuisine, and used the signboard to fool diners.


The number of diners increased sharply, so did the demand for fish. Although the restaurant was close to the river, harvesting fish from the river alone was not sufficient to meet demand. This, coupled with the fact that fish farming had not yet taken off, left only one way for the restaurant operators - travel to the wholesale markets dozens of kilometers away to buy fish.


My father-in-law chartered twenty fishing boats to catch fish, but the harvest was not enough to sell. So my mother-in-law used to catch the early bus to the wholesale fish markets every morning. When she came back after a four-hour round trip with a basket of fish, which were almost dead yet still fresh to eat, those diners waiting in the restaurant immediately rushed to grab the fish, and all eagerly waited for his fish to be weighed first.


According to Qi's recollection, during that time, people loved to go to that area to eat fish. Whether it was the truck drivers who passed by every day, or other diners who made a special trip to dine there, they all became acquainted with the restaurant owners over time. Back then, the hospitality culture was so strong that in most cases, the restaurant owner would personally come to the table to drink with the diners.


In the late 1990s, the new highway was about to be completed and opened, and Wen relocated his restaurant again, from the original remote village to the urban area. But the county was not well developed at that time, and there were only one street holding limited commercial activities. His new fish restaurant opened at one end of that street, and business was brisk right away.


My father-in-law used to say that eating fish in our restaurant was a superior thing at that time!


He laughed and went on to say,


He is a man with a lot of experience, and I really respect him, although he often gives people the impression of being an eccentric old man. For example, if he is upset one day, he will refuse to sell fish to diners and shoo them away. But if his friends come to eat fish, he will gladly accompany them to drink. He is not a gourmet, nor does he have a chef's background, but he relied on his interest to develop so many ways to cook fish. This is truly remarkable.


Ten years after the relocation to the urban area, Wen’s restaurant and this fish cuisine brand grew in popularity and eventually became the centre of the county's tourist appeal. Meanwhile, the development of the new highway has reduced the traffic flow on the old road significantly, resulting in a reduction in the number of diners. After the official opening of the new highway in 2003, the original fish restaurants on that old road relocated to the urban area one after another. From then on, the once bustling fish street became engulfed by the stream of history, whilst  the fish restaurants had to move on.


In 2006, Wen relocated the fish restaurant again, to the development area, which is now the busiest place in the county. It is no coincidence that other fish restaurants have migrated here as well. 


I said to Qi, now those fish restaurants were really like the Door God. Every time you drive out of the highway, there are people from those restaurants yelling at you to go eat fish. The public perception is quite bad.


Is that how they used to solicit diners before?


Yes, they were all yelling at the door to attract diners. However, it used to be a welcoming sensation, like when you meet some friends on the street and want to invite them to your house. Now the yelling is pure solicitation, with a sense of forced consumption. It is indeed annoying.


The year he moved to the new location, Wen was almost 70 years old. He handed over the operation of the fish restaurant to his children and his successor started to open some branches in other parts of the county. By that time, the country's restaurant industry has thrived a lot, and the government, realizing that the use of food could also draw national tourists and investment, increased its efforts to promote this culinary card to the entire country. For example, the government took the lead to film a cuisine documentary, helped to establish the association of this fish cuisine brand and held a fish banquet for a thousand people on the square. What lies ahead for these fish restaurants seems to be a particularly bright future.


We will continue to relocate in the future. Now this place is too crowded with traffic, so in a couple of years we will move to a location closer to the main city. That area is also the key development area for the next 5-10 years. Speaking of which, he took out his phone and showed me the plan of that new neighbourhood.


I have to admit, I haven't been back to my hometown for a long time, and every time I returned after a long absence, I was always astounded by the fresh picture of this place. It was as if my hometown was no longer my hometown, but rather a new place that I needed to get to know again. The history of this fish restaurant’s relocation is, in a way, a metaphor for both the development of this country in the past forty years, as its survival post-80s and post-90s. It’s like a fish in a stream which keeps leaving, swimming to the river, swimming to the lake, and finally swimming to the sea and struggling in this vastness.


Similar to this fish cuisine, there are many more dishes that were born on the roadway in this country throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, and can be easily enjoyed at the dinner table today.


Now the roads are more like a conveyor belt, quickly delivering various types of food to people.


What else will the road bring us in the future?