Gao Le didn’t pick xiaolong. The government picked her. Since being assigned to this dim sum shop in 1981, she has risen from dumpling maker to manageress, and picked up no small amount of pride in the process.
The first time I visited, the elderly couple across the shared table (they are all shared) looked up and across their plates. ‘We grew up in this neighbourhood. It used to be our breakfast place. We moved away 15 years ago, but every weekend we take a 20RMB taxi back here to eat.’
Months later, the no-nonsense Gao was dressed in jean shorts and a pair of Vans sneakers, casually holding court as waitresses delivered money from the day’s lunch and open-shirted chefs popped in to tell her that they were going for a smoke. She then chomped into a sweet potato and talked business.
‘This store has been here since 1953. It started as a dim sum and breakfast place for the residents of You Dian New Village, around the corner. Those houses used to be for employees of the Post Office and the Electric Company. A lot of people from that neighbourhood grew up with us, and they are still customers. They go to other places, but the flavour isn’t right to them, so they always come back here.
‘We’re part of the Hongkou District Food and Beverage Management Company. There used to be hundreds of stores like ours, all with the same parent company, in Hongkou. Each of them had a different name: Fu De, Wan Shou Zhai... all subsidiaries of the same company. But in the last five or 10 years, most of them have gone out of business. Property prices are too high! They can’t survive. I don’t know why we’re still here. Luck, I guess. Will we be around in 10 years? Hard to say.
‘We’re a laozihao [time-tested brand], still state-owned, sort of. About 10 years ago, they collectivised the company. You could invest your salary to get shares, and that’s what I did, but we’re not a private company.
Our specialty is old, classic Shanghai dim sum: guotie, shengjian, xiaolongbao. Also noodles. Cold noodles, noodle soup with duck blood, glass noodles with beef…our baozi – meat baozi and vegetable baozi – and our shaomai are also famous.
‘Hey, you’re from America? Where? Let’s go there and do business. I’ll invest half, you invest half. 50/50. How much do you make as a writer? [Cringe] We can make more doing this. Go to San Francisco, open a small shop. I have cooked here for more than 20 years – I can make everything. We can start with a small shop. If it works, then we open another, and another, and another. Can you manage the stores? If it doesn’t work, fine, we can do it for just a year, and just forget about it. What do you think?
‘Why are our xiaolongbao good? The food quality – flour from the Shanghai Flour Factory and other factors. We’re also CUNclean, hygienic, and delicious. Plus we’re Shanghainese. Outsiders can’t do this. They would just take all the training and go somewhere else to do it for cheaper.
‘We have one lady, she is the second generation to work here. Her mother retired and gave her the position. The daughter was 17 when she started. Now, she’s 59.
‘Din Tai Fung is too expensive. They look better than ours but the taste is the same. They have a nice environment, good decoration, serious about their standards, but they’re nothing special. We’re more authentic. Our flavour is stronger, the Shanghainese flavour.
‘Hey, I’m going to Australia to see if there’s any business opportunities there. If you know of a good place in Shanghai to set up shop, though, we can do business together here. What do you think?’