Li Junli in front of her restaurant with her husband photobombing in the back!
“We grew up poor in Shacun, the village next to Xizhou. My parents were fishermen and they were out most of the day so I learned to cook for my siblings when I was really young, 10 or 11. That was normal for our village. But I really enjoyed it, I liked seeing my family happy after a good meal. I guess you could say that’s why I started the restaurant too – I like seeing our guests happy after eating a good meal.”
Li’s hardworking and incredibly welcoming parents
“I left home early, to look for work when I was around 16. I ended up in Kunming for 11 years, working in clothing retail and the military cafeteria where I met my husband, a soldier at the time. We only had two choices after he got out of the army, up north to Shandong where he’s from or to Xizhou, where I’m from. We chose Xizhou because my parents are getting old and I like the quieter, slower life here. The mountains and the lake make it a beautiful place to live too.”
From left to right: broad beans, jasmine flowers, and tree lichen (also safe to adventurous!)
“You can’t get away from food. Before anything else, as humans, we need food to survive. We try to make our food as fresh and clean as possible, to make our guests happy. My chefs are great, one is this really capable woman from the village next-door and the other is my husband. I taught them everything I know so they can take care of the cooking while I take care of the guests. We go to the market every morning to buy fresh produce and I try to get the higher-quality spices, even if they might cost more.”
Wang Huanli, the behind-the-scenes guy who does a bit of everything and a lot of joking around
“I knew it was going to be a risk to open the restaurant, back in 2014. There weren’t many tourists then and the rent was high for the area. But I thought to myself, you’ve got to take risks to succeed. If we succeed, we succeed. If not, there’s nothing we can do about it. You could say I believed in my cooking. So that’s how we began. All the money we had in the beginning we saved ourselves, my parents weren’t able to give us any.”
One of the head chefs in front of fresh produce from the morning market
“Women tend to be more detail-oriented. Most of the time in Bai families, the women cook. So it makes sense that they would be better-suited to make traditional Bai dishes.”
Pickled vegetables, made fresh in-house, are extremely popular among locals
That the owner of the restaurant is a woman is a surprise but not shocking. The Bai have traditionally been “semi-matriarchal” which I think is a fancy way of saying that women have always held more power and influence here than in most other parts of China. Case in point, Li moved with her husband and children to Dali, her hometown. For those familiar with Confucian norms in China, this ought to come as a bit of a surprise; the vast majority of the time, couples move in with the husband’s parents, not the wife’s. Given that she’s Bai and he’s not, that Xizhou is her hometown and his is thousands of miles away, and that this was her cuisine not his, it makes sense that she’s the boss.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. By and large, China is still a male-dominated culture and men are expected to lead in most matters, and especially in business. It takes a certain type of man to take a back seat and be happy with their wife taking the spotlight and that’s the kind of man Wang Huanli is. He’s a tall, strapping Northerner originally from Shandong who has been in Yunnan for nearly 20 years, since 1999 when he was posted here with the army. Though he has somewhat of an imposing presence because of how tall he is, he’s actually quite warm and loves to joke around.
Perhaps even more surprising is that one of the head chefs is a woman (the other is her husband). While women have been able to break into many industries in China (in fact, gender balance, especially in STEM fields, is much better in China than in most of the world, especially America), the head chef scene has been one of the most stubborn to change. Walk into any restaurant in China, especially any restaurant bigger than the mom and pop variety, and you’ll find that the head chef is a man. The hefty cookware (flipping those woks is a real challenge), hot kitchens, long hours, and strong tempers are all challenges to aspiring female chefs but perhaps the biggest challenge is still the image of a strong, male chef. Li Junli, however, sees none of that. When she hired her chef, the only staff member who is not an immediate family member, she hired her on the basis of her reputation and the recommendation of a family friend.
All throughout the interview, Li Junli was modest and played down any comments about her success. However, her drive and creativity shone through at some points: “You’ve got to take risks to succeed . . . You could say I believed in my cooking.” Still, though, she defers to her chefs and ingredients as the reasons for her success. It’s not until later on that I discover that everything her chefs know, was taught to them by Li. Perhaps, like Li, it’s not that female entrepreneurs and business owners aren’t commonplace in China, but rather that they are much more low profile about their success. It might take some serious digging to find the stories of these enterprising and successful women but that’s the point of the Humans of Xizhou series: to spotlight the incredible diversity of the lives that are lived in this one village, this single point in rural Yunnan where dozens of social and historical forces are converging, where modern infrastructure is blending with traditional Bai culture and smartphones are as commonplace as farmers’ baskets.