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The lack of a Tibetan retail trade, restaurant and tourism tradition

Retail trade, restaurants and tourism are key sectors in the Tibetan economy in which local people can easily compete with Han and Hui Chinese. An increasing number of Tibetan entrepreneurs do so successfully. However, the learning process which has led to this development process has never been properly described before. Two examples illustrate it quite well.

"Huoguo" is the Han Chinese version of what is called in Western countries "Chinese fondue" or "hot pot". In Western countries, it consists mainly of beef, horse, lamb and veal meat which the people taking part in the meal put into a boiling beef broth using a long fork. Having meat as the main or even the only ingredient makes it similar to the Mongolian original. In Han Chinese areas, ingredients have been hugely diversified to include many kinds of vegetable and mushrooms, shrimps and other seafood, a great variety of bean, sweet potato and rice noodles and even more unexpected things like soft tofu and coagulated duck blood. Hot pot restaurants are very popular in many Chinese regions, especially in winter. In the Tibetan areas, due to the cold climate, hot pot can be eaten all year round.

Tibet: Hot pot restaurant and its manager in downtown Hezuo, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu province.

Hot pot restaurant and its manager in downtown Hezuo, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu province.

The story of the Tibetan owner of a hotpot restaurant is quite telling. After graduating from middle school, he joined the army for a couple of years. Then he worked as a salesman for various companies, in Gansu and Xinjiang province. The boss from whom he learned most was a Muslim businessman in Xinjiang. With a small loan provided by the government, he opened a small shop in his village. A couple of years later, he and a few friends decided to open a hot pot restaurant in their hometown while having dinner in such a restaurant in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. What started as a joke quickly became a flourishing business on two floors of a well situated building in downtown Hezuo.

The story of the owner of a small dumpling and noodle soup restaurant in Langmusi (Sichuan) is different in some aspects, but illustrates the same process. She worked as a waitress in the first restaurant which was set up in the village by Han Chinese, a couple of years before the tourism boom started. Before that, there was simply no restaurant in the whole area. She watched the cook preparing traditional Chinese dishes; after a few years, she used her savings to open her own tiny restaurant. Progressively, she was able to increase the size of it; now it holds four tables. Next doors, her mother runs a small food store.

Tibet: A small dumplings and noodle soup restaurant in Langmusi, Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan.  Tibet: A small dumplings and noodle soup restaurant in Langmusi, Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan.

A small dumplings and noodle soup restaurant in Langmusi, Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan.

These two stories have got a common point: in the absence of a Tibetan tradition in this field, locals had to learn from Han Chinese and other minorities how to open a successful business in their hometown. Experts have often wondered why with the economic reforms since the 1980s, Tibetans have not built up their own retail trade network. In Western academic publications and media, two theories have surfaced, none of which adequately explains the phenomenon.

The first theory says that the Chinese communist regime would not let the Tibetans develop economically, that the system was organized in such a way that all the lucrative activities are reserved for Han Chinese. The success of the Moslem Hui minority shows that this is absurd. This minority has got a long tradition in trade which dates dates to the Silk Road. Its whole society is organized according to Moslem principles, which also shows that in communist China, religion can play an important role in the cohesion of a community.

The second theory says that the Tibetans get so many handouts from the government that they do not feel the need to engage in such activities which are not very lucrative. This is total nonsense too. Tibetans do not lead a comfortable life on government handouts; many work for low salaries as truck drivers or salespeople. They could easily earn more money if they opened their own shop or restaurant or engage in activities related to tourism; they are willing to work hard to make this happen. It is mainly the lack of capital and knowhow which has prevented them from doing so until now.

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