In Tripoli, Chinese takeout still on the menu


Dai Sonxian’s family invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a new seaside location a month before the Libyan crisis began. (Ernesto Londono/WASHINGTON POST)
June 26, 2011

Even with bombs raining down on Tripoli and gunfire crackling throughout the night, every time the phone rings at the al-Maida Chinese restaurant, the Dai family springs into action.

The thousands-strong Chinese labor force that helped make the family one of the most successful restaurateurs in this battered capital left the country soon after an uprising plunged Libya into chaos in February.

Gone, too, are most of the foreign diplomats who kept the eatery on speed dial.

But having invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a new seaside location for the restaurant a month before the crisis began, the Dais are not yet willing to become casualties of Libya’s civil war.

“It would be such a loss of our money and a big waste,” Dai Sonxian, the family matriarch and restaurant manager, said on a recent evening, standing by the register near a framed photo of a smiling Moammar Gaddafi.

So her 21-year-old son Alex, the delivery guy, often darts out at night to hail a cab in this checkpoint-choked city, carrying containers of steaming fried rice, cashew chicken and spring rolls.

“Sometimes when I go out, I hear booms,” he said.

The availability of Chinese takeout — which is often darn good — has become a hallmark of modern war zones.

Baghdad’s Chinese restaurant at the al-Mansour Hotel kept the stove on during the worst of days, feeding the Chinese diplomats who operated out of the oft-attacked establishment. Another Chinese restaurant, in the Iraqi capital’s Green Zone, became part of Baghdad lore, with a stream of burly contractors timidly walking out of its mysterious backrooms.

In Kabul, Golden Key Seafood Restaurant is a favorite Chinese joint among expats in landlocked Afghanistan, and one of the establishments that meets the security requirements that make them accessible to employees of certain non-governmental organizations.

While many expat-run businesses board up when war breaks out, Chinese entrepreneurs have come to see them as lands of opportunity.

“They have their own way of managing and dealing with the challenges,” said Wang Tuguo, a Chinese journalist on assignment in Tripoli who has patronized al-Maida and Golden Key. “If you’re the only one, it’s big business.”

His verdict on the Dais’ southern Chinese cuisine: “Delicious,” he said. “Better than some restaurants in China.”

The Dais moved to Tripoli in 2004 from their native Zhejiang province on China’s eastern coast with a dream of opening a clothing store.

Dai Sonxian soon discovered that Libyan women were far larger than the women she dressed in China. So she decided the family would instead profit by feeding them.

The family opened a small restaurant that soon became a sensation, she said. Because Muslims are not supposed to eat pork — a staple of Chinese cuisine — they offered a wide selection of lamb, chicken, fish and tofu dishes.

They use Chinese ingredients that are shipped in bulk twice a year.

The restaurant once served Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, she said proudly. As al-Maida’s reputation grew, the original restaurant became too small.

“There were not enough places for people to sit,” the 55-year-old said, speaking in Mandarin.

In January, the Dais moved the restaurant to a large two-story house that faces the Mediterranean. The ground floor has ornate ceilings with Islamic calligraphy and is decorated with red lanterns. The Dais live in the upstairs bedrooms.

When Libyans rose up against Gaddafi in February, Dai Sonxian figured that the upheaval would end within weeks.

“In Egypt, everything was over in a month or two,” she said. “I never thought Libyans would be fighting for so long.”

Business is abysmal now, she said. The other three Chinese restaurants in the city closed this spring after their owners went home.

“We are a little scared,” she said. “We know that at any time, the bombs can come crashing down — bang, bang, bang.”

But Dai Sonxian said she couldn’t stomach the thought of giving up on the family’s investment.

“I would lose everything,” she said. “So I’m gritting my teeth and sticking it out.”

Sun reported from Washington.

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