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    Even more on the Baghdad Chinese restaurant

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | June 15, 2008

    The AFP’s Benjamin Morgan writes a story on the Chinese restaurant in Baghdad confronting violence. It makes $40-$50 a ady. Modest by American standards, but 4 to 5x to what the co-owner was making back in China.

    There is endless fascination on this topic of Chinese food in Baghdad, including Craig Smith’s 2005 story for the New York Time and ABC News’s story earlier this year.

    Here it goes:

    Despite a bomb blast that rattled windows and sent a panicked co-worker scurrying back to China, Baghdad’s sole Chinese restaurant has defied the odds to keep its doors open.

    Cao Lu and his partner Yang Chunxia, operators of the “China Restaurant”, have brushed off the violence that continues to rock the Iraqi capital daily with a dash of Zen-like stoicism.

    “Every place in the world is the same, people need to live and make a living. Baghdad is no different,” Cao, 46, told AFP inside his two-table restaurant that he began operating about six months ago.

    “My objective is the same, just to make enough money to get by,” said the laid-off steel factory worker from northern China who until two years ago had never left his country.

    “My path was this one — to come to Baghdad, this is the road that opened to me.”

    Short of staff, lunch time is busy as the eatery the size of a bathroom with red Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling and posters of kung fu film stars Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee on the walls, fills with Iraqi patrons.

    Cao and Lu, shorthanded since another colleague left following a nearby bomb attack last month, sweat profusely as they take orders, shake large woks on the fiery stove and then clean up.

    Business is not hugely profitable but is a steady 40 to 50 US dollars a day, or four times what Cao made at his factory and enough to consider expanding operations — perhaps with an Iraqi partner.

    As it is often the case in China, an extensive network of contacts first led Cao and Yang to try their luck in Baghdad, a city that global consultancy firm Mercer rated in a report as the world’s most dangerous out of 215 surveyed.

    Now, after first running a discount store in Baghdad, Cao, like most of the city’s six million residents, has adjusted to the fears of living with the almost daily explosions which have shaken the city over the past five years.

    “It’s a danger we have to live in, but the Iraqis are still here and they believe it will one day get better,” said Cao, a former People’s Liberation Army soldier. “One has to believe that.”

    His co-worker, Yang, nods in agreement. “We just take it one day at a time.”

    Like Cao, Yang, 46, left a worried spouse and son back home, and in doing so joined a long tradition of migration that has made the Chinese one of the largest diasporas on earth.

    Only a handful of Chinese merchants have stayed on in Baghdad since the insurgency and insecurity erupted after the US-led 2003 invasion, its peak 18 months ago prompting another Chinese eatery to shut down.

    The few Chinese restaurants that were open before the invasion of Iraq have also vanished.

    Security has since improved in Baghdad, but given that Cao could have stayed back in China, a nation with very low rates of violent crime, he agrees that his decision to work in Baghdad is not for everyone.

    “It’s a bit peculiar,” said Cao, smiling sheepishly.

    Their presence in the central Baghdad neighbourhood also adds to another long tradition in this war-battered but historically rich city — ethnic diversity that sees Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups and Christians live side by side.

    The Karrada district, with its once wealthy merchant homes on the banks of the slow-flowing Tigris River, does struggle with sectarian violence, but in recent months restaurants, fresh fruit and electronic shops have reopened.

    A lack of power remains a problem, routinely shutting off and leaving its owners sweltering in Baghdad’s scorching heat.

    Cao admits that conditions are tough and like many other parts of Baghdad, the building receives only two hours of electricity a day. But he keeps his eatery open from morning to night.

    In having to adapt to local conditions, Cao said he has even had to cut back on his Chinese menu. “We have stopped making many Chinese dishes since we just can’t get the materials and now make quite a lot of Iraqi dishes,” he said.

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