What’s the Deal with Muslim Noodle Shops?

musTheir green signs scripted with Arabic lettering, and pictures of open pasture, cows and sheep, comfort many Chinese-illiterate foreigners with consistency and suitable nourishment. The similar interior and menus of Muslim pulled noodle restaurants thrive intensively all over Dongguan. Apparently one family runs a restaurant and may suddenly disappear to be replaced by another, most likely from the same hometown, but the whole ins and outs of these restaurants tells a labyrinthine story.

At the beginning of the 2000s, due to a policy to revert cultivated land in the northwest provinces, such as Xinjiang, Qinghai and Gansu, back to forest or pasture, many members of Hui and Uygur ethnic groups lost their jobs and flew south to Guangdong, seeking opportunities. Some of them were able to set up small businesses such as Muslim restaurants and lamb skewer carts, many of them unlicensed.

To solve the problem, the Dongguan Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau advocated several departments to quicken procedures for minority groups applying for restaurant licenses, encouraging them to set up businesses legally. They were also being assisted by Ma Wumairi, an ethnic Hui from Qinghai Province. He founded one of the earliest restaurants back in 2002 and soon expanded to four stores. He introduced his townsmen to the food industry in Dongguan and gained a strong reputation.

By the end of 2010, the number of noodle shops reached 1,200, doubling from 2005, and providing over 5,000 jobs to Northwest migrants. Each run by one family, the father is usually the manager; the wife takes care of the fried dishes; and the son and nephew are in charge of pulling noodles. Many of them are from Ma’s hometown of Hualong, others are from around Xinjiang and Gansu.

Ma also opened a beef trading company in 2006, transporting and processing quality beef and lamb from the pasture to Dongguan. In 2010, he ran part of the Dongguan section of the Asian Games torch relay. Of 80 torch bearers Ma was the only ethnic runner, representing the 400,000 in Dongguan. Whether he established them or not, it is common to find Ma’s photograph delivering the torch for the honor of his people’s in noodle shops all over town.