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Childhood dream brings Chinese chef to Zambia

SONG

JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
WHEN he was a little boy, Song Wenhan dreamed of traveling to Africa, because he had heard a lot about its beautiful landscapes and

wild animals.
He also wanted to learn more about the culture of the African people.
“I always knew that Africa was beautiful and I wanted to come and photograph the beautiful people and beautiful landscapes,” he says through an interpreter. Mr Song can hardly speak English.
Born into a middle-income family in 1967, Song Wenhan is one of eight children. Of course that was before the one child policy was introduced in 1979, which restricted couple to having only one child.
Mr Song, who hails from north-east of China, went to university to study photography, driven by his desire to become an artist.
But this professional photography found himself drifting more towards the culinary world.
“What interests me most is the art side of food,” he says.
To Mr Song, food is not just nutrients for the body, it must look beautiful.
“Of course nutrition is the first we look for in food, but we also need to make it look beautiful,” he says.
After graduating from university, Mr Song started reading on how to make art out of food.
And after mastering the art, he was engaged by an association to teach people how to make food beautiful. He has won some awards in his art of making delicious food beautiful.
Some of his works look too beautiful to chew and swallow.
In 2014, Mr Song made his first visit to Zambia as a tourist, to take pictures of the continent he dreamed about as a little boy and he fell in love with the country.
“When I first came to this country, I was surprised by the clean air,” he says.
He also thinks the Zambian people are much civilised.
“The Zambian people are very civilised and friendly to the newcomers. I feel at home here, it does not feel like a strange place,” he says.
“In China the relationship between people is very complicated, you have to lie to many people to get what you want,” says Mr Song, as he tucks into his plate of noodles with a pair of chopsticks.
“People talk of Africa as a developing continent, but when it comes to the people, they are much civilised,” he says.
But while he fell in love with the landscape and people, Mr Song found the Zambian dishes a little bit boring.
“When you travel from the east to the west, you find the same kind of food – nshima served with different kinds of relish, but it is not diverse,” he says.
And in that he saw an opportunity to introduce Chinese food.
“I want to bring Chinese food here to provide more variety for the Zambian people,” says Mr Song.
His idea is to popularise conventional Chinese food.
Mr Song wants to build a business empire based on the Kentucky Fried Chicken model.
In March last year, Mr Song opened his first outlet at the JCS Food Market in Longacres. He would later open a second outlet in Kabulonga.
The JCS Food Market is popular for local as well as Chinese foods. The market offers fresh vegetables and fish, including sea fish.
Mr Song says about 40 percent of his customers are Zambians wanting to sample Chinese dishes.
He says fried noodles and steam dumplings are some of the most popular among Zambians.
He gets most of his food locally.
“There is a lot of food I can get from right here – vegetables, fruits and spices. It is very convenient,” he says, making a sweeping gesture with his hand.
He is also passionate about passing his skill to other, especially young people. He has trained his Zambian workers how to make the noodles and other how to prepare some Chinese dishes.
“They are very clever, when you teach them, they learn very fast,” he says.
His restaurant employs six chefs and 10 assistants at the two outlets.
But of course communication with his workers is a huge barrier. Mr Song and his workers usually communicate using hand gestures.
One of the workers at the restaurant, Charles Simumba, joined Uncle Song’s straight from high school, with no prior training in catering, but today, he is one of the most dependable workers.
The young Zambian workers are fond of Mr Song, and some of them refer to him as “Papa”.
Whenever he travels to China, Mr Song comes back with small gifts for the workers.
“I consider him part of my family,” says Charles.
“I follow all the labour laws because I want my workers to be happy,” says Mr Song, adding: “We are human beings and we are all equal.”
He wants to send Charles to China to further training.
Mr Song’s restaurant back in China is still operating, but he says competition in China is hard.
“The competition in China is very hard and the profit is small,” he says.
He says businesses in China have to pay high rentals and high taxes.
“Here it is much easier because the competition is not hard,” he says.
Mr Song’s dream is to make Uncle Song’s very popular and to open more branches in Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
“I want to get help from the Chinese government and Chinese banks to invest here,” he says.
However, Uncle Song’s restaurant is too small to qualify for government assistance.
The Chinese government has an African fund to give cheap loans to Chinese investors who want to invest in Africa.
In order to qualify for a loan, Mr Song needs to increase his outlets to about nine.
Mr Song is married and has a son and daughter who are still living in China.
“I want them to come and live here with me soon. I want to live here for the rest of my life,” he says.



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