Islamabad, Pakistan – Sitting in his open-air kitchen in the heart of a busy shopping centre in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, Zhang Yan Xu does not seem to have a care in the world.
The tall, broad-shouldered chef seems a genial sort, who exults in his inability to communicate with his customers.
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“No English,” he says, smiling broadly. “No Urdu.”
Behind him, his wife looks up briefly from the chopping board, before getting back to the serious business of rolling and folding fresh dumplings for the customers downstairs.
The Xus work at Hong Du Ramen, the latest in a glut of Chinese restaurants, grocery stores, guesthouses and language centres to open up across Pakistan, aimed mainly at the country’s growing population of Chinese citizens.
The influx has been fuelled by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $56bn project that is seeing Chinese companies build roads, power plants and industrial zones across the South Asian country.
Two years after it was announced, CPEC’s first “early harvest” infrastructure projects are now coming online, with work under way on dozens more.
“This year is, as we call it, the year of early harvest,” says Lijian Zhao, China’s deputy ambassador to Pakistan. “The ultimate goal is to help Pakistan to develop the economy … to help to accelerate the industrialisation process.”
The 43 projects that directly fall under the CPEC banner have seen a tripling of the number of Chinese nationals resident in Pakistan to more than 30,000, according to the Chinese embassy in Islamabad. In addition, Reuters reported, that more than 71,000 Chinese nationals visited on short-term visas last year.
As more Chinese engineers, managers and workers flood into the country, Pakistan has seen a mushrooming of supermarkets, guesthouses and other businesses catering specifically to Chinese needs.
Zhao, the Chinese deputy ambassador, says he’s a regular visitor to the new Chinese grocery stores, stocking up on traditional ingredients that are just not available anywhere else in the South Asian country.
“I go for those markets. [Even the embassy] cannot bring everything from China,” he says.
‘Arrived in Beijing’
The aptly named Firstop (a portmanteau of ‘First Stop’) is one of the largest such stores in Islamabad. The supermarket’s shelves are lined with products manufactured in China: everything from noodles to hardhat construction helmets, sea kelp to stationery, spice mixes to industrial meat grinders.
As a Chinese migrant moving to Islamabad, whether you are looking for a quick meal or to procure the equipment and supplies to set up your own restaurant, it looks like Firstop has got you covered. Most of the demand, though, seems to be for food – both ready-made and ingredients – that are not available in typical Pakistani grocery stores, says Zhang Song, a store manager.
“Mostly the food and other seasonings are imported from China,” says Song, in broken English. “Only [the cooking] oil is from Pakistan. Others all from China.”
Song, a 29-year-old originally from He Bei province in China, says he moved to Pakistan two years ago to take advantage of the boom in businesses aimed at Chinese citizens.
“Most customers are Chinese people,” he says.
Pakistanis, he says, seem to be fond of making Chinese food, but the South Asian version of Chinese food – heavy on garlic, ginger and tomatoes – does not necessarily fit the bill of actual Chinese fare.
“[Traditional] Chinese food is too much different from Pakistani food,” he says, smiling.
At the Ni Hao Cash & Carry, a few kilometres away, the scene is much the same. The small store is crammed with row upon row of products labelled in Chinese, with an array of spices arranged in open containers near the back wall.
“A lot of [Pakistanis] walk in and are shocked … they see everything in Chinese here, and wonder perhaps if they’ve arrived in Beijing,” says Rizwan Hassan, a manager at the store.
Hassan and business partner Eraj Raza have been working with Chinese nationals on infrastructure projects for the last seven years, and set up this store about six months ago.
“We built the store because we saw CPEC, and all the companies coming in,” says Raza. “Lots of investors are coming in. People are opening restaurants, guesthouses, or other services.”
About 90 percent of their customers, says Raza, are Chinese, with the rest made up mostly of Koreans, Thais and other East Asian visitors. Ni Hao also operates another store in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and commercial capital, as well as smaller outlets at more than half a dozen CPEC project sites.
The language barrier is a major stumbling block for many Chinese visitors, says Hassan. Most Chinese do not speak Urdu, Pakistan’s native language, or English, which is spoken by a smaller subset of Pakistanis.
As such, he says, the Chinese seem to be setting up a parallel world in the South Asian country.
“Right now, there is a whole Chinese life here,” says Hassan, who speaks broken Mandarin. “There are thousands of Chinese people in Islamabad, and they have everything they need to live comfortably. Now they even have clubs for them … everything is provided to them.”
One of those things, somewhat surprisingly in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, is pork. The import and consumption of pork, which is forbidden in Islam, is illegal in Pakistan.
On Ni Hao’s shelves, however, you will find everything from pig snouts to trotters, from sausage to dried ham cuts.
Raza says customs officials at Pakistan’s borders are not able to decipher the Chinese labels on most imported food products, and so Ni Hao is able to steer clear of trouble. But more than that, he says, if products are marked in Chinese, customs officials seem less inclined to check them.
“It’s already happening, obviously. The products are coming in, so that means they are allowing it.”
Pakistani customs officials denied to Al Jazeera that any such policy was in place.
CPEC creating a market
In addition to warping social norms, the $56bn CPEC, seems to be creating a market of its own, too.
“Pakistan will bid farewell to its energy shortage” exclaims the headline of a recent issue of the Huashang Weekly, Pakistan’s first Chinese-language newspaper, which distributes 5,000 copies a week to major cities and CPEC project sites across Pakistan.
“It’s meant to be like a bridge between Pakistan and China,” says Inam ur Rahman, a manager at Infoshare, the company which runs the newspaper. “Chinese people who come here, they don’t know much about Pakistan, whether in terms of business or even our culture.”
Infoshare, a Shanghai-based company, has already launched a number of Chinese-focused ventures in Pakistan. The newspaper – a glossy tabloid that charges roughly $1,000 for a full page advertisement – is one, but they also run a Chinese-language courier service, and are launching a smartphone app that will allow Chinese-speakers to order food from Pakistani restaurants.
“I think a lot of companies are developing to take advantage of this Chinese influx,” says Rehman. “Our company is doing the same.”
Security remains a concern for most foreigners visiting Pakistan, which has been battling the Pakistan Taliban (known by the acronym, TTP) armed group and its allies since 2007. In June, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS) claimed to have killed a Chinese couple running a language training centre in the southwestern city of Quetta.
The killings prompted the Pakistani interior ministry to announce a tightening of visas for Chinese visitors, to ensure they were kept better track of. Pakistan has also formed a 15,000-strong security force specifically for the protection of Chinese citizens and CPEC projects.
“When some Chinese people are in Pakistan, it is a foreign country for them and they don’t know very well [the situation],” says Zhao, the deputy ambassador, adding that the embassy had stepped up its security advisories to citizens in response to the attack.
Questions of security, however, seem far from Zhang Yan Xu’s mind, as he and his wife prepare for the afternoon rush at Hong Du Ramen.
At the small hole-in-the-wall restaurant, waiter Ahsan Ibrar tends to the salads lying on the sideboard. Customers are expected to help themselves, he says. There are no frills and no fuss. No menu, either: the restaurant only serves its eponymous noodles. The few signs and the writing on the restaurant’s whiteboard are all in Chinese.
“No one speaks English,” exclaims Ibrar, who was hired as a cleaner but was quickly promoted to cashier and translator-in-chief (a fact only somewhat hampered by the fact that he does not speak Chinese).
It scarcely seems to matter, though. Business is booming, he says, and there is more than enough money to go around.