ALL TIBETAN: Tsering Wangqing says the authentic Tibetan household objects he uses to decorate his restaurants have appeal and life to them (SHI GANG)
When Tsering Wangqing talks about how rich his life has been, he means it spiritually rather than financially. But with four high-end Tibetan restaurants in three Chinese cities, the 45-year-old restaurateur is also doing just fine in the financial department.
Sporting a sharp-looking Ralph Lauren shirt and a plan to open his fifth restaurant in Lhasa this year that he says will be larger than the current four, the former herdsman has seen a lot of life. He said he has been a dancer, radio anchorman and program producer, advertisement producer and soap opera actor. Although he has been so far satisfied with his venture into the restaurant business, he said curiosity about new things runs in his blood and will not soon cease.
"My ancestors were horse-riding herdsmen, free to roam the vast grasslands for hundreds of years," he said. "I am just like them, always wondering what is beyond the next snowy mountain."
Growing up on the grasslands of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau's eastern edge, Tsering Wangqing belongs to the Khamba people, a branch of Tibetans who are known for their natural muscularity, business savvy and religious devotion.
Having studied the Tibetan language and Buddhist discourse at the age of 19 for over a year under a prestigious monk living on a snow-capped mountain, Tsering Wangqing still prays every day. It is not surprising then that he named all his restaurants "Makye Ame," a girl from a poem by the Sixth Dalai Lama.
About 300 years ago, the story says, the Sixth Dalai Lama came across a devastatingly beautiful Tibetan girl in a pub in Lhasa. Impressed by her beauty, he left behind a poem that is remembered by almost every Tibetan. It reads, "Rising from the highest mountaintop is the bright and glamorous moon. It reminds me of the smile of Makye Ame, which shines in the depths of my heart."
The mysterious girl, believed to be a goddess sent by Buddha, was never seen in the pub again.
"Although the literal meaning is 'a mother who has never labored,' Makye Ame is as sacred in Tibetan Buddhism as Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Christianity," said Tsering Wangqing. In 1997, he found the yellow building at the center of Lhasa that is said to be the location of the pub where the Sixth Dalai Lama met his muse. He quickly decided to rent it and open his first restaurant.
Since then, Tsering Wangqing has been committed to recreating the ambience of an authentic Tibetan home in his restaurants. He hired Tibetan artisans to make wooden carvings and wall paintings as interior decorations, used his personal collection of vintage Tibetan household cookware to decorate the dining areas and recruited most of his staff from Tibetan communities. Although this process has consumed money and time, he believes it is worthwhile.
"It is karma. How much you spend on your business is exactly how much you are going to be repaid," he said. Choosing to take on no business partners to interfere with his picky taste and refusing joint venture invitations from as far as Europe, he said he is never going to expand at the costs of his restaurants' authentic Tibetan style.
"This is my business as well as a platform to show people the Tibetan culture, including the architecture, home decoration, cuisine and entertainment. And only real things have life in them," he said, pointing to three buckets from his hometown used to make Tibetan butter tea in one of his Beijing restaurants.
Besides what he learned from his monk teacher, who told him to "trade fairly and compete fairly" in the business world, he also attributes his success to a rich life experience. This is also what he tries to give his Tibetan employees.
"Working in Beijing can be a precious learning experience for these young people," said the restaurateur, who left his herdsman life at the age of 15 for Chengdu, Sichuan Province's capital city. Tibetan singers and dancers performing for customers every night at the two Beijing restaurants had never received any professional training before coming to Beijing. Some of them have been sent by the restaurants to Beijing's music academies for professional training and some have been recruited into professional dancing troupes.
"When they have better opportunities to tap their talents and leave my restaurant, I am happy for them and give them best wishes," he said.
He married his wife, Beijing native Mu Xianghui, in 2001. The couple spend most of their time in the capital, where the husband's only brother works as a college professor. Every year, though, he spends at least one month in Lhasa, where he says, "the sky is bluer and the sunlight is brighter. Beijing is not my destination, rather my summer grazing land."