During a dinner, a friend shared an amazing story with me about Lanzhou La-mian (hand-stretched noodles).
In a country that bans gun ownership, Hualong, in Qinghai Province, was once notorious as China’s “capital of illegal guns.” It is an impoverished county with a predominantly Hui population, a Muslim ethnic group in China. There are 250,000 residents and about 37 percent of them lived under the state poverty line, or with an annual income less than 1,196 yuan, by the end of 2009.
Locals say many of their fathers’ generation had worked in ammunition factories during the reign of the warlords, before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The factories were closed, but employees took home their skills. Gun trade prospered in the 1990s as strong demand pushed up gun prices on the black market.
The “Made in Hualong” brand is well-known in the criminal circle. A pistol can sell for around 20,000 yuan (2,941 U.S. dollars) in coastal cities of affluent east China, about 20 times the cost of its manufacture.
In order to stop the gun trade, Chinese Gov started a successful campaign to help impoverished farmers start up Muslim beef noodle restaurants which become the key to stopping gun-related crime and poverty – the government began to train jobless locals as la-mian chefs in 2007. In just three months, the trainees can learn the magic of hand stretching and a recipe for tasty noodle soups.
Loans are also given to families wanting to run la-mian stalls in big cities. Liaison offices have been set up across the country to help migrants adapt to their new environment — from getting a business license to sending their kids to good schools.
Therefore Hualong has become China’s major source of chefs making “la-mian” hand-stretched noodles — popular in many Chinese cities. There are about 10,000 la-mian stalls and restaurants are run by Hualong chefs in 210 cities across the country. And the number is growing.
About 67,000 Hualong people are in the la-mian business and they are expected to wire home a combined income of 300 million yuan by the end of this year.
Ma Helu, who runs a 70-square-meter la-mian stall in east China’s Nanjing City, says life is good as the family of four can earn 70,000 yuan (10,500 dollars) a year after paying rent and daily expenses.
In Hualong, the la-mian business appears to be the recipe to wealth, officials say, and the gun problem serves as the barometer to measure the success of the la-mian drive.