Yu Shuang is the founder and manager of Beijing’s dark dining restaurant Trojan Fairy. After regaining sight after an eye illness in 1999, Yu wanted to create a place that gives the public an opportunity to experience the life of blind people. In the restaurant, customers have to store their mobile phones, bracelets, earphones, scarf, hats, glasses, or any objects that would light up or creates possible danger in the dark. After washing their hands, a blind waiter will guide them into the dark dining chamber for the meal. Customers can opt for different fixed-price set menus without knowing what they include, as guessing what they are eating in the dark is also part of the experience. The restaurant hires people with disabilities as staff.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrAsia (Kr): What’s the story behind the restaurant’s name, Trojan Fairy?
Yu Shuang (YS): The origin of the name comes from the story of the Trojan Horse, who lurks in the dark, accumulates energy, and then goes out to fight a battle. We incorporated this story into the theme of our restaurant. Over the past 10 years, more than 80 blind or visually impaired people have been employed here, and they’re all winners.
Kr: Back in 2009, there were very few dine in the dark restaurants across China and abroad. How did you come up with this concept?
YS: In 1999, I experienced a retinal detachment, and I couldn’t see. Fortunately, my vision was able to recover and now it is quite stable. After going through this process, I really wanted to tell others about my experience so that everyone can cherish their bodies and the people around them. Another thing is that I began to pay attention to the visually impaired groups, and I found out that their living spaces were not very good, and I wanted to help. It suddenly occurred to me to create a restaurant to incorporate all these things so everyone can understand what I want to express with a simple meal.
The trial operation took place on November 11, 2009, and it officially opened on December 11. There was a long queue at the restaurant on that Friday night. Subsequently, customers started coming in from all over the world. Some of them have been to other dark restaurants and told me how much they’ve enjoyed the experience here.
Kr: What do you want customers to feel through the dine in the dark experience?
YS: My idea of opening a dark restaurant is to inspire people to have more empathy and understanding for others. This is not easy when you’re not in others’ shoes.
For example, in 2014, we had an employee named Ma Shentong. Once, when he was working here, and met his girlfriend, who was also visually impaired, they started touching each other. However, I didn’t really understand this until one day his mother and blind sister also came to see him. As soon as they walked in and greeted me, the three of them hugged and started touching each other. That’s when I realized that they need to know each other by touching, this is their way of checking how they have been. I thought I knew what blind people’s life is like through my illness. Turns out, losing sight is only a small part of the experience.
Kr: How do you recruit staff to also give opportunities to people with disabilities?
YS: In the beginning, it was not easy to find employees with special needs willing to work here as many of them did not trust us. But as time went on, I think our genuineness and authenticity could be seen, and slowly, many of them decided to trust us and joined the team.
There are currently five employees in the restaurant, four of whom are physically handicapped. Wang Xinyu, a young lady with an intellectual disability, Zhou Haoyu, who is blind, Jia Chen, who is vision impaired, and our main chef, Chuan Wang, who has suffered multiple organ injuries. Some of our guests ask how they are able to work, and I replied that they have “superpowers.”
Zhou Haoyu has been working in the restaurant for more than seven years. He is also an excellent piano tuner, bel canto singer, and he plays other musical instruments. He is also responsible for the procurement of our restaurant by using special apps on his mobile phone.
Chuan Wang started working in December 2018, when a welfare agency approached me to ask if I could provide this child with a job opportunity. At that time, everyone at the restaurant said okay. When he came in, he was thin and shrunken because his nose was injured, his pronunciation was inaccurate, and he was too embarrassed to speak. He lost his mother at a young age and damaged his face and organ in a factory accident. We were like a big family, teaching him how to do many things from the start. Now, his whole character has changed for the better. He is much more confident and willing to learn.
Kr: Can you briefly explain the current plight of disabled workers in China?
YS: Looking at the technology level, tools have improved. However, there are still very few opportunities for them. The needs of the younger generation have changed as we are now in an era where parents tend to dote on their children. I participated in an event in July 2019, where several international piano masters held a free group piano lesson for blind children. What I saw during those 24 hours is that many parents love their children so much, but to the extent that their children don’t do anything by themselves.
While they have grown up dignified, knowledgeable, literate, and able to speak well, they rely on their parents for everything, and at the same time, have no respect and act so entitled. Parents give in to their child out of guilt, trying to make up for them not being born “healthy” like others.
Another situation that is common in large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen is that many large companies make deals with disabled people and pay them to use their disability certificates, pretending they offer them a job. This way, they can pay fewer taxes without actually having disabled people working for them.
Kr: How do you assist your staff to take over new tasks at the restaurant?
YS: There is a process for training, but it is not as firmly established as in large companies. Every worker has different levels of physical disabilities, as their personal characteristics are different too. Therefore, they should be able to live, talk, eat together with other staff, and then, can start to look at the tasks they can do. They are a team, and at the center of all, they have to learn to support each other.
Kr: What’s the meaning of working here for them?
YS: The purpose of working here is to develop one’s strength and go further in life. In most cases, people with special needs are taken care of by everyone, but we are different. Here, everyone looks out for everyone. This is what I think is so special about Trojan Fairy Restaurant.