Dubai–Asian Fusion

[caption id="attachment_55237383" align="alignnone" width="620"]North Koreans are bringing their unique brand of dinner theatre to Dubai. Source: PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images North Koreans are bringing their unique brand of dinner theatre to Dubai. Source: PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images[/caption]She’s not exactly Madame Mao, my North Korean hostess. She is delicate and demure, with slender arms and a round face lit by a shy smile. Her polished fingers cradle a microphone. As I sip a tiny cup of tea, she stands over me in a pink chiffon baby doll dress and warbles in a helpless falsetto: “I love you.”

Is it a Cold War fantasy? A remake of the Manchurian Candidate? Not quite. This is turbo-capitalist Dubai, and I am catching a bit of North Korean dinner theater, the latest offering on the city’s globalization-fueled entertainment menu. The Pyongyang Okryugwan Restaurant is crammed with more than a dozen of Kim Jong-un’s beauties, each wearing a North Korean flag lapel pin. These kisaeng, or geishas, sing in four languages, seven days a week, as diners pile into classic north-of-the-DMZ delicacies as cold broths, stringy fiddlehead ferns, and bubbling stews served in stone bowls.

It is not entirely clear why North Korean restaurateurs are in Dubai, let alone managing restaurants so obsessively themed on their homeland that it sells Democratic People’s Republic of Korea picture books and postcards. Dubai is, of course, not unfamiliar with foreigners. It is by far the world’s most cosmopolitan city, literally built and managed by expatriates. North Korean construction laborers are among the bewildering mix of two hundred nationalities that make up 95 percent of the city’s two million inhabitants.

[inset_left]It is not entirely clear why North Korean restaurateurs are in Dubai, let alone managing restaurants so obsessively themed on their homeland[/inset_left]

Takashi, a Dubai-based friend who is a connoisseur of the city’s hybrid cultural flowerings, took me to the Pyongyang Okryugwan. Afterward, we strolled over to the Dublin Arms pub, passing an outdoor mosque where men in an assortment of global Muslim garb kneeled on Astroturf with their hands cupped in supplication. The pub was packed with Emirati men in white kandoura cloaks, shooting pool and puffing cigarettes. Across the bar, clutches of prostitutes from Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Philippines waited for the evening rush. As a DJ spun Bollywood dance numbers, we ruminated on the changes in Dubai since the financial meltdown of 2009.

The city has got cheaper and more competitive, but also much more East Asian, which has done fabulous things for the dining scene. At the same time, Dubai has become less free. A crackdown on political speech has shuttered institutions and sent democracy advocates to prison. My North Korean waitress certainly was not going to challenge the straitened political atmosphere. When I asked her what she thought of her country’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, her smile disappeared. She said: “He is a very clever man, don’t you think?” and then bustled off before I could respond.

Dubai is an open city, but its openness to any individual is fleeting. It is a place to live, but it is not home. Turnover is relentless. North Koreans are the latest in a shifting tapestry of short-term occupants. Gulf-based architect George Katodrytis describes it as a new paradigm for a city. “The city has ceased to be a site. Instead, it has become a condition,” Katodrytis writes. “Dubai is a constructed leisure land. It is more like a diagram, a system of staged scenery and mechanisms of good time.”

A graffiti tagger, whose subversive musings decorate the mid-market districts of Barsha and Tecom, offers a running commentary. On one concrete barrier he has sprayed, “Plastic Dreams and Primal Screams.” Another asks, “Will we dream during the Process?” Unlike in other open societies, migrants to the UAE have almost no chance of gaining citizenship. But while they are there, migrants provide a stream of rents for Dubai’s hundred thousand citizens.

As Dubai’s oil has run out, foreign investment and retail spending has become a major source of income. And, since UAE laws restrict majority ownership of most property and businesses to citizens, every foreign resident is somehow financially tethered to a Dubai citizen. Investors also need Emirati partners and provide them with cuts of the profits. So, for Dubai, the crush of temporary foreign residents is like the gush of oil in Abu Dhabi or Kuwait. It allows citizens a plush lifestyle without the natural resource base.

The fresh cycles of new arrivals lends some neighborhoods—like Deira, home to the Pyongyang Okryugwan—a jarring sense of stepping into Guangzhou or Colombo, rather than the regional cosmopolitanism of the Gulf trading city. As Asians have replaced departing Westerners, the dining scene has been thrust to freewheeling heights, with ethnic hideaways on the alleyways of Karama and Deira that could be in the ghettoes of Hong Kong or Seoul, replete with private rooms and speakeasy activities that would be undermined by describing them here.

The sleek new Dubai Metro, inaugurated during the recession, is the new era’s enabler. The Metro enforces the mingling of cultures; first, by thrusting together a Babel of races and creeds as it snakes Blade Runner-style through the skyscrapers; and second, by easing visitors into immigrant districts that were once difficult to reach.

My friend Takashi personifies Dubai’s global fusion. He is a Japanese–Irish TV producer. His Iraqi wife is an architect and fine-art painter. Lately, Takashi has been on a quest for hot-and-sour soup. This soup is an American–Chinese staple of the corner take-out—not usually a big foodie item. But in Dubai, Indian chefs have taken charge of hot-and-sour soup. It is cooked with near-painful quantities of nose-stinging black pepper, laden with chicken and vegetables, and served with a wedge of lemon. It is delicious. In Dubai, Indians prepare the American-style Chinese food because Chinese cooks are busy with the real thing, in places like the Xiao Wei Yang Hotpot Restaurant, the Lan Kwai Fong, or—for the adventurous—florescent-lit storefronts in the grimy futuristic slum known as International City.

Built by Nakheel, the bankrupt company behind the Palm Jumeirah, one of three man-made islands on Dubai’s coast, International City was supposed to serve the lower end of Dubai’s professional class. Across from the main sewage treatment plant and the giant Chinese wholesale market, it has been buffeted by malaria outbreaks, and now Vietnamese and Chinese gangs. The gangs run brothels. When a hapless Dubai policeman stumbled into one recently, gang members descended onto him with swords and meat cleavers. Takashi assures me that, for diners chasing authentic Chinese food, International City is the place. “You’ve got to get out there to try the food,” says Takashi, waving his cigarette in the neighborhood’s direction. “It’s not a pleasant place, but it’s real Chinese.”