Last week, Forrest Gump Restaurant opened in the city of Changchun in China, a country that is already a hotbed of quirky eateries with tenuous links to Western TV and film. (Anyone fancy Shanghai's gloriously pathetic Joey Tribbiani restaurant?) But this is not a movie-themed joint featuring Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. seafood or an aged female actor drawling chocolate-based metaphors to customers. There isn't even a picture of a bench-bound Tom Hanks on the wall.
Instead, the restaurant's name was inspired by the fact that 12 members of the serving staff who offer up local favourites—such as noodles, buns, and the house special of goose eggs with scallions—have learning difficulties. Thankfully, despite its clunky moniker, Forrest Gump Restaurant isn't some kind of horrendous piss-take human zoo but a result of the good work of Hu Yangping, who has dedicated much of her life to helping the mentally impaired. She says the "courage and optimism" of the Gump character in the 1994 film led to the name.
Hu has risen from humble beginnings as a street peddler to become the owner of various businesses. She uses part of her wealth to run the Home of Kindness Rehabilitation Centre for Mentally Disabled People, which offers housing and training to help its residents lead independent lives. Forrest Gump Restaurant, which is partly funded by the Jilin provincial government's new supported employment scheme, is one work destination for those based at the centre.
Hu has a 12-year-old son and was partly inspired to set up the centre by the tragic loss of her first child, who died as a baby in 2001. I asked her to explain more about the restaurant and what she hoped it would help its staff achieve.
MUNCHIES: What sparked the inspiration for your work? Hu Yangping: My first child died shortly after he was born. I wanted to spend all my money to save his life but my efforts were in vain. That's when I realised that happiness doesn't depend on how much money we have, and I made up my mind to do something meaningful.
So you went about helping people with disabilities? Actually, before that I had already helped two people―first in 1993 when I was aged 19, working as a street peddler. Someone with epilepsy fell to the ground next to me and I ended up providing housing to her. Later, I helped a mentally disabled man who had gone missing from his family. I got married and had my first baby; after I lost my baby, I began to pay more attention to this group of people. The older man is still living with us now and is in his 70s.
How did your work progress? In 2000, I was still a street peddler. I saw some disabled people who couldn't find their way home, so I gave them some food and gradually developed a friendship with them. Later I asked them to live in my home.
Sadly, in Chinese society, people with learning disabilities are often looked down upon. How did people react to your actions? Some couldn't understand why I helped them, wondering if I couldn't accept that I lost my baby. I can't deny that what I did was to some extent related to my first child, but at the same time I believe having the ability to help others is a good thing.
Did you get much support from your family? One winter I went back home with the old man I'd been supporting and my mum was angry, asking why I came back with a person instead of money or food. But my parents are kind in nature and got used to it. Now they get on well with the people I help. I explained that they wouldn't be this happy without these people greeting them as grandpa and grandma.
What's the criteria for being accepted into your Home of Kindness centre? I won't accept those from a well-off background―only those who are poor. Accommodation is limited and it's not a fundamental solution if I only provide them with a place to live. That's why I help them get trained, engage with society, and live independently.
You said you don't accept donations for the centre. How do you finance it? I am a businesswoman; I run several teahouses and supermarkets. People try to donate, though. One guy from Beijing offered 500,000 Yuan [£52,000/$80,700]. I kept refusing him, saying that I was capable of helping these people and receiving support from the government. He asked if I had a mental problem myself.
Why open a restaurant staffed by people with learning difficulties? I just want them to get employed. It takes time and there are people from outside who doubt that they can do the job, but I say it depends on how much help and support we can offer them. They often have a slow response time and can't work for a long time―we must have patience to teach them and accept them.
How else does Forrest Gump Restaurant differ from the more conventionally staffed eateries in Changchun? I choose non-slip floors and heavy tables. Also, we put up reminders for customers saying, 'Thanks for your understanding in case of any inconvenience'. But our customers are kind and glad to be served by the handicapped people. Sometimes staff get invited to join in celebrating birthdays and singing songs.
So the reaction from the public has been positive? There have been no negative comments. My care and love is like the kind a mother gives her children and I hope those kids can support themselves as I grow older. At the same time, the government provides a sound benefits system. I want to see them get employed, have work experience and lead a happy life. They don't need to ask for others' sympathy.
Any hiccups around the opening? Not many. On the first day of opening a customer asked for soup and one waiter said, 'OK' but didn't [put the order in]. The customer was angry and we were nervous. Also, sometimes the waiters will send food to the wrong tables. But, generally speaking, the customers show understanding.
Finally, why did you call it Forrest Gump Restaurant? Some people could find that patronising, surely? It's not patronising. When I was elected as a 'moving China figure' in the media here, the public nicknamed me 'Mom of Forrest Gump' after the movie. I appreciate Forrest's courage and optimism, which is suggested by the name of the restaurant.
Thanks for speaking to me.
Additional reporting by Cissy Young.