Food by VICE

China’s First Prison-Themed Restaurant Wants to Take a Bite Out of Crime

At Prison Feng Yun, China's first prison-themed restaurant, there's furry spider toys hanging from the ceiling, a fully-stocked bar and—for some reason—modern US country music constantly blaring. Owner Zhou Keqiang wants people to experience dining...

by Jamie Fullerton
Mar 9 2015, 3:45pm

Photo by Aaron Berkovich

In the two years I've lived in Asia so far, I've spent what most people would deem a worryingly large amount of time in weird theme restaurants. Living most of my life in the UK, where a café serving breakfast cereal is considered the height of quirk and petitions are set up against the opening of owl bars, has led to a deep appreciation of eateries where you can spoon ice cream from a toilet bowl or share chips with a cat.

While the range of themes at these places is wide, from the sex-based restaurant in Taiwan to Beijing's disputed East China Sea territory-themed café, most have two things in common. Firstly, with the draw being the décor rather than the menu, the food is mainly woeful. Secondly, the owners usually claim there's some deep meaningful reason why they chose their theme, rather than simply because people might think a load of plastic cocks on the wall or whatever is funny.

Main room

The main room in the restaurant. All photos by Aaron Berkovich.

And so it is with Prison Feng Yun in the city of Tianjin, a half-hour train ride from Beijing in Northeast China. The country's first prison-themed restaurant has furry spider toys hanging from the ceiling, a fully-stocked bar and, for some reason, modern US country music constantly blaring. But the inspiration behind the place, which opened last September, is supposedly more serious than the cosy surroundings suggest.

"I want people to experience what it's like without freedom," says owner Zhou Keqiang (that's him in the plastic chains, below), chatting to me across a table segregated from the main room by metal bars. "I want them to experience the reality of it, so they'll stay away from committing crime."

Zhou Keqiang

The restaurant owner, Zhou Keqiang.

Noting the bandstand in the centre of the room, the friendly staff in orange bibs bringing us beers and the large plate of chicken nuggets in front of us, I have to say I feel skeptical about the effectiveness of this place as a crime deterrent. But then Zhou unveils his masterstroke, walking out of our mini-cell, closing a gate behind him and locking it.

"We close and lock all the gates on customers after the dishes are served," he says proudly, as I imagine a thousand British fire safety officers having heart attacks. "Some people ask me whether this environment will lead to a misconception of prison, making people want to go in because it seems so nice here. I can't stop that, but my intent is not that."

Wooden cage room
prison restaurant Another table shot

To be fair, Prison Feng Yun goes beyond the installation of metal bars to portray the reality of prison in China. An accurate reflection of authorities' penchant for torture is reflected with a water torture-themed table. "We fill up the bit under the table with water in the summer and give customers flip-flops," says Zhou.

There was once a nod to torture in the food, too. "We used to have a dish that translates to English as 'Cutting people to death'," Zhou says. "And we had other dishes that had food arranged to look like handcuffs, or a gun. But we got rid of all those. Chinese people have vivid imaginations and a lot of these dishes just didn't sit well with them, so we changed them to normal dishes."

Prison Restaurant Guys at the table
Rooms black and white

Zhou has also had issues with his prison and torture themes rubbing older customers the wrong way. "Many older people come in and then leave straight away because they think it's quite taboo," he says. "It reminds them of the Cultural Revolution. I target people born in the 1980s and 1990s because their minds are more open. People over 40 have a difficult time taking all this in."

Prison Restaurant Tianjin-19

I'd argue that some of the details, rather than the overall theme, have the potential to cause more concern. One room boasts this tasteful framed photograph of two electric chairs.

Prison Restaurant Electric chairs

Another has a charming image of a naked woman bound up in front of some chained convicts. I'm not quite sure what's going on here, but it doesn't look like anything I've seen on Prison Break.

Weird picture in frame

But it's easy to ignore such imagery, and luckily I have no repressed personal memories of the horror of Mao Zedong's decade-long anti-capitalist smash-down. So I'm happy enough to enjoy Prison Feng Yun as simply the latest in my endless tour of harmless silly Asia eateries.

Prison Restaurant Tianjin-17

It's worth a visit if you're in Tianjin. Just don't drop the soap in the bathroom.

Additional reporting: Jiehao Chen