Luo Zhonghua’s hands tell his story. At 30, his smile is a boyish one. But his hands are those of an older man, weathered by years of labour at a restaurant stove.
At 16, Luo left home in Sichuan province in China’s southwest with $6 in his pocket, determined never to return.
Fourteen years later, Luo has built a restaurant mini-empire with 10 outlets of his Peter’s Tex-Mex chain in Beijing and two other Chinese cities.
Luo’s story is emblematic of millions of Chinese entrepreneurs whose drive and ingenuity are the foundation of the country’s boom.
He quit school at 12. His family could no longer afford the tuition fees (Luo recalls that his mother sold first their three geese and then even her own hair to raise Rmb110 – then about $13 – to pay for a term of middle school). He helped around the farm and wove baskets until he was 16, when Chinese citizens are issued with their first identity cards. Finally, he could leave home.
Luo borrowed Rmb50 ($6) from a neighbour and took the bus from his hometown of Ziyang to the provincial capital of Chengdu.
His first job was washing dishes in a restaurant seven days a week for Rmb180 yuan ($22 at that time) a month. After work he would pull together restaurant tables, throw a sheet over them and make them his bed.
He kept switching jobs until he settled as a cook at a local Western-style restaurant called Carol’s.
There he met Meredith McLeod, an English teacher from Texas who had taught in Tibet before moving to Sichuan, where she would stay for 13 years.
McLeod ate at Carol’s every day but had trouble remembering Chinese names, so she gave the employees English nicknames. She named Luo ‘Peter’.
“In the Bible, Peter was the rock,” she told WiC. “He was the strongest apostle.”
Also at the restaurant, Peter met Tina, a waitress who was also given her English name by McLeod and would later become his wife.
“She was so tiny, so I named her Tina,” McLeod said.
One day in 1997, the owner asked McCleod to teach the cooks to make Tex-Mex food. It was hard work; McLeod spoke no Chinese and the cooks no English. Eventually they all quit, except Luo, a scrawny 17 year-old who McLeod thought was 14. They had no common language but became friends.
For two years, McLeod taught English at the Sichuan Culinary Institute. She often caught Luo reading the brochures she brought back. But neither could meet his tuition fees. Then she remembered that the company that sent her to China owed her a plane ticket home every two years. She took the airfare in cash and used it to pay for Luo’s attendance at cooking school.
“I invested the money in my Chinese son,” McLeod says.
With money for only a single year of the three-year curriculum, Luo crammed his schedule. He also made it his goal to speak English fluently in that year. Every night he invited his older classmates, to his “English Corner” around his bed. They would talk in English through the night.
McLeod was another reason he was so eager to learn English.
“She is my benefactor and all I could say was, ‘Thank you’,’’ he said. “There’s something very wrong with that.”
When Luo left cooking school, Carol’s wanted him back as the chef. But a young couple from Chengdu had decided to open a restaurant and asked McLeod to help with the menu. They also asked Luo to serve as chef for Rmb500($60) a month. His former restaurant offered more money but he chose to go with McLeod to the new job.
Luo spent four years at that job before starting to draft a plan for his own restaurant in 2002.
“I remember we were paddling in the Summer Palace Lake,” a popular recreation spot on Beijing’s northwest outskirts, McLeod said. “He was dreaming and floating, thinking about his restaurant.”
The next year, plan in hand, he found backing from investors and in 2004 he opened the first Peter’s Tex-Mex in Chengdu.
Luo created every recipe with McLeod, replacing unavailable ingredients with ones he could find in local markets, as well as reinventing recipes based on his customers’ advice.
His Texas-size portions at Chinese prices also attracted foreign diners, many of whom came to believe that the restaurant was started by an American.
Luo says Donald Evans, a Texan who is a former US commerce secretary, also helped out by supplying a key ingredient then unavailable in China – a sack of masa flour, used to make tortilla chips.
McLeod has since moved back to Texas and Luo last saw her 18 months ago when he and Tina visited the United States for the first time with their son. He plans to open his next restaurant in Xi’an, and hopes to grow his chain to around 100 outlets. The main obstacle to Luo’s expansion strategy: being able to train enough staff to cook the food authentically. Still, ultimately, Luo talks ambitiously of one day listing his chain on the New York Stock Exchange.
Luo says his own case is not unsual. “You can find so many stories like mine,” he insists. “I am just a regular person.”
But at a time when trade tensions between the US and China are on the rise – and with the upcoming presidential elections likely to push Sino-US relations back into the headlines – the touching tale of how a Sichuanese entrepreneur was helped to realise his dream by a kind-hearted Texan, is a reminder of what good can come from Sino-American cooperation.
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