If you come to the House of Mao hoping to expose some seriously seditious shenanigans, you will be utterly disappointed. The place is nothing more than just a painstakingly detailed theme restaurant serving exotic Hunan Cuisine that is essentially its main attraction. Managing director Andrew Tjioe explains: 'Hunan food is spicy and an acquired taste. Chairman Mao is the greatest representative of Hunan; hence, the restaurant is called the House of Mao. There are many Mao restaurant all over China, which are often jam-packed. This is the first one outside of China'. Designer Ed Poole concurs: 'There are at least 10 houses of Mao in Beijing. But their basic idea is simply to serve Mao's favorite foods. Otherwise, the interiors are nothing, they do not have a "concept".
This one, located at China Square level 3, certainly does. Going on the Mao theme, as client Mr. Tjioe had requested, the designers went to great lengths, including visits to China, to research and source for information and relevant materials with which to piece together an appropriate 'authentic' interior environment.
Says Ed: 'all the artifacts are real, sourced over three years in Beijing. We wanted to create a space that would respect the history of the contents'. So "real" were their finds that 'when we had finished putting up the pictures, one of the floor tiles workmen who was once in the Chinese army, actually spent hours reading the captions on each and every one!' But Ed is ready to admit that at the end of the day, 'the place is total fantasy. In fact, it is based more on the traditional Singapore coffee shop'. If you realize how the kopi tiam came about, and how it used to be, you will see Ed's point here!
The site is an awkward Z-shaped space on the third floor of China Square Food Center that was originally intended for food stalls. There are five main areas in the restaurant: the 'Great Hall' (with adjacent private tea room and library), a noodle bar, a back bar, an outdoor terrace and a take-away merchandise area. (See floor plan at the bottom of this page)
'The Great Hall is representative of the Great Hall of the People, but as we have never been inside it and have not seen photos of it, we are taking clues from the exterior architecture. Thus, we have a series of six columns lining one side, two are for real but the others are fake. The window frames are custom made of steel in a similar pattern'. Of course, it still cannot be a House of Mao without an 'official' portrait, so Willy Baet (Poole Associates) painted one based on the famous portrait at Tiananmen Square.
A heavy fabric curtain of dark military green wool in the Hall adds a sense of theatrics. Set against this are chairs of red fabric covers that refer to the collar details on red army uniforms. Says Ed: 'The red fabric chair skirts are very traditional Chinese, and are found in many restaurants in China'.
In true Poole Associates color, there are cheeky design nuances. 'The large 18-person table in front of the portrait is representative of state banquettes held at The Great Hall of the People. Here we expect customers to share this table - a metaphor on communal sharing in the concept of Communism; it is not meant to be booked up by one large group at a time. 'Those custom made pendant lights, five bowl-shaped lamps suspended from a stem, indicate yet another metaphor: 'The will of communism, as represented by a metal star, supports the rice bowls of the people'.
In the noodle bar is yet another tongue-in-cheek element: the timber screens that separate the tables. 'They are for a sense of privacy but yet can also create a sense of unnerving paranoia, as you think the space is private but in fact, you cannot see whom is listening on the other side'. This idea is a take on the policing of the community by the communist party. After all, as Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans) wrote: 'Where there is a will to condemn, there is evidence!'.
More up on the beat is the outdoor terrace, a place to relax and enjoy the view over China Square. It is graced by a mural, by freelance graphics designer Pauline Evill and painted by Willy Baet, which evokes the energetic youth and chaos that Mao thrived on. The paved flooring is representative of Tiananmen Square. The music is traditional Chinese instruments remixed by Marco Polo with heavy disco backbeats. Marco is from Milan who had DJ'd at Zouk (a Singapore discotheque). Says Ed: 'There will be a lot of ad people coming to China Square. The terrace, hopefully, will become a trendy meeting place'.
Lighting, too, is consistent with the theme. For instance, the showcases at the merchandising area are of cold fluorescent, 'which is the lighting typical in a Third World environment'. And the toilets are bare light bulbs, suitably chosen 'to enhance the sense of frugality'. All other lighting is computer-controlled to change when day courses into night; the Great Hall shifts from warm yellow to deep red when the clock strikes ten in the evenings.
The toilet is one area where Ed felt he could do things to 'remind people that everything Mao did was not good. Andrew (Tjioe) did not like this part, as he thinks I was too literal and could put customers off. The toilets are frugal representations of Chinese prison cells. They are basic, depressing but clean - anyone who has been to China can attest that the facilities are generally disgusting. We have had several comments that we should take the doors off the stalls!