There’s a Luneta in Shanghai, China.
No, it’s not a park. It’s a restaurant that serves Filipino cuisine initiated by couple Leonardo “Leo” and Fe Quicho who saw the opportunity to introduce Filipino culture to residents of China’s historic cosmopolitan city.
What brought them to Shanghai, despite being long-time US residents since the ‘70s, is a story that tells of the couple’s winding journey home.
“Our initial plan was to retire in Manila and start a business to keep me busy. We bought a townhouse in Quezon City that was supposed to be finished in December 2008 but it was not finished until August 2009,” he tells the Inquirer.
The couple were in Shanghai at the time and while waiting for their condo to be completed, Luneta was born.
Fe, a native of Imus, Cavite, migrated to the US in 1969 as an exchange student under a Medical Technology program. Leo, an engineer working for a refinery in Limay, Bataan, followed in 1971 and met up with Fe in Detroit, Michigan.
In 1971, a recession in the US made it difficult for Leo to find a job as an engineer. He decided to work as car mechanic. Fe worked as a medical technologist. They have two daughters and a son.
“When the economy improved I was hired as an engineer at Ford Motor Co. I was able to obtain an Automotive Technician License and opened an automotive repair shop. I also obtained a Builder’s License and started building houses and condominiums,” he shares.
Leo later left his job at Ford to concentrate on his automotive and real estate ventures. He eventually sold his businesses and retired at the age of 50.
Bored, Leo found work again, this time as an engineer for General Motors. The job entailed frequent travel to China since 1996 to train engineers of the company’s Shanghai Office.
It was from these overseas assignments that he became familiar with China despite his inability to speak the language.
From coffee to ‘adobo’
In 2008, the couple saw the opportunity to do business in China by taking over the management of a Filipino coffee shop, Figaro, at Xintiandi, Shanghai’s entertainment and shopping district.
The Figaro coffee shop closed down on March 2009 after the landlord raised the rent. But since the couple’s Manila townhouse was not yet finished, they decided to look for another location to open a Filipino restaurant—a first in Shanghai.
They found a good place on Julu Road, near Fumin Road, a serene street that is host to small boutiques and private residences.
They retained the 15 employees of the coffee shop consisting of three Filipinos and 12 Chinese and opened Luneta Restaurant on August 28, 2009.
The name was inspired by the famous Luneta Park, where national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal was executed on December 30, 1898. (It has since been renamed Rizal Park.)
Luneta in Shanghai serves signature Filipino dishes such as chicken and pork adobo, sinigang, crispy pata, kare-kare, pinakbet and Bicol express. Pancit bihon guisado, palabok, tortang talong are also included in the menu. Leche flan, halo-halo and sago’t gulaman are also served.
Lechon is served with an advanced order.
Learning the ropes
“We took it as a challenge to pioneer in opening a Filipino restaurant that no one dared to do. We want to have more Filipino employees but it is hard to get them working visas,” Leo says.
The first major task was to get a license and start the renovations of their new restaurant.
“It is very difficult… you have to pay cash for everything,” shares Leo.
The other challenge was promoting Philippine cuisine, which is still unfamiliar to the Chinese, whose culture and palate is already gastronomically rich.
“We worked hard to make our food consistent and the quality very good (some of our ingredients we have to buy from Manila). Finally, after about eight months, we broke even and started making some profit. But our cost of food is high and we don’t want to increase our prices as we are just starting to promote the Philippine cuisine,” he says.
While they advertise in City Weekend and Shanghai Daily, Leo says it is the customers themselves who promote the restaurant to their friends. Filipinos, for instance, invite Chinese and other foreign friends to dine at Luneta.
The restaurant’s dining area has a small stage where sing-alongs are held in the evenings, Thursday to Saturday—a proof of the Filipinos’ love for singing.
Chinese waitresses can be heard greeting guests in Filipino. They are also able to explain what ingredients a Filipino dish has.
The restaurant also promotes tourism in its own right with pictures of destinations such as Bohol and Palawan prominently displayed.
Its website, www.lunetashanghai.com, features trivia about Philippine culture, customs, traditions and heritage.
A close-knit community
Like many Filipino communities abroad, the Filipinos in Shanghai are a close-knit group.
According to the consulate in Shanghai, there are 3,500 registered in the city, mostly professionals like engineers, architects, teachers, finance officers, corporate directors, musicians and restaurant managers.
At Shanghai’s Catholic churches, Filipinos comprise the choir groups. Leo and Fe are active in planning the annual Philippine Independence Day celebration and Christmas party.
Fund raising charities also bring them together. When Typhoon Ondoy hit Manila in 2009, the Filipinos in Shanghai organized a fund-raising activity that raised 121,000 RMB (more than P800,000), which Leo personally handed to a television network.
They also donated 35,000 RMB (about P233,000) to earthquake victims of China.
Filipinos in Shanghai donated 30 houses to Gawad Kalinga in Daet, Camarines Norte which was named as Shanghai Village. The couple also donated the Sibol School for GK in Orion, Bataan.
Doing business in China
To any Filipino planning to live, work and do business abroad, Leo says: “Due diligence is necessary.”
We encountered some problems that we did not expect. There are varying business requirements for different districts in Shanghai.” They approved the plan that we submitted but when we are about to open, an inspector visited our restaurant and told us we had to separate the washing area from the kitchen. So we had to remove some walls again and build a separate washing area,” he said.
Another major challenge is getting working visas for their Filipino employees since the Chinese government limits the number of employees the establishment can hire from the Philippines.
About 75 percent of the restaurant’s customer base is Filipino; the remaining 25 percent is a mix of other expats and local Chinese.
Leo said they are slowly gaining more Chinese customers. The restaurant has just started a promotion with Chinese website, dianping.com, which offers dinner for two for 79 yuan (around P553). A Luneta homepage was also opened at weibo.com so the management can interact more with Chinese customers.
“We are getting a lot of requests and questions about our food,” he said.