Chinese content to re-live Mao era -- over a meal

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GUANGZHOU, China, Oct 18 (Reuters) At the door of the Commune Mess Hall restaurant, a young woman in loose-fitting army fatigues and a cap, with a red ''Serve the People'' armband and braided pigtails, greets customers.

''Welcome, Comrade! How many?'' she chirps.

Huge portraits of Engels, Marx, Mao, Lenin and Stalin adorn a back wall and Chinese propaganda posters hang on pillars and side walls, showing chipper workers, peasants and soldiers toiling.

Blocky, red characters painted on the rafters implore: ''Be self-reliant, work arduously'' and ''Use your own two hands to have ample food and clothing''.

The eatery here in the capital of the booming southern province of Guangdong is a throwback to the Mao era, modelled on the communes that dotted the countryside from the 1950s to 70s.

Staff dressed like the Red Guards of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution serve peasant fare. Revolutionary songs play in the background.

Scores of similar restaurants have opened around the country, recalling a turbulent period in China's modern history that many remember with bitterness but which also evokes feelings of nostalgia for what some say was a simpler time.

They are perhaps the Chinese equivalent of America's milkshake and hamburger drive-ins with Motown classics on the jukebox.

The eateries test the boundaries of political correctness in a fast-changing country still ruled by the Communist Party, which is holding its 17th Congress in Beijing this week to map out policy for the next five years and name a leadership team.

HISTORY AS A MIRROR Five decades ago, Mao launched the first communes -- which, of course, featured communal kitchens -- with the Great Leap Forward, an effort to spur the economy that instead caused a famine that killed as many as 30 million people.

During the Cultural Revolution, China was plunged into chaos as Mao-crazed Red Guard youth factions terrorised cities, rooting out ''counter-revolutionaries'' and burning books.

The era remains sensitive in China, but the restaurant proprietors and patrons don't seem to be fussed.

Wu Hao, manager of the Communal Mess Hall whose official title is ''Commune Leader'', says he thought the historic theme would be a good way to attract customers.

''In the food and beverage business you have to have a hook,'' said the 32-year-old Wu. ''We decided to go with this theme so that older people could feel the way things were again, and young people could feel it for the first time.'' Few escaped the turbulence of the era, though, and millions were wrongfully persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Still, Wu said he had yet to encounter a patron who was offended.

''We are not mocking that era. Our goal is to use history as a mirror to show how good things are now,'' he said.

At ''Number One Production Brigade'', a Cultural Revolution restaurant in Shenzhen, John Wang of Shanghai shared lunch with colleagues and didn't read too much into the surroundings.

''It's special, a new style, a way to attract customers,'' he said. ''You know, Chairman Mao is a very great man in China.'' Nearby, Cong Fang, who said she was sent to the countryside with her parents as a child, was feeling nostalgic and advised a young waiter how to dress more authentically.

''Everything's pretty accurate in here,'' she said of the decor.

''Except the air-conditioners.'' But is there contradiction in using the Communist imagery of the past to promote a capitalist cause, a private restaurant? Wu, the manager of the Guangzhou restaurant, paused for a minute and then offered a politically correct answer.

''You can't really call it capitalism,'' he said. ''It's socialism with Chinese characteristics.'' REUTERS SKB ND1554

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