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Photo courtesy of Tonya Zhang

AD Secrets: The Story of Dragon Bao Bao

A Chinese food restaurant situated in Abu Dhabi, Dragon Bao Bao is a place where its physical presence hints to you that it is a space in the making, shaping those who enter, work and shuffle noodles and baozi into their mouths.

Nov 8, 2020

“They say it’s perfect here, even the smell, even your smell is Chinese madam, some restaurants [are] not Chinese like that.”
Standing at a corner of an inward facing block, the warm light elongated our shadows into three tall silhouettes like those of the skyscrapers, surrounding this miniature Chinese restaurant. Indeed, the smell of soy sauce, stir fry and noodles sneaked into our masks as we chatted with Patricia Jonson, a Fillipina staff at Dragon Bao Bao. And it is not just the smell — there is also the clinking of stir fry pans and faint chatterings in Chinese, Tagalog and English blending in the background through the open door. Some occasional honks of traffic are the only reminders that we are in Abu Dhabi.
Dragon Bao Bao, a restaurant specialized in noodles and baozi near Fatima bint Mubarak street, opened two years ago. “I first opened it so that it’s easier for my family to eat because there was not a very authentic Chinese restaurant in Abu Dhabi. Everytime we go to eat in Dubai, it will take a round trip of three hours just for one meal,” explained Zhang Dan, the owner of Dragon Bao Bao.
Originally from Kaifeng, Henan in China, Zhang came to the UAE working in another industry. However, prompted by the lack of authentic Chinese food — as opposed to Indian Chinese or Arab Chinese cuisine — she decided to start her own restaurant specialized in making dishes common in her hometown, a Song dynasty capital famous for its abundance of street food and Northern taste. “It wasn’t very difficult when we first started. Most Chinese restaurants here focus on stir fry, so our noodles and baozi stood out and became quite popular,” recalled Zhang.
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Photo courtesy of Grace Shieh
As we chatted, groups of customers at the three tables in the restaurant shifted multiple times, stimulating a lively bustle to the crowded restaurant. The space also contains a kitchen, cashier counter and a fridge stuffed to its four corners with tofu and vegetables, all within the size of a family’s living room.
The restaurant serves a diverse range of customers, both Chinese and non Chinese, many of whom are drawn by the familiar taste this place provides. “Foreigners would come and tell us that your food is so authentic, because when they were in China, they had authentic Chinese food, and they could not find this taste in Abu Dhabi,” exclaimed Zhang. “Sometimes they would say now that they are full, they no longer miss home. Food is important to a person mentally, as it provides comfort and alleviates some of the difficulties of being abroad. And this is the kind of impact we want to have.”
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Photo courtesy of Tonya Zhang
In a sense, this place is one that counteracts against all that is happening around it, like a current brushing against the wave it is in. It is a capsule that shapes all that enters — a community of Chinese food consumers, a taste of familiarity in a perhaps foreign space, a statement of home in a city of diversity and fluid identity. Looking around, the place may not have chandeliers and marbled floors, and definitely not the kind of celebrated material luxury common in Abu Dhabi — in fact it does not even have a bathroom — but why would you need those if the place speaks most powerfully the way it is?
To Jonson, Dragon Bao Bao is not a place that brings her back to the already shaped past, like the customers seeking a taste of familiarity, but rather, it is where her present work will cultivate the future she seeks. She starts at 11 a.m. in the morning and ends at around 11 p.m. at night. “Sometimes [it is] hard work, but if you have passion, if you love your work, you will not think about it. You see how they eat, how they say your food is good, and sometimes my tiredness is gone, because they appreciate our work,” stated Jonson.
In the youthness and energy of this 22 year old waitress, a sense of confidence persisted in the air even when she spoke of the challenges of the work. “I’m the only girl inside. We have one Chinese, three kebaya — my Filippino boys — and then I’m the only girl. Sometimes [there is] a little bit of pressure, because they’re all guys, but they care about you. They see you’re tired, ‘okay I’ll help you, I’ll help you,’” she elaborated. “It’s a small space, so all the pressure inside [is] hot, also needs to be fast… [but] in a few months I learned how to make baos baos, and in a year I can make the noodles. After one Chinese year, the chef taught me how to cook.”
Despite originally not being fond of Chinese food, Jonson has grown to like it, and explained that for some Filipinos, the two cuisines have certain similar elements, although it is more meat based in the Philippines and Chinese cuisine often has a variety of vegetable dishes. To her, the work atmosphere is also different in the Chinese restaurant. “Filipino [food] is also good, but I know [it] already, so I want to try something else.”
When asked of her future plans, she dreams of one day opening her own Chinese restaurant in the Philippines. “[If] I have enough money, I go to China and I want to try the food there… because [it is] much better if you have experience in authentic Chinese food, then after, Inshallah, [I will] open a Chinese restaurant in the Philippines.”
And it is not just about the food and growing better at work. It is also about personal growth, about learning to step forward with one’s goals and navigating through the various challenges of life. “I want to prove myself. But I’m proud already, because [at the] age of twenty, I already don’t need to take money from my parents, I can earn my own money,” stated Jonson.
There is a kind of firmness, or strength, that penetrated through her voice as shared about herself. It’s not necessarily about a story of success or making it, but more of an encounter with one in the making — the making of a young adult, of a shop in the city of Abu Dhabi, of a community of cooks and customers, the shaping of one’s palettes and memories with the past and what the present offers.
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Photo courtesy of Tonya Zhang
Additional reporting by Tonya Zhang.
Grace Shieh is Deputy Features Editor and Multimedia Editor. Email her at
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