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New North Korean joint is sleeker than the rest

Sunrise Restaurant, Phnom Penh’s newest North Korean joint, is more sleekly branded than the others.
Sunrise Restaurant, Phnom Penh’s newest North Korean joint, is more sleekly branded than the others. Eliah Lillis

New North Korean joint is sleeker than the rest

The recently opened Sunrise Restaurant – which is not state-owned – is eye-catching and eager for customers. This week, Post Weekend stopped by for dinner.

”It’s very, very… OK,” the costumed waitress says as she steps forward with the $8 bottle of Pyongyang liquor that we’ve opted for at the recently opened Sunrise Restaurant on Monivong Boulevard.

The clear alcoholic beverage is the cheapest North Korean libation that the restaurant has to offer although all of them, our waitress assures, are “very, very famous”. The décor also seems to play up to a foreigner’s preconception of the DPRK, from the epic paintings on the interior walls to the propaganda imagery posted inside and out.

Unlike its state-owned counterpart a few blocks north, Sunrise is a joint venture between a Cambodian company with foreign investors and a North Korean organisation that provides the labour, according to a shareholder who declined to be named.

Indeed it seems acutely aware of what it’s selling: an appealing – and slickly branded – image of the pariah state.

“Foreigners are always curious about the country,” the shareholder explains, adding that Sunrise is “completely different” from the Pyongyang Restaurant chain, which is known for managing North Korean restaurants around the world. Asked about the propaganda, he says it is “just decoration”.

Waitresses perform a series of acts nightly, as at other DPRK restaurants.
Waitresses perform a series of acts nightly, as at other DPRK restaurants. Eliah Lillis

The restaurant’s logo features a bright yellow sun rising over mountains and a blue and red backdrop. There’s no apparent prohibition of photography. Sunrise is certainly making itself more visible than the others; it even has a Facebook page.

Inside, a ballroom-style staircase descends from the kitchen into the dining hall, which features a stage in the centre for the restaurant’s performers – the waitresses themselves. There are 10 that night.

We are seated with a prime view of the stage, which is filled with instruments. There are only three tables that night. The waitresses immediately serve tea and a complimentary hors d’oeuvre, a steamed egg dish with a pudding-like consistency.

For dinner, our waitress suggests a steamed pork shank with vegetables ($8), which we order with a side of traditional kimchi ($4). The kimchi could be the best in town, but it all ends up being nearly too much food – if not for the floor show’s near-hourlong running time and the bottle of Pyongyang that needs finishing.

You’re likely not coming to Sunrise for the food, though the kimchi is good.
You’re likely not coming to Sunrise for the food, though the kimchi is good. Eliah Lillis

Just after 8pm, the lights dim and a traditional Korean welcome song is performed by several waitresses wearing traditional Joseon-ot costumes.

The performance is similar to Phnom Penh’s other North Korean venues. The waitresses hand out imitation flowers to the customers – we are supposed to return the flowers throughout the night to our favourite acts. The dancing gives way to a solo saxophone serenade worthy of a high-end blues club aside from the shmaltzy synthesisers.

The women change costumes between each act – though there’s hardly a pause in the music. At one point, our waitress – the only one who speaks English – breaks into a Keith Moon-esque drum solo. After the show, she says she taught herself how to play just this month. She also plays the guitar and the keyboard.

The subsequent acts feature an ode to “friendship” between North Korea and China – an increasingly strained relationship – at which point the Chinese diners erupt into a cheer, and a rendition of Elton John’s Can You Feel the Love Tonight, which the manager makes clear through her gestures is for us.

Waitresses wear traditional Joseon-ot costumes.
Waitresses wear traditional Joseon-ot costumes. Eliah Lillis

Two Cambodian patrons are called up when the singers break out into a Golden Era number.

A finale features all 10 waitresses, starting with one lead singer’s descent from the ballroom staircase, singing as she makes her way through the tables onto the stage.

At the end of the act, patrons are invited onstage to take pictures – souvenirs – with the waitresses in their multicoloured ballgowns.

We’re offered a complimentary dessert of fruit and hang around finishing the last of our kimchi plate and the bottle of Pyongyang. We ask about the mural at the back of the restaurant, a large propaganda image featuring filmmakers, industry, a rising sun and a soldier with a rifle in hand.

“It is about the music, and literature and arts,” the manager says, a tribute to the artistic culture of Juche – the state ideology based on revolutionary self-reliance. “Please come back with your friends and family,” she adds as we pay the bill.

Sunrise Restaurant is located at #466 Monivong Boulevard, and is open every day for lunch and dinner. The nightly performance starts at 8pm. Tel: 085 726 084.

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