Cult-like Restaurant Exposes China’s Appetite for Ponzi Schemes

Filmmaker Zhou Mingying discusses his surreal encounter with an authoritarian restaurateur while making his documentary ‘The Land of Peach Blossoms.’

Photo from ‘The Land of Peach Blossoms’ IMDb page

Something strange happened at the end of Zhou Mingying’s first day working as an in-house videographer at a high-end restaurant in Chongqing City, Southwest China. At 10 p.m., he was asked to join a group meeting to “share his opinions” about his new company.

As the meeting progressed, Zhou started to feel intense pressure to join his co-workers in lavishing praise on his boss and the business. A creeping realization dawned on him: His new employer was trying to brainwash them.

The 30-year-old filmmaker had unwittingly landed himself unbelievable access to a truly surreal business, the Feast of Flowers. It occupied the top floors of a high-rise office building overlooking a sprawling 59,000-seat stadium. Inside, diners were treated to a range of odd blossom-based dishes, accompanied by immersive stage shows featuring traditional Chinese dances, martial arts demonstrations, and even patriotic skits — all backed by lasers and a dense fog of dry ice.

A still from “The Land of Peach Blossoms” shows employees at a meeting. Courtesy of Zhou Mingying

But what fascinated Zhou most was the authoritarian leadership style of the restaurant’s owner, Zhang Derong, whom the staff always referred to as “The President.” Having seen a college friend get involved in a Ponzi scheme years ago, Zhou immediately recognized the cult-like, collectivist culture The President had fostered inside his organization.

Ponzi schemes have emerged as a serious social issue in China in recent decades, with an estimated 40 million people reportedly involved in such ventures. Many of the more extreme Chinese Ponzi schemes combine a pyramid-like organizational structure with brainwashing techniques, targeting impressionable social groups like recent college graduates eager to find employment. Chinese authorities often refer to these schemes as “business cults.”

Sensing an opportunity to expose the reality of life inside just such an organization, Zhou decided to take the videography job, as well as a secret one of his own: creating a film documenting his experience as an employee of the Feast of Flowers.

Over the next four years, Zhou recorded the rise and fall of The President and his followers. At the peak of its fame, the restaurant received coverage on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV and appeared on a promotional video for Chongqing, attracting an array of celebrity guests including pop star Jay Chou. Continue to read the article and the interview of Zhou Mingying here.


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.