For most imaginative people, before they get to an age when concepts such as mortgages and expensive divorces can be fully understood, the fantasy of having ridiculously large, swimming-pool-full-of-notes amounts of money usually means fantasising about stupidly fun, if ultimately unfeasible, things to buy.
Things such as a pet tiger with a saddle for its back. Or a hollowed-out skyscraper with a massive curly slide inside. Or, perhaps, an enormous airplane with a restaurant in it.
Li Lang of Wuhan, the capital city of south central China’s Hubei province, is clearly not a man who has let such dreams remain inside his head despite reaching adulthood. Last week he cut the ribbon on Lily Airways – International Airplane Food: a high-end restaurant built inside an actual Boeing 737 airplane that is currently grounded opposite a pharmacy in Wuhan’s quirky European-themed Optical Valley shopping complex.
It’s become something of a centerpiece of the area already.
“I have a lot of wild ideas, and if I’m capable of making them come true then I do it,” says Li, meeting me by a waiting area designed to resemble an airport check-in gate zone. He explains that although he had the idea of sticking a restaurant inside a plane years ago, he was put off by the difficulty of buying the vehicles. He finally managed to gear his project up by snapping up a Boeing 737 from Indonesian airline Batavia Air, which stopped flying in 2013 after declaring bankruptcy. He says he paid around 35 million yuan (about $5.2 million US) for it.
Why, exactly? “This is the most difficult question for me,” says Li, tonight highlighting his high-end lifestyle further by wearing a polo shirt featuring a large Mercedes logo on the chest. “People buy cars and shoes just because they want to. Same with me. I have been interested in mechanics since childhood… but I just don’t know why I did this.”
Li got rid of the seats that came inside the airplane and replaced them with dinner tables and black leather chairs. Aside from that, the Boeing is pretty much as it was before. As such, after walking through the jet bridge and into its cabin, it really does feel like you’re about to take off—so much so that when I take my seat I instinctively feel around for a seat belt.
To demonstrate that many of the plane’s gadgets are still functional, Li takes a seat opposite me and flicks on the red flight attendant call light above his head.
Meanwhile, to my left, a server clad in a flight attendant-style uniform pulls dinner plates from an overhead luggage compartment.
The pristine uniforms are indicative of the strict rules and standards Li has for his staff. As glasses of Bordeaux are poured, Li explains that waiters need to be at least 1.75 meters tall and waitresses need to be at least 1.65 meters in height, reflecting some actual airline staff regulations.
“They act exactly like flight attendants,” he says as a server with blue and yellow stripy shoulder tags and gold badges on his shirt walks past holding plates of salmon. “Many of them are studying this [flight attendant] major and we invited airline people to give them etiquette training.”
The attention to detail extends to the ordering process. Upon arrival, customers make their orders near the waiting area then are given airline-style tickets before being called to the “gate” when it’s time for them to board.
Although the major selling point of the place is its somewhat unique décor, plus a flight simulator in the cockpit area that is set to open soon, Li hasn’t scrimped on the kitchen. He’s hired a team of Belarusian chefs to prepare menus that will regularly change to reflect the different styles of food served on airlines around the world.
I try a chicken and bacon salad and then a shrimp dish—the former featuring generous amounts of succulent bird flesh and the latter comprising three shrimp drowning in pea sauce. Other customers enjoy big slabs of salmon and dainty cakes that induce plenty of smartphone snapping.
The dishes I eat are unimaginative but good, even when not directly compared to the coach class slop you get served on most real airlines. But Li doesn’t seem particularly concerned with receiving positive comments about the food. Considering that he’s allegedly already paid the equivalent of around $5.2 million just to buy the thing, turning a profit from his plane is probably not his top priority.
“I don’t care about people’s feedback in whatever I do,” he says. “Chinese people care a lot about what others think, and some people said I was joking [by announcing the restaurant], but I am serious and I do whatever I want. As long as I do what I like, it’s OK for me.”
“I don’t care about people’s feedback in whatever I do,”
Fair enough. You’ve got to have a level of admiration for a man who turns such oddball ideas into reality at such stupendous cost, whether he can easily afford it or not. Judging by his nonchalance, I reckon he could easily stump up for that skyscraper with a tiger inside it, too.