200 snakes, 1,000 ducks, 700 chicken and a tonne of pork. This is the weekly meat order for the West Lake Restaurant in Changsha in China’s central Hunan province, the world’s biggest Chinese restaurant seating 5,000 over a vast 88,000 square metre floor modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden City.

It is the brainchild of Qin Lingzhi, an enterprising former hospital employee and member of the Chinese Communist Party who borrowed USD 10,000 from a group of friends to open her first restaurant in 2000. Within a year she had taken USD 600,000 and is now one of the over 1 million millionaires in China reaping the rewards of the country’s seemingly unstoppable economic growth which in all but name has left its Communist ideology firmly behind.

West Lake Restaurant caters to the increasingly expensive and often demanding tastes of China’s growing middle class. Over 1,000 employees – from waiters and chefs to bellboys, dancers, cleaners and hostesses – ensure that every wish and whim of families who can spend up to USD 1 million for a wedding celebration are taken care of. For those who value a bit of privacy, there are private dining rooms decked out in the ‘imperial style’ where waitresses, dressed in ‘imperial costume’ serve dishes that are cooked according to very specific recipes that have been codified and preserved over hundreds of years. For the rest, there are the vast halls of tables filled with thick cigarette smoke whose floors are littered with gnawed off bones.

The menu, consisting mainly of dishes from Hunan and southern Guangdong provinces known for their spiciness, include such delicacies as monkey, snake, lizard, bird’s nest and various type of insects. One of West Lake Restaurant’s signature dishes is the so called ‘Fried Alive Fish’ which sees a chef gutting a live fish, throwing it into boiling oil and serving it up straight from the wok, the fish still gasping.