BEIJING—Wang Peixin has seen the future, and he’s sure it features robots serving up fried dumplings.
On a recent day, a white robot wearing a flowered kerchief rolled across Mr. Wang’s Together Restaurant, a plate of pork-and-water-chestnut dumplings upon its built-in tray. As it traveled, it played an upbeat pop tune. A trio of customers hummed along and whipped out their phones to film its journey.
“Young people like to pursue what’s new, and robots are a fashionable, modern style of service,” said Mr. Wang, who owns the Together Restaurant in central Beijing.
China is in the middle of a pronounced bout of robot fever. Robots—or jiqiren, “machine-people,” in Chinese—are cropping up at banks, where models with high-pitched feminine voices engage customers in basic dialogue and urge people to wait in line. Others have made appearances as wedding officiants. The Dragon Spring Temple in Beijing has installed a squat robot in custard-colored robes to converse with the faithful.
Restaurants are ground zero in the craze. Numerous robot-themed restaurants have sprung up, with machine-people serving as chatty maître d’s, working as waiters or slicing noodles in the kitchen. Some robot staff are also programmed to dance and sing.
On a recent day, a pair of women lunching at Mr. Wang’s restaurant smiled expectantly as a robot rolled in their direction, a claypot dish upon its tray. But confusion arose when the robot halted upon reaching their table, having apparently reached the limits of its abilities. “Do we have to lift the food ourselves?” one asked. A human server rushed over to assist.
Reasons for China’s robot interest, while many, partly have to do with a changing population. Wages are rising as the working-age population shrinks. The government is pushing manufacturers to automate to compensate for the labor shortage and catch up with others in the use of industrial robotics.
Top leaders have championed a pro-robot agenda, with Premier Li Keqiang recently playing a game of badminton with a robot. (They tied.) President Xi Jinping, who called for “an industrial robot revolution” in 2014, recently interacted with robots at a research institute. Ran one state media headline: “Robot Greets Xi Jinping: Says It’s Happy to See Him.”
Chinese science-fiction enthusiasts are gratified. “Have you noticed, it’s strong industrialized countries that have well-developed science fiction?” says Liu Weijia, an editor with China’s Science Fiction World magazine. “As China has industrialized, people’s love of sci-fi has also grown.”
It is the distinctly human-looking robot—arms, torso, LED-lit face—that has seized the popular imagination.
China’s robot contagion was on full display at the Lunar New Year televised gala, the country’s most-watched annual event. The show featured 500 small robots doing a synchronized dance as colored drones hovered overhead. “Be my hero! The world is right before me, the future is in my eyes!” a pop singer crooned as they jerkily pumped their small, identical fists in the air.
At Fragrant Island Robot-Sliced Noodles in Beijing, the “machine person” is silver with a pink face, brown sideburns and a white chef’s hat. “Our robot is a French guy,” says manager Jiao Songhui, but it “isn’t for playing.”
The restaurant, Ms. Jiao says, is struggling with the rising cost of ingredients and labor. Between 2014 and 2015, urban workers’ salaries rose 10%. At around 8,000 yuan, or $1,200 a pop, the price tag for the robot is just a few months’ pay for a regular worker, she says.
“Robot-sliced noodles are tastier, too,” she says. “The texture is softer, more even.”
Many restaurant machine-people are crude, barely more than a dressed-up torso with a human face and mechanical arms that help relieve the prep-heavy nature of Chinese cooking. Like human employees, they come with hiccups.
Mr. Wang’s robot server was designed with an electronic expression intended to flash hearts for eyes. On a visit earlier this year, it had malfunctioned and was serving customers with a sulky frown, produced by a different setting that kept getting inadvertently activated. Staff say the robot can’t be trusted with too-heavy dishes.
Luo Jun of the Beijing-based International Robotics and Intelligent Equipment Industry Alliance says there are now around 800 Chinese companies involved in robotics. Mr. Luo views them scornfully, saying that many just serve as resale agents. Fewer than 100 actually make their own products, he says.
As for robot waiters, “they’re just toys, totally childish,” he says.
Zhang Wenqiang, assistant professor in computer science at Shanghai’s Fudan University, says China’s craze for robots has “bubblelike” characteristics. Many domestically made robots aren’t that useful, he notes.
Mr. Zhang says China’s manufacturers shouldn’t be too wedded to human-looking robots. “They could try making more robots that look like animals,” such as Doraemon, a Japanese cartoon robot cat, or Mickey Mouse, especially for robots designed for home use. “Would you feel comfortable with a strange person in your home?”
For his part, Qin Guangwei, who runs a noodle stall for a largely migrant worker clientele at a construction site in the outskirts of Beijing, says the romance of the robot isn’t over.
“High-tech things can help attract customers,” says Mr. Qin, whose pasteboard sign features a robot. At his shop, customers often arrive en masse after their shifts, and he needs help slinging bowls of noodles ($1 a pop) quickly. His robot—essentially a box with a mechanical arm topped with a red brow intended to evoke the Japanese superhero Ultraman—can slice dough into noodles at four bowls a minute. Without it, he says, he would have to hire additional help and charge an extra 15 cents a bowl.
Despite his robot-themed advertising, with space at a premium, Mr. Qin’s robot sits in a dimly lighted back kitchen. During a recent visit, business was thin, and the noodle slicer stayed powered off. “I just keep the robot back here for when I need him,” he said. “To be honest, he’s not a lot to look at anyway.”