Written by: Rosa Kurowska
Additional Research: Sherri Wong, Kooi Chock, Piotr Borysewicz
Revision Date: Friday, 25 October 2013
Today the Chinese takeaway, oriental grocery store and Chinese restaurant are a feature of every British town from Swansea to Inverness. Recent surveys have seen Chinese food become one of the most popular cuisines amongst British customers and most British households own a wok and have knowledge of different Chinese regional cooking styles. Meanwhile catering remains a key occupation for Chinese migrants and British born Chinese to this day. It may then be surprising that the Chinese catering industry was slow to develop in the UK compared with other trades like seafaring and laundry and it was only after the Second World War that catering was really established as a key Chinese trade in the UK. This article will trace the history of the Chinese catering industry in London and its workers from these tentative beginnings to its mass popularity today.
Early Contact 1750 – 1908
As early as 1717 a direct trade route was established between the UK and China, bringing tea to the British public and by the 1750s tea had become the most popular beverage in Britain with the working class – displacing coffee and ale.1 Although tea was consumed in Indian rather than Chinese style – with milk and Caribbean sugar added – distributors often alluded to their tea’s Chinese heritage as a key selling point, for instance in the Twinings’ logo. seen here above their shop in Fleet Street.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was also a great fashion for Chinese porcelain, influenced by the French fashion of Chinoiserie. Indeed the Chinese standard was so highly prized that a factory was established in Bow, East London, to attempt to copy the Chinese pottery style. It was named New Canton, an allusion to the port of Canton in Southern China, despite the fact that China’s pottery producing industry was centred far further North in Jingdezhen.2 Some of the pieces produced in Bow may still be seen at the British Museum.3
However in these early years there were only a few Chinese visitors to the UK, none of whom settled permanently. It was only during the nineteenth century that Chinese sailors began to arrive in Britain in greater numbers, usually working on board the ships of the East India Company and other trading organisations, bringing tea and spices to the city from the colonies, it was a testament to the popularity of tea that it had become the largest single commodity in this trade by the end of the eighteenth century.4 Many of these sailors began to come onshore for longer periods and by the middle of the nineteenth century regionally distinct areas of settlement had developed in Limehouse with Shanghainese sailors settling around Pennyfields and Cantonese around Gill Street.5
By the 1880s a number of Chinese restaurants and grocery stores had been established in Limehouse catering exclusively for Chinese customers – seaman, dockworkers and exchange students.6 However the dominant trades for Chinese settlers up until the mid-twentieth century remained the seafaring and laundry industries. For the British population to start becoming consumers of Chinese cuisine it would need an introduction in a different environment than the Limehouse sailor’s canteens.
Vanity Fair; c. 1884
This introduction came in 1884, when Robert Hart brought a display entitled ‘The Chinese Restaurant’ to the International Health Exhibition in South Kensington. Sir Robert Hart of the Chinese Maritime Customs used his position to source chefs from China and the exhibit proved extremely popular, providing the first taste of Chinese cooking for thousands of Londoners and tourists.7 According to official statistics there were 4,167,683 visitors in total, with 22,838 visiting the cookery section.8 Although the menu and head chef were French (the chef having spent fifteen years in Beijing), the food was prepared by a group of Chinese chefs recruited directly by Hart from Beijing and Guangzhou. We can assume from Hart’s comments that he did not have a great respect for these chefs: ‘they are all more or less coolies so to speak.’9 He ordered for them to be ‘packed close’ during their time in London and they were provided with only the most basic food and provisions, despite the luxurious dishes they prepared for the exhibition: delicacies such as ‘Noisettes de Lotus à l’Olea Fragrance’ and ‘ Petit Caisse à la Marquis Tsing’.10 Nothing is known of these workers beyond the end of the exhibition, although it is likely they returned to China.
The exhibition sparked discussion of Chinese food and customs in the British press. Although much of the coverage in the popular press was negative or mocking, there were a few surprisingly engaged articles written about the health benefits of Chinese food and drinking habits.11 However, after the Health Exhibition had closed its doors, Chinese cuisine continued to be found exclusively in small sailors eating houses around the docks (a phenomenon also observed in the UK’s other early Chinese settlements in Cardiff and Liverpool). It was not until the early twentieth century that Chinese entrepreneurs were to begin capitalising on their culinary skills and engaging a Western audience.
The First Chinese Restaurants 1908 – 1945
In 1908 the first officially recorded Chinese restaurant opened on Piccadilly, aptly named, The Chinese Restaurant.12 In the same year Chung Koon, a former ship’s chef on the Red Funnel line who had settled and married locally, opened Maxim’s in Soho, and soon after The Cathay on Glasshouse Street in Piccadilly.13 Chung Koon’s story is typical of these early settlers. Since Chinese women were not allowed into the UK in these years (aside from the small number of Amahs travelling with British missionaries) many Chinese sailors married local women, often from the East End. As they grew older, and the dangerous and unpredictable life of a seaman lost its appeal, they began to open small businesses with their British wives, including lodging houses, cafes, restaurants and laundries. These early restaurants struggled to find Chinese ingredients and often had to compromise with unusual results.14
In these early days business was poor and Chinese workers had to endure a great deal of hardship.15 Despite being a numerically small population in London, fears of competition from Chinese labour, fuelled by the British Governments use of Chinese Labour in the Transvaal in South Africa in the aftermath of the Boer war in 1906, contributed to general hostility amongst British workers towards Chinese arrivals.16 Chinese workers in all industries were subject to attacks and discrimination from locals and trade unions in the areas where they lived and worked. In one of the most extreme incidents in Cardiff in 1911, all of the city’s 30 laundries were destroyed in one night.17 This popular paranoia was further fuelled by the publication of sensationalist novels like Sax Romer’s Fu Manchu mysteries which were first published in 1913, becoming immensely popular with the English middle class.
Despite all of this, more local patrons were coming to Chinese restaurants than in the nineteenth century and trade improved. The 1911 Republican Revolution in China also brought about a change in the Chinese restaurant community in London. As the old imperial embassy was disbanded, many of the former embassy staff went on to establish restaurants in the West End, bringing different Northern cooking styles with them. There was also a similar increase in business in Limehouse in these years with up to thirty shops and cafes catering to the local Chinese community by 1913 based on Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields.18 This period also saw the establishment of the first limited-liability company by the Cheung clansmen in 1919, which established a pattern of clan ownership of restaurants which continues to this day.19
However despite these advances, catering remained a marginal occupation for Chinese migrants in the first half of the twentieth century. According to census reports only 4% of Chinese born males were working in the profession in 1911, a figure that dropped further after the First World War to 1% in 1921. The First World War, declines in British shipping and the Dockers riots had an adverse effect on the Chinese businesses in Limehouse and there was further decline between the wars, the number of recorded Chinese restaurants dropping from 26 in 1921 to only 17 in 1931. The restaurants in Limehouse were dependent on the docks for their income as their customers were mainly dockworkers and seamen, this became apparent in the disproportionate effect the depression had on the restaurant trade in the area. Chung Chu, who ran a cafe on Limehouse Causeway said the slump in shipping to the London Docks after 1929 was ‘killing’ the Chinese community there and younger members of the community simply drifted about the docks looking for work or moved elsewhere to look for better conditions.20
Although there were increasing problems for the docklands restaurants in the 1930s, Chinese cuisine was beginning to become more accepted by British customers and the movement of the catering community towards Soho began in earnest. In this decade several more restaurants had opened in the London’s West End. The most popular with British customers was Ley On in Wardour Street where a single dish and rice could be ordered for one shilling and six-pence.21 During the Second World War, with China as Britain’s ally, the number of restaurants continued to increase, for instance five ex-seamen from the village of San Tin in Hong Kong opened restaurants in London during the war – they were all from the Man Clan and supported each other’s businesses.22
Over all in this period, though some Britons had begun to frequent Chinese establishments, in search of the exotic or a cheap square meal, the dominant local attitude was still one of suspicion and popular radio shows and newspapers often mocked Chinese cookery. Running and working in a restaurant in these years was difficult work and restaurants mainly catered to the small numbers of Chinese students who began to study in London after the revolution.
Post-War Chinese Catering Boom
It was not until after the Second World War that Chinese catering began to grow in the UK. Although the Blitz and the slum clearances had seen the decimation of the Limehouse community and only a few restaurants remained in the docks, this period saw the rise of the restaurant community in Soho along with a growing popularity of Chinese food amongst British customers. This was part of a global phenomenon as with the increasing ease of international travel, Chinese migrants travelled all over the world. By the 1960s Chinese food had become one of the earliest globalised cuisines with restaurants in Kenya, Canada, Peru, Turkey and Ethiopia, where the ‘China Bar’ in Addis Ababa was particularly popular with Ethiopian women.23
There were several domestic factors that brought about growth in all British restaurant trades in this period. The end of rationing in 1947 resulted in a proliferation of all kinds of restaurants. Meanwhile the end of the war fuelled a positive atmosphere in the country and more British people began to eat out. This was exacerbated by the rise in women’s employment during the war, many women choose not to return to housework when the war ended and consequently more families began to eat out. Finally according to Ng, a substantial meal could be purchased for a lower price in a Chinese establishment than in other kinds of restaurant, grounding the Chinese takeaway as a British working class staple.24 Baxter and Raw point out that even by 1942, over 108 million meals were being consumed outside the home.25 Added to this were the changed tastes of those who had served in WWII, especially the American GIs stationed in London after the war, who had developed a taste for Chop Suey.26 Many soldiers came back to the UK with a taste for the exotic foods they had encountered on duty in China, India and South East Asia and encouraged their families to try these foods by eating out or purchasing a takeaway from one of the dozens of new Chinese restaurants. Chinese food had proved more popular with those stationed abroad than other varieties of Asian food, for instance British soldiers in India were more often to be found in Bangalore’s Victory Chinese Restaurant than any of the local Indian establishments.27 While in 1951 there had been only 36 Chinese restaurant proprietors, mostly in central London, in just 16 years this grew to 1,100.28 Finally the disbandment of the embassy of the Republic of China after the Communist Revolution in China led more former embassy staff to open restaurants which offered a distinctive Northern cuisine.29 This growing industry and an economic boom in Britain from 1956-65 led to a demand for more labour from Hong Kong, facilitated by the Commonwealth Immigrants Act which brought migrants from all over the former British Empire as well as from existing territories like Hong Kong.
The Sino-Japanese war in China and the civil war which followed resulted in a huge influx of refugees to Hong Kong and between 1945 – 1951 Hong Kong’s population grew from 600’000 to over 2 million. Faced with overcrowding and the prospect of further conflict in Asia, many migrated on to the UK. The number of Hong Kong residents in London increased five-fold between 1950 and 1960 and created the distinct Cantonese character still felt in the Chinese community in Soho.30 Most migrants rushed to the UK before the Commonwealth Immigration Act came in on the 1st July 1962, which stipulated that new migrants must prove that they had already secured employment in the UK. However, large scale immigration continued into the 1960s until it was further limited by the Immigration Act 1971, which placed limitations on the entry of dependents. Despite this Baker maintains that the migration of family members from Hong Kong continued at a high rate until 1977.31
In 1961 the Association of Chinese Restaurateurs was formed to regulate the trade and can be seen as a marker of the establishment of a strong Chinese catering industry in the UK. Two years later the first Chinese New Year’s celebrations were first held in Gerard Street and Chinatown became a popular destination for Londoners and tourists alike. The Chinese community in London was now firmly based in Soho, with only a few businesses scattered around the rest of the city, and the majority of Chinese residents had left their original homes in Limehouse.
The Chinese catering industry was dominated by small family enterprises reflecting the desire of individuals to control their own restaurant and gain independence. There was a relatively high degree of exploitation in the industry as many new migrants had limited English and came from rural areas around Hong Kong. Their journey to the UK was often funded or supported by family or clan members in Hong Kong or the UK and upon arrival they had to work for protracted periods to pay off their debts. As a result of this the majority of migrants who started working in the restaurant trade stayed with their first employers just long enough to learn the trade and, as soon as they had the means to, they left and established their own business.32 Because of this desire to escape exploitation and find independence Chinese businesses were often isolated establishments.33 In the 1950s and 60s though it was increasing, there was not such a huge market for Chinese cuisine that many restaurants could operate in the same area or town. Because of this families travelled far across the UK to set up their businesses. This is a factor unique to the Chinese diaspora in the UK and to this day almost every small town has a Chinese restaurant or takeaway often entirely run by one family. Because of this reliance on family members, most Chinese restaurants kept their overheads low and were able to maintain their independence even during times of financial difficulty. There is no doubt that working in a catering establishment in these years was hard work, and still is today.
By the early 1970s Chinese restaurants and takeaways had been established all over the UK, totalling around 1,000, a sizable number, but still dwarfed by more than 2,000 Bengali-run Indian restaurants.34 Although the economic down turn had an adverse effect following the oil shocks of the 1970s, in the early 1980s, small enterprises were encouraged by Thatcher’s policies and there was a marked rise in the numbers of small ethnic businesses in the UK, including Chinese caterers.
This period was also marked by an increasing diversity of Chinese migration to the UK. Following the Vietnam War and America’s departure from the country in 1973 ethnic Chinese were expelled from the country by the new Communist government, resulting in one of the greatest refugee crises in world history. Eventually through the UN and other international agencies hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese Vietnamese made their way around the world to settle in Western nations. In total the UK took about 30,000 refugees mainly from Northern Vietnam who made their home principally in the London boroughs of Lewisham and Hackney. Many of these refugees went on to open Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants which also became extremely popular.
By the early 1970s the ethnic Chinese population of London had become dominated (almost 55%) by Chinese from parts of Asia other than China. As well as Vietnam the most significant numbers of migrants had come from Malaysia and Singapore.35 Kooi Chock, a project volunteer, describes her first impressions of the UK:
I was born in a coconut plantation off the Coast of Penang Island and at the tender age of 19, on the 28th December 1972, I, and many similar age Malaysian Chinese, left the racial discrimination in Malaysia, to come to England, my protectorate. My grandparents and parents had also escaped the poverty and ruin, caused by the Taiping rebellion during the Qing dynasty around 1900, from Guangdong, southern China to settle and work in the British colony of Malaysia.
I am still totally taken by the foggy mist and the leafless trees in the freezing winter. Snow is like a shower of cold white powder. Spring is mesmerizingly beautiful and fresh, the roses are so big and unrealistically stunning and perfumed. The autumn’s falling multi coloured leaves are like gold treasures to be tread on and shuffled with. I thought I was blessed. I adjusted to and eventually embraced the four seasons, also endlessly talking about the changes.
Finally, with the opening up of the People’s Republic of China in the late 1970s and early 1980s there came more Chinese migrants from mainland China. It was during this period that British customers began to become acquainted with the many different regional styles of Chinese cooking, Kooi Chock describes the growing popularity of regional cuisines in the 1980s:
As more immigrants descended and as more knowledge was gained by the natives taking holidays abroad, Chinese restaurants are serving up more authentic cuisines. Aromatic crispy duck wrapped in pancakes is being modified to be less fatty as the Chinese would like, is a big hit since the 1990. As early as 1980s, I cooked my Chinese food in my spare time for parties, local markets and school fetes, with my camping gas burners and my woks. In 2011, I helped restart the Chatsworth Street Market, by setting up “Chock’s Wok” with my stir fry noodles, curries, spring rolls and so on.
Even in this modern period of development, most Chinese catering businesses continued to be family dominated, though they might take on non-family members as seasonal staff. Kooi Chock worked as a waitress in one family restaurant in the 1980s:
During one of my holidays, I had a lot of fun waitressing at the “Queens Chinese Restaurant” in Lewisham. At the end of each evening, the boss, his wife and a young daughter and two Cantonese chefs and myself would all sit together to eat a freshly cooked supper with at least 4-5 dishes, such as Steamed Choy Sum, a whole roast duck, some steam bream garnished with ginger and black bean sauce, and always with plenty of hot steaming jasmine rice.
At all levels of the industry, from kitchen porters to restaurant managers, long and anti-social hours remain typical. The researcher Lynn Pan interviewed a British-born Chinese girl in the 1990s who described her duties helping her mother with their takeaway business in Stockport thus:
Meal for one… The recipe includes the following ingredients: forty grams effort or slavery; thirty grams cerebral power; the both seasoned and lib with tolerance and other virtues. Method: Work.36
This interviewee’s reference to tolerance may also reflect the continuation of discrimination in this period. Although many British people often ate out in Chinese restaurants and had by the 1970s become the basis of the trade (as opposed to Chinese clientele, as had been the case in the early years) widespread criticism of Chinese food continued and racist attacks were common. Typically a group of British customers would arrive at a restaurant and after the meal suddenly complain about something and refuse to pay. These confrontations often erupted into full blown attacks on waiters and waitresses.
In the most famous case of this period, in 1988, five white customers of the Diamond Restaurant in the West End refused to pay their bill and then attacked the waiters who then called the police. However, when the police arrived they arrested the four waiters who were then convicted and imprisoned for two years for affray. No charge was brought against the customers involved and this blatant discrimination on the part of the justice system led to a large campaign for the ‘Diamond Four.’37 Chinese community groups across the country campaigned for the waiters to be released and the case highlighted the reality that Chinese waiters and waitresses often had to defend themselves from abuse while going about their duties. Since then attempts have been made by the British police to reform their attitudes and to combat these attacks. In 2001, the London Metropolitan Police carried out Operation Napkin during which police officers dined undercover in Chinese restaurants on Friday and Saturday nights in an attempt to prosecute more of these offences.
Because of all these factors, working in the traditional catering industry was becoming less popular with some and to many it looked like the industry was reaching saturation point. In 1991 the census revealed that of the ethnic Chinese population, 30% were British-born, marking another shift in the character of the Chinese community of Britain.38 British-born Chinese were particularly wary of going into the industry, often defying their parents’ wishes by going into different industries. Although many spurned the industry at first, some British-born Chinese have gone on to open innovative restaurants combining the influences of their dual heritage. One example is Andrew Wong’s restaurant, a family business to which he has brought a new direction and style (To hear Andrew’s story see here). The influence of these factors led to a diversification of the catering trade, on the one hand, towards wholesale or factory manufacture and, on the other, towards more upmarket restaurants which marketed themselves on their quality, healthiness or the regional authenticity of their cuisine.
The 1970s saw the beginning of the establishment of Chinese wholesalers and supermarkets in the UK who stocked imported produce from China, which meant that Chinese chefs could at last cook with genuine Chinese ingredients. Some of the market leaders were family businesses in these years, such as Seven Seas (est. 1971) and Dayat Foods (est. 1981) and kinship ties have proved important in their development, just as in the catering industry.39 The growth of the popularity of frozen and convenience foods in the UK led to a great increase in this trade and eventually businesses began to move the site of manufacture to the UK itself. The first business to do so was the supermarket chain See Woo. Set up by three brothers in Soho in 1975 they went on to open the first large scale factory producing Chinese food products – such as dumplings, sauces and pre-prepared meats and fish – in North London in 1986.40 Today the factory is a state of the art 24,000 sq ft operation supplying the catering trade. Eventually wholesalers like this would become the largest Chinese industry in the UK and remain so today.
Roberts has described the 1970s and 80s as a period of ‘entrenchment’ of Chinese cookery into British eating habits.41 After Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, British people became increasingly intrigued by China and it’s cuisine. This interest was fuelled by chefs like Kenneth Lo who started the China Gourmet Club in the 1970s to promote understanding of Chinese cookery. The Chinese restaurant trade continued to grow, but now more and more British people wanted to try out Chinese cookery for themselves. Although there had been a couple of English language cookery books for Chinese cuisine published in the West in 1945, it was in the 1970s and 80s that there was real growth in this area. The new Chinese supermarkets enabled convenient purchase of the necessary tools and ingredients and celebrity chefs like Ken Hom inspired generations of British to try out this kind of cookery at home. The rise in vegetarianism in the 1990s and an increasing interest in Chinese traditional methods and cookery for health led to greater interest in Chinese cookery. In recent years some dedicated Chinese cookery schools have appeared in the UK, becoming a popular pursuit and reflecting the British publics’ deepening interest in Chinese cookery (To learn more about the School of Wok Cookery School, and meet its founder Jeremy Pang see here).
British Chinese Catering Today
In 1983 the Yang Sing restaurant in Manchester won the Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year marking a new phase in British Chinese catering. Chinese cuisine was finally accepted as a high end cuisine and in the 1990s more sophisticated restaurants began to open. One early pioneer of high standards for Northern Chinese cuisine was the Y.Ming Restaurant, started by Christine Yau (you can hear her story here) one of the only women in an industry which remains extremely male dominated.42 Increasing international travel and knowledge about China meant that British customers were more discerning about their choice of restaurant, and many began to promote their traditional methods and style to customers, for instance restaurants like The Good Earth (To hear head chef, Chung Pun Cheng’s story see here). Chinese cuisine is now widely renowned and sought after around the world as one of the greatest cuisines on earth and many Chinese restaurants have achieved Michelin stars. Jason Li of the Royal Garden Hotel is an example of a modern restaurateur who also spends time promoting healthy Chinese cookery and cultural understanding (to hear Jason’s story see here).
Today the Chinese catering world in the UK is a highly diverse industry. The modern British Chinese population has developed in four main groups who have each brought their own perspective and influence to the industry. The first were the Hong Kong arrivals of the 1960s who formed the basis of the catering ‘boom’ in the 50s and 60s. They were followed by Southeast Asian Chinese who added to the diversity of the sector in the 1970s and soon felt confident to advertise the Malaysian, Singaporean or Vietnamese heritage of their cuisine as British customers became more knowledgeable. In the 1980s there were further arrivals from urban Hong Kong and Taiwan and from the 1990s a significant British-born Chinese population began to envision Chinese cuisine in new ways.43 Although catering was slow to take off in the UK it must be seen as one of the key professions for Chinese migrants. Today the professions undertaken by Chinese migrants and British-born Chinese are more varied than ever before, yet catering still remains important, often as a second job or for additional income during time at university. Since the 1950s when the laundry and seafaring industries declined catering took over as the dominant industry and remains a fundamental part of the British Chinese working experience.