27 May 2017 | 24.4 °C

How London Got A Taste For Chinese Food

How London Got A Taste For Chinese Food

Surveys have shown Chinese to be one of UK's top five cuisines. A Mintel poll even puts it in the number one spot, claiming it's more popular in London than anywhere else in the country. 80% of Londoners have visited a Chinese restaurant or takeaway; and sales of soy sauce and green tea are rising. So how did Londoners fall in love with Chinese food?

The beautiful arch in Chinatown Soho. Image: Chinatown

It all started with tea and the sea…

The first Chinese to arrive in Britain were single male seamen, who came on East India Company ships in the 1600s at a time when Britain had started maritime trade with China. They lived in the Limehouse area (now Poplar High Street), close to the docks.

By the mid-1850s, many were living in East India Company's lodging houses near the riverside in Shadwell (close to what is now Wapping railway station). A decade later, several had settled in Deptford and Woolwich. Tea was the first Chinese foodstuff consumed by the British, so the Chinese community also included stranded sailors who worked at the docks unloading tea from China.

The first Chinese to arrive in Britain were single male seamen. Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

London got its very first taste of Chinese food in 1884, at the International Health Exhibition in South Kensington. A restaurant and teahouse was constructed with chefs, ingredients and even interiors shipped in from China. The tabloids had a field day mocking the food, but it was a huge hit with the public.

London's first Chinatown

By the 1880s, London's first Chinatown was established around Limehouse, where the sailors had returned to get away from their cramped shared lodgings. Grocery stores had begun to pop up, along with cheap and cheerful cafés catering for the seamen, dockworkers and students. By now a few streets in the East End had acquired Chinese names.

These shops and eateries were brightly coloured and decorated with Asian exotica, attracting bohemian Londoners such as writers and artists looking for excitement and adventure. However, their traditional fare of preserved eggs and crucian carp were not to their taste, and the non-Chinese largely stayed away from the emerging restaurant scene.

Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum

Another decade later, two small Chinese communities had established in the capital. The first comprised Chinese from Shanghai who lived in Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street in Poplar (now the area between Westferry and Poplar DLR stations). The second included people from the Canton Province and southern China, who had settled in Limehouse around Gill Street and the Limehouse Causeway.

By 1911, the area around Pennyfields and Limehouse was officially known as Chinatown, and restaurant businesses had begun to dominate. Three years later, the immigration laws changed, and Chinese families began to come over. Five years after that, men from the Cheung community established a chain of restaurants in the area.

The Limehouse Chinatown — at its peak in the 1930s — had some 5,000 residents, many of whom were Chinese sailors. A web of myths grew up about gambling houses, opium dens, prostitution and criminal gangs, perpetuated by works of fiction such as the Fu Manchu novels.

The area suffered heavy bombing during the second world war, and was demolished soon after. The post-war period saw a decline in maritime trade, and compulsory repatriation of over a thousand Chinese seamen who were sacked by a shipping company. In the doom and gloom that followed, it seemed as though the party was over. In fact, it was just getting started…

Sweet and sour pork has come a long way since those early days. This is how it's served at the Chai Wu restaurant in Harrods.

London's first Chinese restaurants

Changes to the employment laws in the early 20th century meant Chinese sailors found it difficult to get work on the ships, prompting them to enter the restaurant trade instead.

The first mainstream Chinese restaurant  — catering for all Londoners, not just the Chinese community — opened in 1907 or 1908. Accounts vary, but this didn’t stop British newspapers enthusiastically declaring 2008 to be the centenary year of the first Chinese, especially as it conveniently coincided with the Beijing Olympics.

This first restaurant was either The Chinese Restaurant in Glasshouse Street, Piccadilly; Cathay off Piccadilly Circus; or Maxim's in Soho. Charlie Cheung's restaurant in the East End — part of the chain mentioned above — is also a likely contender – but nobody knows for sure. Maxim's was owned by Chung Koon, who'd worked as a cook on the Red Funnel Line ferry. The most popular item on its menu was sweet and sour pork... Londoners' tastes apparently haven't changed much.

Chinese New Year dumplings. Image: Chinatown

So what were these early Chinese restaurants like? Chef, author and TV presenter Ken Hom tells us: "They were quite plain and utilitarian as the owners were quite poor. They served chop suey, some curry dishes and even chips." Chop suey had been invented in the West a few years earlier, and these cheap and cheerful eateries became known as chop suey joints. They served Cantonese food — a trend that, to a large extent, continues to this day — because of Britain's old colonial links to Hong Kong, and that's where most of the chefs came from.

Koon's son went on to run a restaurant named Lotus House in the Queensway/ Bayswater area in 1958. It was so popular that customers who couldn’t get a table asked if they could take the food home. This is how, as the story goes, Britain's first Chinese takeaway was born. According to another account, Charlie Cheung's Local Friends in Salmon Lane, Limehouse was believed to be Britain's first takeaway. Once again, the facts are lost in the mists of time.

The post-war years

The aftermath of the second world war set the stage for the emergence of the second Chinatown in Soho. In the 1930s, Chinese ingredients had been available at the Shanghai Emporium and Restaurant in Greek Street; and a decade later, larger, fancier Chinese restaurants had begun to join the homely little chop suey joints. This was just the beginning.

After the devastation of the Limehouse Chinatown, many Chinese began moving from the East End to Soho, showing astute business sense by buying up cheap property. Returning service personnel also became involved in the restaurant trade — and along with West End theatregoers, they had another ready-made customer base: former British soldiers who'd developed a taste for Chinese food in the Far East.

In 1951, when the British government recognised Mao's regime, stranded Chinese Embassy staff couldn't go back to China, yet needed new jobs here. They, too, started opening restaurants in Soho, serving lacquered meats, seafood, and vegetables in oyster sauce. They were the first to introduce little-known regional dishes to London. By the end of the decade, the Hong Kong Emporium in Rupert Street had made Chinese ingredients widely available.

Among the former embassy staff was Kenneth Lo, who went on to become a legendary figure on the capital's restaurant scene. He set up the Chinese Gourmet Club to explore London's Chinese restaurants; and later opened Memories Of China in Chelsea in the 1980s, which survives to this day. Like Ken Hom, he was instrumental in educating the British about the cuisine.

Chinese food icon Ken Hom.

London's second Chinatown

Hom enthuses: "Chinatown has always been a magical exotic community, filled with food shops and delicious odours wafting from Chinese restaurants. I always feel that I have been transported home."

So our current, bigger Chinatown had begun emerging by the 1950s. By 1951, there was a significant increase in Chinese population in Britain due to refugees entering Hong Kong after the end of the Chinese Civil War, which in turn led to more single males moving to Britain… just like the seamen had done a couple of centuries earlier.

Big waves of immigration continued throughout the 1960s, mostly of male agricultural workers from Hong Kong. Due to the country's collapse of agriculture owing to land reform, the men moved here in search of a better life, and settled in Soho and Bayswater areas. They found jobs in the growing catering trade; shipping and Chinese laundries being in a steep decline by then. They sent money back to their families; and once they'd saved up enough to open their own restaurants, brought the family over.

A mushroom chop suey. photo: Sejal Sukhadwala

Was the food better than it had been 50 years ago? Not necessarily. The 1950s Chinese restaurant typically served pies, chips and buttered bread along with heavily anglicised Cantonese fare. They even introduced Western-style three-course meals – but customers turned up their noses anyway, as they didn't understand the food. By the swinging sixties, a cultural shift meant Londoners were much more willing to experiment. London was now ready for real Chinese food.

In a British Library recording for an oral history project, entrepreneur Wing Yip points to a number of reasons why these early Chinese restaurants succeeded. Not only did they adapt to suit English tastes, but also they were open late after the pubs closed, treated their customers well, and were very affordable. By 1961, it was necessary for the Association Of Chinese Restaurateurs to be set up in order to maintain the industry's good reputation, and recruit more restaurant workers from Hong Kong.

A couple of years later, the area sealed its reputation as an emerging Chinatown when the Zhongshan Workers' Club opened, showing Chinese films and running classes. Then the first Chinese New Year celebrations took place in Gerrard Street. By the end of the decade, the number of restaurants and shops had grown, not only on Gerrard Street, but also Lisle Street and Little Newport Street. A new Chinatown was born. There were around a hundred businesses there at the time — same as now.

Hong Kong-style egg waffle at Bubblewrap. Image: Chinatown

Since the 1980s, Westminster City Council has developed Chinatown as a hub for the community and a visitor attraction. However, Ellen Chew, owner of Rasa Sayang, tells us about the changes she's observed in the last 10 years: "When I first got to London, Chinatown was filled with cookie cutter businesses: everywhere you turned, everyone was selling the same things. Dim Sum, Hong Kong roast meats and Chinese takeout food were about as diverse as Chinatown got. The people who frequented Chinatown were mainly Asians and tourists.

"These days, Chinatown is exploding with a variety of food choices, and boasts cuisines from Sichuan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Businesses are more diverse… The perception that it is just a touristy location has changed significantly."

The rise and rise of Chinese food

Although the former embassy staff were the first to introduce regional dishes, the trend picked up quickly, gathered pace and continues to this day. One of the first was Tzu Kuno's Rendezvous chain. No longer content with chop suey, curry and sweet and sour dishes, it dared to put crispy duck and shredded beef on its menu, pushing Chinese restaurants into a different league to the chop suey joints.

In 1963, the Chinese ambassador's former chef Kuo Yuan was the first to serve Pekinese dishes at his eponymous restaurant in Willesden in north west London. Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon came to eat, pushing the cuisine into spotlight and making it fashionable for the first time.

A few years later, Charlie Cheung opened Good Friends in Salmon Lane, which proved to be a huge hit with visiting Hollywood stars. Around the same time, Michael Chow opened Mr Chow in Knightsbridge, attracting the likes of the Beatles and Mick Jagger (it's still going strong today). This was a glittering time for Chinese restaurants which were finally having their moment in the sun.

Longevity noodles... indeed London's Chinese restaurant scene is assured a long life. Image: Chinatown

In the early 1970s, Loon Fung in Gerrard Street sold Chinese ingredients and kitchenware; but these items had also begun to be available in supermarkets. Chinese recipes now appeared in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. The cuisine had crossed over into the mainstream.

If the 1970s and 80s were about regional Chinese, then the 90s were about luxury ingredients, noodles and imaginative vegetarian dishes, and the noughties marked by organic produce and healthy eating trends. In 2003, Hakkasan Hanway Place became London's first Chinese to be awarded a Michelin star; currently there are four on the list.  

But things have been changing. Whereas in 1985, 90% of the Chinese in Britain worked in the catering trade, the figure had halved by 2004. People from the academic and professional backgrounds had begun to move out of Soho, into the more affluent suburbs of Croydon and Colindale. This didn't affect the industry, however: our love affair with the cuisine had, by now, blossomed well beyond the getting-to-know-you stage.

We've come a long way since those early days of anglicized Hong Kong Cantonese fare. Some of our current street food trends — such as bubble tea, bao buns and Hong Kong-style egg waffles — first emerged in Chinatown. London now boasts Sichuan, Shanghai, Hunan-style, Dongbei-style and Fujian restaurants, to name but a few. Those seamen and dockworkers would have been proud.

Vintage photos reproduced with kind permission of the National Maritime Museum collection.

Last Updated 12 April 2017