Meeting the People Who Make London’s Chinatown
We speak to those behind the restaurants, supermarkets, and fried chicken joints in London’s ever-evolving Chinatown.
Med Pang (left) and the chef at Baiwei.
Located in the heart of the city, there's no chance of simply stumbling across London's Chinatown. With its huge red and gold gates, paper lanterns criss-crossing the streets, and intriguing aromas that emanate from bakeries, restaurants, and butchers; it's impossible to miss.
But when I arrive on a sunny Monday afternoon, there's no time to waste gazing at shop fronts or people-watching the hoards of selfie stick-waving tourists.
"We've got a lot of restaurants to fit in and a schedule to keep so people know when to expect us. Are you ready? I think we're already late for the first place."
I'm with Frank Ye, a Chinese translator and part of the team behind the Chinatown London website. He'll be guiding me on a culinary tour of the area, introducing me along the way to the people who make their bread and butter in dumplings and duck.
The streets between Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus have been a hub for Chinese businesses in London since the 1960s. But Chinatown hasn't always had a W1 post code. London's original Chinatown was located in the Limehouse area of the East End, but after bombing of the area during the Blitz, many of the Chinese immigrants who lived near the docks were forced to resettle across town and opened up shop in Soho. Today, in the face of rising rents, shifts in immigration patterns, and customers' changing tastes, London Chinatown is evolving still.
The first stop is Canton, a Chinese barbecue restaurant with freshly roasted ducks hanging in the window. Jack Chan, who manages Canton and a few other restaurants in Chinatown, greets us with cups of steaming tea.
"The restaurant has been here since 1986. We specialise in roast duck and noodle dishes—we have the best noodle dishes around London," he says. "The roast duck is made in the most authentic way using only Chinese spices and no other additions. We're very proud of it."
Chan continues to tell me about the changes he's seen since he began working in working in Chinatown: "I've been in Chinatown for 15 years and previously Cantonese food was the most represented. Now, as more people come here from different regions of China, they're open to bao and noodle which are focused more on north eastern, rustic Chinese food."
Around the corner from Chan and Canton, I meet another Chinatown stalwart, Geoff Leong. Leong came to London from Hong Kong as a young boy and his family has been in the restaurant business here for years. He's the founder of several Chinatown restaurants, which include Leong's Legend and Dumpling's Legend, where he ushers us to sit with him in a booth by the window.
"Going back to the first generation of London Chinatown restaurants, they realised very early on that the West was eating food that was filleted and they didn't want to put something with crunching bones in their mouth! So chefs took away some of the tricky authentic foods like duck's tongue and chicken feet with the bones," he says. "A lot of the Chinese started creating their own menus which were written only in Chinese!"
While tongue and crunchy feet are still rarities on English-language Chinese menus, I ask Leong whether he has noticed a change in Westerners' palates.
"I think that those who are well-travelled understand [regional] cuisines—they'll know whether a dish has Sichuan peppercorns in it or not. And also over the last 20 years, more Chinese tourists and students have come here. Many of them come from different parts of China and they want to eat food that's relevant to them," says Leong.
Pausing to order for the table, he continues: "The journey now is engaging chefs about regional food. For example, over the last ten years, Leong's Legend has evolved, serving not just Taiwanese dishes, but also Japanese hot pot and other regional Chinese food."
Above all, Leong tells me, the evolving food diversity in Chinatown is a way for Chinese people to connect to their roots.
He stops to encourage me to dive into the spicy dumplings and soft bao filled with sticky pork that have just been placed in front of us, before continuing: "Chinatown is made for London but it's always been the key holder of the Chinese culture and food is one of the strongest links to cultural identity. I remember pushing my four-year-old daughter in a pram through Chinatown and she looked around at everybody, realising that Daddy is not the only Chinese person. Where I live in North London, there are hardly any Chinese people. Chinatown really engages your Chinese culture."
After hoovering up the dumplings and bao, I bid goodbye to Leong as he makes photographer Liz promise that she'll come back to roadtest the gluten-free dumplings he's developing.
Our next stop is Plum Valley, a swanky looking restaurant a couple of doors down from Dumpling's Legend. In contrast to its neighbouring eateries decked out with gold ornaments and hanging lanterns, Plum Valley is all sultry dark wood panelling, leather booths, and geometric-patterned windows. I'm introduced to Iris Ma, whose husband Stanley owns the restaurant. She talks me through its unique design.
"Stanley's father used to do traditional Chinese restaurants but Stanley didn't want to do another green and yellow-decorated place," Ma explains. "This place was decorated by a Spanish designer and renovation took a year. No one has ever done a one year renovation in Chinatown. People thought we were mad! And we decided to do a fusion of traditional Chinese with Malaysian Chinese food because it has a little bit more spice. It's a bit more exciting. Spicy food is more acceptable with people now."
Despite initial skepticism towards Plum Valley's modern look and fusion menu, Ma and her husband have won over Chinatown.
"The restaurant has been open now for seven years. At the beginning, it was terrifying because we didn't know how people would receive the new look. When we opened, some very traditional Chinese customers came in and said it's dark and it's not Chinese. But Stanley wanted to carry on," Ma tells me. "Now, business is very good and we always get very good comments about the food."
She adds proudly: "We have produced a lot of chefs for a lot of the other fine Chinese restaurants in London so we see some of the food we do spread around."
Next, we pop into SeeWoo, one of Chinatown's many supermarkets. The store, which also has outposts in Greenwich and Glasgow, boasts a vegetable section bursting with bunches of yellow chive and bags of lotus root. Peering into the seafood section, I spot live eel and crabs wriggling about in tanks.
Stanley Tse is one of the brothers who founded the SeeWoo store in 1975. He's not in the shop today but I email him later to find out how the shop's customer base has changed over the last 40 years.
"Back then, it was mainly Hong Kong Cantonese that visited the shop, but now there are more mainland Chinese in the UK and Westerners coming in, which has led to the products on offer growing in diversity. We now source products from all over China, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand," he writes.
What does he think about mainstream supermarkets now stocking more Chinese ingredients?
"It's good. It brings more awareness to the category, to Chinese food in general, and encourages people to experiment. However, the brands you find in the big supermarkets are not authentic—Chinese people wouldn't use them."
So, what's the biggest challenge shops like SeeWoo face, if not from the supermarket giants?
Tse says: "We are still asked by customers to import unusual and interesting products as the appetite for more diverse Chinese cuisine grows and customers want authentic products from home that they miss. It's a great challenge to see how many products we can get into a small space in our shop in Chinatown!"
Back on the streets of Chinatown, time is getting on and my culinary guide Ye steers me towards Good Friend, a Taiwanese fried chicken shop. KFC, this is not.
"It's very traditional Taiwanese food. Everything—the flour, the sauce, the powder—is imported from Taiwan. There's a secret recipe!" says Marian Xiao Yap, who works here. "There is a particular technique to frying the chicken. How to mix the flour, how to deep fry, and how many times you should deep fry the chicken. It's all made to order. And we don't do any ketchup or mayonnaise. People choose a flavoured powder to put on like plum, chili, or numbing spice."
I ask who comes to eat at Good Friend.
"It's more young people like students," she says. "I think street food-style has become more popular in Chinatown—there are a lot of bubble tea shops and there's the Bubblewrap place. It's good because it brings young people to the area."
Down the road, another woman in Chinatown is seeking to bring a more diverse cross section of visitors to the area. Freya Aitken-Turff is CEO of China Exchange, a Chinese cultural centre based in the main thoroughfare of Gerrard Street. But instead of popcorn chicken, Aitken-Turff is luring people in with Tom Jones and Axl Rose.
"China Exchange was opened in 2015 out of the idea that Chinatown would benefit from a reason to come that complements food," she explains. "So, we hold events and talks that bring people in so they can experience culture and things that are stimulating for different reason."
Aitken-Turff, who's also completing academic research into the purposes of contemporary Chinatowns across the world, continues: "Our intention is to make China's diversity, breadth, and culture available and accessible. We can have Tom Jones on stage talking upstairs and downstairs have a conversation about men's mental health. We're saying that you don't have to talk about China specifically all the time for conversations to be relevant."
But, she adds, the food and drink industry is obviously integral to Chinatown: "Chinatown comes with a reputation of being a place where you can eat so it would naturally attract more restaurateurs and food-related businesses into the area."
Finally, we approach the last place on our whistlestop tour: Baiwei, a Sichuanese eatery. From the way my Chinatown companion Ye greets the manager, Med Pang, I can tell the restaurant is one of his regular haunts.
"You can ask Frank how good the food is," says Pang with a laugh.
"I didn't hesitate in suggesting this place," admits Ye.
Pang asks me, "Do you like spicy food?" I nod enthusiastically and he continues, "We serve small eats from Northern China and Sichuan is our main cuisine. When people like spicy, they will like Baiwei. I believe that now, that no matter Chinese or Western, people will like our food. That's something that's changed over the years."
Pang talks me through the menu, which covers everything from fiery noodle soups and spicy pig ear salad. I ask Ye what why Baiwei is a special place for him in Chinatown.
He says with a shrug: "It's my favourite place because I'm from Sichuan."
Making my way back through the lantern-lined streets and passing out of the red-painted gates, I think back to something Ye said earlier in the afternoon: "It's great that Chinatown is a place of discovery for the West, but it's just as much a place to find a taste of home."
As Chinatown continues to evolve, here's hoping it can fulfil both of those purposes for many generations to come.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.
Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.