Host to heads of state never far from HK roots

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 December, 2010, 12:00am

Tang Chu-ting's family used to earn a living farming oysters and selling oyster sauce from their Yuen Long home. But when the then 21-year-old Tang followed in the footsteps of his big brothers by moving to London in the 1970s, he and his family had to rely on different culinary skills as operators of a Chinese restaurant. Abandoning oysters they turned instead to sweet and sour pork and fried rice.

'Sweet and sour pork, fried rice, bean sprouts and spring rolls - we call them the golden dishes for Chinese restaurants. Ninety-nine per cent of Western customers like to order at least one of them,' Tang said from his restaurant in London's Chinatown where he recounted his 35-year life as a migrant in London.

Tang, now 57, is chairman of the London Chinatown Chinese Association, the trade association for more than 300 retailers in Chinatown - the largest in Europe.

The youngest son of a big Yuen Long family of eight children, Tang's elder brothers and sisters migrated to London in the early 1970s one by one. When Hong Kong was a British colony it was relatively easy for the New Territories original residents to migrate to Britain to start a new life.

The family of 10 has now expanded to over 40 and they need four or five big tables for a Sunday family dim sum gathering.

In the early 1970s, Hong Kong's economy was yet to take off and many people saw moving to Britain to open a small takeaway shop or restaurant as an easy way to earn a better living. Government statistics show there are now 408,800 Chinese living in England and Wales, 114,800 of them in London.

Tang, after a brief career as a student, decided the academic life was not his cup of tea, so he went to work helping at his brother's restaurant before opening his own in Chinatown, located in the heart of the city centre next to West End and Soho.

When he started his restaurant career, Tang said Chinatown was little more than a shabby collection of old buildings. People did not feel safe walking the street. It was only about 10 years ago when police stepped up their efforts to improve security that the Chinatown area become a good place for locals and tourists to visit.

Over the past few years the British government has spent money renovating the streets and facades of the shops to attract tourists. Chinese characters have been added to street signs. The district now has 90 restaurants serving everything from yum cha to Sichuan and Shanghai cuisine.

Tang now owns four restaurants including the flagship Imperial China Restaurant that has served the local British and Chinese, tourists, and mainland government heads. When President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and former president Jiang Zemin visited London, they were served by the chef of the Imperial China Restaurant in their hotel.

Why do so many Chinese migrants open restaurants?

It is the easiest way for Chinese migrants to get a job or to start a business. The restaurant business does not need high language skills or university degrees. As long as you know how to cook sweet and sour pork and fried rice, you can attract customers. The capital investment to open a restaurant was not high when I first arrived in London in 1975. You needed a few hundred pounds to open a small takeaway shop and with about ?,000 could open a restaurant. Parents usually cooked in the kitchen and let their children, who could speak English, work as waiters and waitresses.

Why do Chinese like to gather in Chinatown districts?

In the 1970s, most of the Chinese migrants in Britain were from Hong Kong and a majority of us knew each other. As such, we would usually get together for social gatherings or have a meal together. The gathering also worked like an informal head-hunting agency, with people finding kitchen hands or waiters to work for them. We usually gathered on Sunday and Monday, the most common day off in the restaurant business.

Are the second generation of British Chinese keen to learn Chinese?

Yes. Many second generation like to study Chinese. We have Chinese school every Saturday and Sunday. In Chinatown, the Chinese language school has about 1,000 students and the other suburbs also have their own language schools. My son now spends one year in Beijing to learn Chinese. Some Westerners also attend our Chinese schools to learn the language to prepare for development in China.

What is the second generation doing?

While the first generation usually worked in the restaurant business, the second generation usually has more education and become accountants, lawyers or bankers. My eldest daughter is a lawyer. Many like to do professional jobs but in fact, the restaurants business, if you operate properly, can earn more money than these white collar jobs. As such, there are also some second or third generations successfully expanding the restaurants opened by their parents. In our generation, we had no choice but to work in restaurants, but now they have a choice to have more of a career.

What is the major entertainment for British Chinese?

Some Chinese like gambling but some also like cultural activities like watching movies or a show in the West End. I like social gatherings myself to meet business contacts. I also like to watch Hong Kong television programmes and news through satellite. I read Chinese newspapers every day so I know what is happening in Hong Kong and China. I like watching football, I'm an Arsenal fan. The Chinese New Year celebration is the big thing. The British government provides sponsorship funds of GBP70,000 (HK$851,670) for the festival and we have a parade and many cultural activities which attracts many European and British tourists.

Has the global financial crisis hurt your business?

The financial crisis has not affected Chinatown seriously as we have a lot of tourists Rather, the levies charged for cars to enter London city centre has discouraged some visitors.

With China's good economy, would you consider moving back to Hong Kong or living on the mainland?

I have to go back there from time to time. This year alone, I have been to Hong Kong seven times as I have business and public duties there and on the mainland. As a Chinese community in London, we can also act as a middle man to provide a bridge for Westerners who want to invest in Hong Kong and China.

Do you enjoy life in London?

Yes, Britain is a good place to live. The social and medical benefits are better than in Hong Kong. It is also a fair society, so as long as you work hard you can earn a living for your family. If you want to earn quick money, it is not that easy. It is a bit cold so many migrants or retirees return to Hong Kong to escape the cold winter. I speak less than 1 per cent of English in a day. Here, you can eat and work and speak almost the same as if you were in Hong Kong,

What have been the most important moments for you in the past 35 years?

Sars in 2003 was the most challenging time. The outbreak led people to stay home and the Chinatown business suffered as there were no tourists. Another important event was the Beijing Olympic Games.

Do you like British food such as fish and chips or roast beef?

I eat only Chinese dishes. I feel hungry if I have no rice in a meal. I am very Chinese in terms of diet. It is therefore a good idea for me to operate a Chinese restaurant. At least, I do not need to worry about my meal!

Home away from home

London has the biggest Chinatown in Europe with 90 restaurants

In 1970s London, Chinese migrants could start their own restaurant with capital of about: GBP1,000