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Not your Chinese takeaway

In my last blog I covered the original Chinatown in London, which no longer exists. In this blog, I'll cover something that many people of Chinese extraction shared. That is the growing up in a Chinese takeaway (or chippy, that's a fish & chip shop). Some were actually both. We also did curry too, which was quite popular.

Back in 60's, the ubiquitous Chinese takeaways started to become popular. Restaurants have been around for a while, but the availability of Chinese food that was cheaper and to take away made Chinese food a household fixture in Britain. When Chinese people started coming over, a lot were not well educated or spoke much English. So employment opportunities were limited. What they could do and were prepared to do, was hard work. Originally, not all could cook, but they learned how to. If you worked hard, you could earn a living. It was the norm for most Chinese families in Britain. This was the case for a few generations. For a number of people, they probably already had fellow clansmen or friends who have already moved over. Some might have opened their own takeaways, so you worked for people you knew. Once you earned enough money, then you started to bring your family over and perhaps even open your own takeaway. I spent some time in our family's takeaway. We had relatives and friends who had their own. Everybody knew each other. When you bump into other Chinese people, you'd often ask where they're from. Most like myself were from the New Territories. Some clans have so many members in England, they even have their own clan associations.

There are two groups of people who grew up in a Chinese takeaway. One group really disliked this way of life and the other appreciated it. If you're wonder where I fit in. Well I used to dislike being associated with Chinese takeaways, but looking back. It was not all bad. I wanted to be like my friends and I didn't like being different.

Life was hard in the takeaway business. The days started early and you prepared the food and brought supplies. As children we would help out, because we are doing our bit for the family. This was a good thing as it gave us work experience and responsibilities from a young age. Some of us learned how to cook. Which was what celebrity fashion guru and chef Gwok Wan did. Apart from things like sauces and spice mixes. Almost everything were available from Western suppliers. Back in the 70's, people grew their own bean sprouts. These days, we have it delivered or you go to the nearest Chinese cash and carry. Your family worked 7 days a week. Every night, you finished work smelling of grease. Every Sunday, you went to a Chinese school to learn your native language, but everybody spoke English. Your English friends think kung fu films are cool, but you probably got sick of them. By the time you reach your late teens, you probably got bored of people at school shouting numbers at you. Yes, very funny and original. That was mild, compared to the racist abuse you could expect to receive.

By the time you reach university, you wonder how much Chinese you still spoke or understand. Then you get comments from Chinese people from back home who question if you're Chinese at all. By that age, you have probably experienced a fair amount of racism already. Chinese people are not weak. We try to put up and tolerate with this negativity. But that is not to say fights didn't break out. In some places fights happen regularly and it often involved customers not paying or causing trouble.

Whether you liked or disliked that way of life. The classic Chinese takeaway way of life is slowly disappearing. The older generation have long retired and the younger generation aren't interested in the catering business. Some are brought out buy a new generation of Chinese migrants. But the classics as loved by Brits are becoming a rarity. Chicken balls, sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken and BBQ ribs. Sure, they are still around, but not like how they used to be. The preparation can be time consuming and labour intensive. Sadly, the techniques are dying out. There might not be anybody to pass on the knowledge and also customers are more health conscious. Furthermore, tastes change. Go back some 20-30 years ago and the only popular fast food was Chinese and Indian. These days, there is much more competition with Thai and Vietnamese also gaining fans. Despite the bad press Chinese takeaways get, not all are bad.

Recently new takeaway opened in town. They took over premises of a well liked Chinese takeaway which served this town for two generations. The last classic takeaway in town has gone! As I walk passed one evening, a young child poked his head above the counter. That was me once...

All pictures were taken at the Migration Museum in Lewisham. It is worth a visit.

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