Chefs are being poached left, right and centre. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

June 14, 2022   6 mins

Beneath the fluttering red and gold lanterns on Gerrard Street, drivers unload vats of rapeseed oil fresh from China, for cooking up batches of deep-fried pork balls and the like. In the windowless Lo’s Noodle Factory in a passageway off Wardour Street — nicknamed “alleyway place” in Cantonese — three men churn out 2.5 miles of ho fun a day. And at Little Newport Street, a client is directed on how to skip on the pavement by an employee of the Hong-Ning medicine clinic (a sign in the window reads “Forget Viagra, Think About Herbal Male Tonic”).

This may seem like a natural tableau of Chinese life in Britain’s capital city. But very little about the mechanics of Chinatown is either grassroots or spontaneous; this is much more a meticulously curated streetscape than a cultural microcosm.

The majority landlord of this quarter of prime West End real estate — a grid of streets sandwiched between Soho, Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus — is a FTSE 250 behemoth, whose annual report is inevitably more interested in “brand identities” and “ownership clusters” than community or heritage.

Shaftesbury PLC controls 3.2 acres — or £690 million — of the enclave, whose cheap rents in the Fifties attracted Chinese communities that had been bombed out of Limehouse in the east of the city. Last month, the investment trust announced it is in advanced talks about a £3.5 billion “mega-merger” with Capco, to form one of the world’s largest listed commercial property businesses, taking in 2.9 million square feet of central London.

The denizens of Europe’s biggest Chinatown are already struggling to keep up with the winds of change of recent years — from coronavirus, gentrification and inflation to tightening immigration restrictions and the arrival of a flurry of foreign franchises. They were at the sharp end of the pandemic from the start, with a spate of racist attacks and deserted streets even before the first lockdown. Coming out of Covid, a pre-existing staff shortage has become yet more acute: many workers returned home in 2020 and never came back.

So difficult is it to now find staff that Christine Yau, who arrived from Hong Kong in 1985, was forced to close her restaurant of 35 years, Yming, late last year. Her long-time chef felt he had no choice but to transfer to his family’s business, also struggling with recruitment, and Yau decided to call it a day. “It used to be handed down from generation to generation, but the world has changed,” she tells me. “The younger generation don’t want to work 12 hours in a restaurant,” she explains. “They find life more interesting outside the kitchen, so it’s a natural process. They integrate into the mainstream society.”

Geoff Leong, who arrived from Hong Kong aged ten, now runs Leong’s Legend (its kitchens are in the basement where Ronnie Scott ran his first jazz club) and Dumplings Legend (site of the Mont Blanc restaurant, which played host to Belloc, Chesterton and Conrad in the early 20th century). He says the industry is now so “cut-throat” that “you’ve got chefs being poached left, right and centre. The entire team is like an army, so when the head chef goes, they will take everybody with them.”

That Yming looks set to be replaced by a Korean restaurant hints at a wider trend, too. In Chinatown, traditionally the home of Hong Kong hospitality, Cantonese cuisine is increasingly giving way to the flavours of wider Asia: Japanese barbecued wagyu, Vietnamese pho and Taiwanese fried chicken.

Some are welcoming of the changes. Ken Hom, who brought Chinese cookery to the British masses with his BBC series 40 years ago, returned to Chinatown for the first time since the pandemic last month. It was a far cry from his first visit there, back in 1971, when he was shocked to find Cantonese restaurants serving their take on curry and fish and chips.

This time, he headed to New China to enjoy the type of sizzling Sichuan meal that would have been unheard of in London in decades past. “They had this incendiary braised beef dish that was so delicious. You were on fire when you ate it. The quality of cooking has really gone up. Now we’re shifting away from the crispy seaweed thing. I noticed non-Chinese are ordering real Chinese dishes.”

Many restaurants once had their main menu in English, with a second, featuring the real deal — gelatinous beef tendon and gristly pig’s knuckles — reserved for Chinese customers in the know. But while the kitchens have risen to meet the challenge of more adventurous British palates, many family restaurants are now facing stiff competition from deep-pocketed international businesses as interested in global brand-building as viable enterprises. Haidilao, China’s biggest hotpot chain, now has a 10,000 sq ft branch on the edge of Chinatown.

This pushes up rents, which have doubled since the mid-Nineties to about £400 per sq ft. The area’s property prices have also been partly inflated by a Beijing buying spree (the Sunday Times reported that investors from China and Hong Kong have amassed a British portfolio of nearly £135 billion, including about £10 billion worth of real estate). Leong says one of his restaurants costs £1 million a year in rent and rates.

Little wonder that several traditional establishments offering a full suite of dishes have been replaced by higher-margin ventures: cafes offering smaller menus of street-food plates, and a sugar rush of Instagrammable snack bars. Over the eight years that Freya Aitken-Turff has worked at China Exchange — a charity encouraging people to learn more about the country’s culture — she has noticed “a big emphasis from Shaftesbury on these kinds of glamorous patisseries and dessert parlours”, as well as a “larger number of fusion-type restaurants where the type of food is a little harder to discern”. Out went the kiosks that sold Chinese trinkets and books, as well as her favourite haunt, a stationery shop from which she bought calligraphy paper. At her last count, there were 14 bubble tea shops – serving disposable plastic cups of sugary tea with chewy tapioca balls.

“When you change Chinatown into a neighbourhood that is totally dependent on footfall and this superficial grab-and-go blend of businesses,” says Aitken-Turff, “that affects what happens to the other businesses. A tourist comes to ‘do’ Chinatown. I think it’s a revolting phrase — come, grab a bubble tea, snap a selfie under the gate and disappear.”

This is one of the symptoms of the underlying tension between tenants and landowner. “You have an area where the cultural capital of the neighbourhood is very much oriented towards groups of people from an East and South-East Asian heritage. But the ownership of the assets in Chinatown is held by a PLC. That creates quite an interesting dynamic for this neighbourhood that I think most people are largely unaware of.”

A spokesman for Shaftesbury declined to be interviewed for this article. But in 2017, its chief executive said Chinatown was “stuck in a bit of a time warp“, with too many “high-volume, low-margin” restaurants. He has also previously said that would-be tenants go through a “Dragons’ Den-style” interview to see if they pass muster as he tries to put together a “rather expensive jigsaw puzzle”. Yet many people I interviewed praised the company as a responsible landlord, which has donated to local causes, invested heavily in marketing and offered rent reductions during the pandemic.

At a time of soaring inflation, Chinatown is particularly vulnerable, with plenty of customers still expecting “a Chinese” to be a particularly affordable meal. Conscious not to put off these price-sensitive patrons, the only alternative is to try to cram more in or increase the already hectic turnover of tables.

Yau successfully led the charge against McDonald’s breaching the ornately decorated gates of Chinatown, but has been less capable of preventing the proliferation of the betting shops she feels prey on the area’s low-income workers. She says although she understands that in the heart of London, capitalism will win out, she would like to see the council put in safeguards to ensure “Chinatown should remain Chinatown”, adding: “At least 80% should be Chinese restaurants.”

Andrew Leong, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, says Chinatowns are essential sanctuaries that reduce racial tensions and help new arrivals acclimatise: “These physical communities are a symbolic and logistical site of belonging, especially with the recent increase of people from Hong Kong escaping from the PRC.” But Caroline Knowles, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths and author of a report on London’s Chinese migrants for the Runnymede Trust, is pessimistic about its future. “I think that if it survives, it will be owned by private equity, it will be hugely glossy and more Disneyfied,” she predicts. “It will be a simulacrum of itself. I don’t think it will have any real connection with the grittiness of Chinese business and restaurant life, which was based on migration from China. I think it will become just like the rest of central London — expensive and plutocratified.”

Hom insists he has faith in the resilience and adaptability of Chinese restaurateurs. “It comes from several thousand years of history — all that they’ve been through, the wars, the famine. The Chinese have survived. It’s a work in progress.”

If anything, Chinatown is an inevitable victim of its own success, its restaurants’ popularity revitalising a once shabby district to the point where many have been priced out. And the fusion dishes and picture-perfect waffle wraps being plied today are no less credible a slice of Chinese life than that served up in the Fifties — when chefs had to resort to using watered-down Marmite as a substitute for soy sauce.

Perhaps it is apt that Yau’s shuttered Yming restaurant is soon to be replicated in the Museum of London. After all, Chinatown has always been a reproduction of “Chineseness”: tame enough to market to the Brits, but familiar enough to provide a taste of home to the expats, a flavour always just sufficiently “authentic” to keep both groups coming back for more. Homesick Chinese, British dim sum devotees and a generation of immigrants just starting to make their lives anew in London’s metropolis will be hoping Chinatown itself is not also destined to become a museum piece.

Etan Smallman is a freelance journalist.