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Asian food entrepreneur Wing Yip moved from Hong Kong to England in the late 1950s. In this audio extract he explains how during the 1950s Chinese restaurants filled a gap in the UK market, and how Chinese restauranteurs tried to please their English customers.
During the 1950s and 60s Britain saw an increase in its Chinese community due to the influx of Hong Kong Chinese. Many of these newcomers went into the restaurant business, setting up takeaways across the UK, with much of their hard-earned money going back to Hong Kong to support family there. Several Chinese takeaways cleverly adapted to their British customers' tastes in food by offering buttered bread, pies and chips alongside Chinese dishes. The prosperous 1960s, however, also saw a rise in eating out and a more adventurous approach to sampling different cuisines.
Today, Chinese food is very much part of the British diet, widely available in ready-meal form, eaten in restaurants and bought from takeaways, while upmarket Chinese restaurants are now winning Michelin stars and glowing reviews.
Can't play the file above? Listen to the audio clip here
Wing Yip discusses Chinese restaurants:
The Chinese restaurant - we came the right time, in the right place and do it right. That's why so many Chinese. Up to the middle sixties, after nine o'clock or in the evening, you go out for a meal, there are two places you go - either you buy fish and chips which closes at ten o'clock, half past ten, or you go into a hotel where the last order is half past nine. Or you could go to Wimpey cafeteria. The Chinese came along, opened a restaurant and we put a carpet down, we put a tablecloth down. Before that restaurant, you only got a carpet and a tablecloth and a waiter service only in hotels, which were beyond ordinary means, ordinary people's means and they close half past nine. And other than that, Wimpey, cup of tea, a bun or fish and chips. The Chinese bring the tablecloth, carpet, lower it and bring the fish restaurant up above it, right hit the niche market. Open eleven o'clock - the pub close half past ten, eleven. The last order in the pub is eleven, we open half past eleven so we hit it. At the right time, doing the right thing and do it right. And for the first time, the British had more money to spend, from middle sixties on. Right hit it on the nail.
In Yorkshire bread and butter - everyone come in and wanted bread and butter as well. They wanted curry chicken and rice and with bread and butter. Curry, something, bread and butter, mixed grill bread and butter, everything bread and butter. We had a little department attached to the tea and coffee side, got two English ladies that every day for two, three hours, doing bread and butters. You know, for two hours for lunchtime - everybody bread and butter. When the menu, we say 'curry chicken and chips, or rice'. To begin with a lot of people were like 'curry chicken, and chips', not rice - and bread and butter. The chef made the curry sauce, the chef buy the curry powders, and with the other few powders, get together spices, put the onions, orange peel everything, they boiled it for hours, mixed them. Very good.
What other things were on the menu?
Half Chinese, half English. Mixed grill, fillet steak, pork chop, omelettes. No Chinese restaurant outside London would not have English menu because they're still in the process of changing. That's why the Chinese do it right - we can not say in 50s, 60s and 70s, say you had had Chinese food. Say 4 people come in, if 3 of them want Chinese, 1 do Chinese, the second has omelette or salad or something. We do it right, we don't insist to say you have to have Chinese. Food is a culture, food is a culture - you cannot change people in one year. In those days, in those days in the 50s, I think a lot of people never had Chinese food before. They go in the Chinese restaurant because the other English restaurant close at half past nine, their last order, so they came out after half past nine they go to Chinese restaurant and they ask for mixed grill - in Yorkshire mixed grill is very popular.
Did people ever make negative comments about Chinese food at that time?
Oh yes, they say a lot of things, they say a lot - the main thing, we're standing outside, there's a menu, they say 'sweet and sour pork', everybody think, 'sweet and sour pork? Sweet and sour?' They are very sarcastic. They couldn't understand how can a thing be sweet and sour at the same time. Until they taste it - it is.