London’s Chinese Restaurants

London’s Chinese Restaurants

Nathaniel Chew ’19 and Proud Chanarat ’19

Walk into any neighborhood in London and chances are you’ll find a Chinese restaurant to get your roast duck or dim sum fix, even on those pesky bank holidays. The now-ubiquitous Chinese restaurant is a centuries-old presence that is inextricable from the history of Chinese immigration in Britain. Ever wanted to know where the bao on your plate came from? And we mean where it really, geographically, genealogically, socio-politically came from? Read on!

We visited The Good Earth in Knightsbridge to get the scoop (also, lunch). It’s one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in London that’s still open, now in its 35th year of business. While we were there we spoke to Hans, one of the restaurant’s supervisors and a second-generation British Chinese. Talking to Hans gave us some really interesting insights, and we’ve written down some of the things we learned both from him and some Serious Academic Research.

Canton Chinese restaurant, Soho, Chinatown, Guanghwa Company, 1976


Personal Identity and Cultural Hybridity

Hans is a 30-year-old second generation British Chinese, working as a supervisor in the restaurant. His mother immigrated to London from Hong Kong. Hans was born in London and lived in Hong Kong for 2 years with his grandmother and aunt when he was 5 or 6 years old, and moved back to London.

Hans is Cantonese and can speak a little bit of Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese. He learnt the language once a week every weekend until he was in year 2 or year 3, equivalent to first and second grade. Although he speaks some Cantonese with his immediate family, he regrets that he can’t speak his own language fluently. His mother, on the other hand, speaks Cantonese only – a restaurant job was the only option when she arrived in England. 75% of first generation Chinese immigrants knew little to no English, according to a survey carried out in the 1970s and 1980s (329). According to the book, second generation Chinese immigrants had a sharp decrease in competence in Chinese than those of South Asians (335). It seems like Hans’ case is a common practice – many first generation parents send their children back to Hong Kong to live with their grandparents so they can pick up Chinese language and culture (332).

The Good Earth offers a colorful snapshot of Chinese diversity in London. Although the restaurant serves up primarily Cantonese food, its employees belong to a whole range of sub-ethnic groups, and are immigrants from all over the world – the chefs are from mainland China, while the service staff hail from Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and beyond. According to Hans, everyone lives in peace and harmony (for the most part). Relations between different groups of Chinese in London weren’t always this warm, though. During the period of post-war immigration, there was straight-up hostility between the Cantonese, the Hakkas, the Fujianese, the Mandarin-speaking northerners, et al, which mirrored the ethnic tensions present back in China and Hong Kong, where they had come from (329). In fact, the restaurant industry played a key part in dissolving these animosities – many newcomers to London began their careers working for established businesses, so there was an almost constant rotation of faces and ethnicities through the kitchens around the tables of London’s Chinese restaurants.

If early Chinese immigrants were antagonistic toward each other, they were even more averse to other ethnic groups such as the Cypriots and the Bengalis, who were their rivals in the catering business (329). Compare that to Hans’ experience today: his social circle is a case study in multiculturalism. His friends are British, Somali, Vietnamese – and rarely Chinese. That’s in no small part due to Hans’ eduction in a British public school, an institution that has played a large socializing role as the primary environment for immigrant children to become acquainted with local culture.


Community and Family

After talking to Hans about his family, we inquired about The Good Earth. The Good Earth is a family-run business. The founder still visits the restaurant, and now his son is involved in the business. When Hans’ mother moved to London from Hong Kong did not have any formal schooling. She worked in a bakery in Chinatown and washed dishes in several places. Later on, she worked at The Good Earth, leading Hans to work here after her. Family is an integral part in settling down in Britain.

In the 1990s, Britain’s tax regime and immigration laws were harsh. This increased the costs for restaurant owners on hiring workers, waiters, and cooks. As a result, restaurants that are family-run have less costs and more likely to survive (Benton and Gomez 129). Bosses and workers usually come from the same province, village, or family – preventing extreme exploitation of people who work for bosses whom they have no connections with (Benton and Gomez 118).

The pressures faced by Chinese immigrants also brought them closer as community, and over the years they implemented many formal structures of support. The first Chinese community center was established in Camden in 1981. Digging through the city council archives revealed the center’s original goals, the biggest of which was helping first-generation Chinese immigrants who couldn’t speak English, providing advisory services and employment help. The community center also stated its goals to represent the Chinese community in the local government and facilitate integration and ethnic harmony by educating both the Chinese and local communities (Greater London Council).


Perceptions and Status

The perceptions and status of the Chinese community in England have changed overtime. From the 1880s to 1900, Britain saw that Chinese immigration was a demographic threat to the British Empire. Although the immigration numbers were negligible when compared to the U.K population, Britain made laws to restrict Chinese economic activity, and increased taxes on immigrants (Benton and Gomez 298). In the nineteenth century, the white British stayed away from work with low-pay and low social status. In turn, the Chinese worked in low-pay jobs because it was ideal not to compete for work with the native British (Benton and Gomez 127).

In post World War II, Britain viewed the Chinese community in a more positive light. Chinese immigrants during the post-war years suffered less racism and abuse than their pioneers did (Benton and Gomez 314). An example is a case study of Alfred Holt and Company, which trades as Blue Funnel Line. The study says that the company treated its Chinese employees with more care than its other non-white employees. According to this study, the Chinese workers received sickness benefits, job security, and pension rights because they were perceived as being more assertive and eager to fight and argue.

In recent years, China has risen in world standing. Mandarin rose to a prestigious and important language that many people world-wide aspire to learn. This changes Britain’s perceptions on the status of the Chinese community (Benton and Gomez 192).


The Institution of the Chinese Restaurant

The Chinese restaurant is a potent symbol and touchstone for the Chinese community in London, but what of the restaurant itself as an institution?

The first Chinese restaurants weren’t business ventures, but as a communal place of dining for the boarding houses around the docklands, where early immigrant residences were clustered (Benton and Gomez 109). Neither did the first Chinese chefs in London have any culinary training or experience – they were all self-taught cooks of necessity, and the dishes they prepared were variations of peasant food from home (Benton and Gomez 110). In other words, it couldn’t have been further from the professional and profitable enterprises that exist today.

This started to change in the mid-20th century with a new wave of restauranteurs who saw the commercial potential in London’s catering industry. They had funds entrusted to them by family back home, thus forming business partnerships abroad. The industry boomed, growing from 30 restaurants to over 200 in a few short years (Benton and Gomez 116). Restaurants became a popular business – even former Nationalist bureaucrats, forced out of their embassy jobs by the regime change back in China, took their chances opening eateries. From that point, there was almost constant expansion, with cooks and even waiters in existing restaurants aspiring to strike out on their own and open their own kitchens. Family businesses grew into chains in this fashion, many of which still exist today (Benton and Gomez 119).

The booming success of the Chinese restaurant has resulted in a complex tension today. Its ubiquity has turned it almost into a facet of Chinese stereotyping, but its history has made it inextricable from Chinese immigrant livelihood. To complicate matters, Chinese catering is actually on the decline in London, largely due to the diversifying trades of the younger Chinese, who have more access to education and a wider range of career options than their parents (Benton and Gomez 130). The Chinese restaurant embodies the tension between cultures and generations, which have changed over the years but doesn’t look to be going away anytime.



What we learned: it was very difficult for the pioneer Chinese immigrants in the 19th century to settle into England because of racist imperialists who imposed legislation regimes and limited the number of immigrant ships, to name a few. The Good Earth is one of the oldest standing Chinese restaurants in London, and it is with great admiration that the restaurant has made it since its debut over thirty years ago.

Because both of us are ourselves descended from Chinese immigrants to Thailand and Singapore, there’s something familiar in the scent of jasmine tea, perfumed towels, and roasted meats behind the doors of a Chinese restaurant; and yet, something foreign too – the Chinese in Britain have made it their own. We related to Hans when he was talking about the place of language in his life – both of us have older family members, earlier generations of immigrants, who speak Chinese dialects that we never picked up. At the same time, we felt removed from some of his other experiences – our parents never emphasized our Chineseness growing up, and we certainly didn’t move to Hong Kong for years of our childhood. We were first drawn to The Good Earth out of a sense of common identity, but what we learned revealed to us just how nebulous identity can be. Being Chinese means different things across continents, across generations, across the space between two people, and everyone experiences the challenges and dreams associated with that identity differently.




9-13 Newport Place, Westminster LB: front elevations. 1976. Collage – The London Picture Archive, London.

Greater London Council. “Camden Chinese Community Centre Sports Grants Files.” 1983-1986.

Hans. Personal interview. 21 May 2017.

Benton, Gregor, and Edmund Terence Gomez. The Chinese in Britain, 1800–Present Economy, Transnationalism, Identity. PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2008.

Author: chanaratp

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