Takeaway owner Stephen Chung

China crisis: Troubled times for Chinese takeways

As traditional fast-food outlets fall out of fashion, some owners are trying to find new markets in wholesale, haute cuisine and karaoke - and some now vote Ukip.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 23 Sep 2014

The slightly down-at-heel Hong Kong on Clay Lane is the oldest surviving Chinese restaurant in Coventry. It opened in 1969. Where better for a conversation about the current state of the takeaway in the UK? It's an ideal venue for a SWOT analysis of the spring roll and special chop suey.

Coventry has endured a tough few decades and the green shoots of post-crash recovery are thin on the ground. Stephen Chung, the Hong Kong's proprietor, is hardly brimful of optimism.

Since 2008 small, independent takeaways' sales have dropped from £4.4bn to less than £3.4bn. Low-income males are Chung's target market and their finances were the hardest hit by the recession.

He's heard of Just Eat, the online delivery service, but a sign-on fee of £699 and a 10% cut of any orders have put him off. Life is tough enough already, trying to achieve the dream 70% gross margin. Anyway, the Hong Kong has no internet connection. He'll deliver any order more than £10, usually in person and by car, but he's a conservative traditionalist. The menu has barely changed since 1969.

Business is so-so, he admits, and he has a few ideas about why things have gone to the dogs, as the conversation rapidly turns in an unexpected direction: immigration into the UK.

'Yeah, I voted UKIP,' he says. 'Coventry feels like it's turned into a foreign land. What a mess. With all those eastern Europeans and Africans. Immigration is out of control. It's just too easy to come here and get access to the benefits system. I see them day in, day out. In the betting shops. They steal from bins and then take the stuff to charity shops to sell. There's a lot of friction. My friend was a UKIP candidate.'

Stephen Chung, the owner of an ailing Coventry takeaway, now votes UKIP.

Stephen's father, Yin Chung, arrived in Liverpool from Hong Kong's New Territories in the 1950s. A qualified tailor at home, he soon found work in the restaurant business. Yin toiled for others before starting up alone on Clay Lane.

There has been a Chinese population in the UK since the early 19th century, when seamen began settling here. However, by 1951, there were still only 3,459 single males from Hong Kong. The numbers went up during the 1950s and 1960s, coinciding with pressure in the then British colony caused by the build-up of huge numbers of refugees streaming in from China following the end of the Chinese Civil War and Mao's victory.

With Chinese laundries on the wane, most of these young men from the rural villages of the New Territories went into catering. By 1961, the census recorded Britain's Chinese population at 38,750.

Stephen began out back in the kitchen at the Hong Kong when he was seven or eight, carefully fixing the lids on the aluminium containers of steaming king prawn with water chestnuts, folding down the edges on all four sides.

His father developed a bad back and Stephen, who wasn't proving a hit at school, felt duty-bound to get more involved. He then had a period of punk rebellion, spending what little cash he had following The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers and The Clash. The one thing that makes him smile is reminiscing about how the kung fu sensation Bruce Lee gave young Chinese guys such as him a sense of identity. He shows us his nunchuks.

'It's very hard now,' he says. 'OK, we don't have to grow our own bean sprouts or chop potatoes to make chips. But employees are demanding. Chefs want Wi-Fi in their flat. Back in the 1960s, in the takeaway business there was no KFC, no McDonald's, no Domino's. We had to compete with the odd Indian and traditional fish and chips, but it was a good living. We served pork and stuffing batches. They were the good old days. We served the drunks from pubs after closing time at 11. Pubs did no food back then. There was a bit of racism, but nothing too bad: the odd fight, a broken window. I once got called a Vietnamese boat person.'

Immigrant families running an independent can, of course, always survive for quite some time when things are tough by paying themselves less. But there are limits.

Stephen got into the classic problem facing ambitious second-generation migrants: the pressure to move on and up. To advance into the white-collar world. To enable a parent to talk about 'my son, the doctor' and 'my daughter, the lawyer'.

The second of five kids, he watched as his siblings went into finance back in Hong Kong (the territory, not the takeaway), web design and film-making. He got the family business and thinks it highly unlikely he will be handing it over to his kids. 'I got given this business on a plate, but I just hope I can see it out,' he winces. 'I have a 15-year mortgage on my house.'

Liam Woon faced a similar dilemma. His father Ma On arrived in the UK in 1957. He suffered a setback when the industrial strife of the Midlands car industry in the early 1970s led to the failure of his first restaurant. But he soldiered on. Ma On experimented with boil-in-the-bag technology and frozen chips, and moved towards wholesaling, forming Yet Sun Hong, which became highly successful.

Liam's brothers and sister were not going to hump bean sprouts. His brothers became an eye surgeon and an aeronautical consultant, his younger sister a patent agent. This all met with warm approval from Mr and Mrs Woon.

Liam chose a different path. After art school, he became a professional photographer. His cool, elegant, black-and-white style caught the eye of Elle and The Sunday Times Magazine and his work is in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery. (He also married Isabelle, who was from a family with whom the Woons had a falling out way back when over a restaurant called The Ruby in Leamington Spa, adding a dramatic Romeo and Juliet dimension. The clans were reconciled at the wedding.)

Three generations of the Woon clan. Tai Lee top left, Liam and Ma On, bottom left.

Liam Woon's photographs accompany this feature, although this is the first time he's wielded a camera in anger for more than 20 years. This is because the arrival of two boys and the downturn of the early 1990s gave Ma On an opportunity to lure Liam back from London and into the family business.

Liam and Isabelle have made Yet Sun Hong even more successful. They do fresh fruit and vegetables. Isabelle speaks Mandarin, Hakka and Cantonese, and there are good links back to China, now a superpower.

But the crash of 2008 hit them hard. A turnover of £6m dropped to £4.5m but has now returned to pre-recession levels. Liam and Isabelle's boys, Dat-Kan and Dat-Lun, are in fashion PR and studying biochemistry at university. Enjoying his retirement, Ma On, now 80, has chosen to stay in the UK rather than return home to Hong Kong. He has tremendous koi carp. 'My mother and father prefer the weather, the temperament and character of the British,' says Liam.

Liam, who works very long hours, virtually never taking a holiday, is an interested observer of the takeaway scene. 'It's a bit like the Wild West. There's been a considerable influx of mainland Chinese taking over businesses. All sorts of tensions arise. You have your posse, if you like, as one of the BBC (British-born Chinese). There are snobberies involved, often arising from an inability to communicate, as very few BBCs speak Mandarin. The stereotype is that the mainlanders are crude and ill- mannered. The BBCs moan a lot. Even when business is good, they'll always tell you it's terrible.

'But it's amazing, if you consider it. The West now looks East. We all wonder if democracy is a prerequisite of affluence. Clearly not.'

The fact that the old-fashioned takeaway is now up against it is down to a variety of factors. The Chinese have been unwilling or unable to expand by acquisition. There are no chains, no brands of significance. Many restaurateurs remain small-time sole traders. Many still like to deal in cash only, rejecting even credit cards. Chains can afford swankier locations with higher rents. Independents remain in poorer areas.

All the while, supermarkets have greatly ramped up their ready-meal offering. A chicken chow mein from Tesco is easily bought from a Metro branch on the way home from work and bunged in the microwave.

This has had disastrous consequences, as some independents desperately seek to get their costs down to preserve a reasonable margin. A recent survey by the Food Standards Agency discovered that more than a third of kebabs and curries claiming a lamb content in fact contained something else entirely.

There is hope, though. Liam takes MT to another customer in Coventry city centre. It's lunchtime and the joint is hopping at Chi Bar, James Kwong's cool eaterie.

Cool and Chinese food are not concepts that have sat well together in the UK. Keeping it traditional has been the normal way, with the exception of high-end venues such as the Michelin-starred Hakkasan in Mayfair, where a braised supreme dried whole abalone will set you back a cool £418. And requires 24 hours' notice to prepare.

James, now 29, is the youngest of four children. His single mother came to the UK in 1992. She did not sign on. She brought up her children in Bath and Bristol while working in a takeaway. James was schooled from year nine in Coventry and attended Aston University, where he studied mechanical engineering. He then completed a master's in transport design in Coventry.

James Kwong turned his back on car design to launch Coventry's coolest eaterie.

He wanted to create something different and has come up with a Korean/Japanese fusion idea with bits of China thrown in. He runs the show with his sister, Camay. It's been a great success despite its size and small number of seats. 'Chinese food in this country really needed a change. Korea is the new Japan,' he notes. 'They are very creative and have some great cars and fashion coming through.'

Chi Bar is a hit. James knows his market: 33% of the city's population come from ethnic minorities and Coventry has a large migrant student population of 15,000 non-UK citizens. He delivers as far away as Warwick University. Chi Bar turns over £12,000 in a good week, and James and his sister work very hard - 10-hour days - but can see great possibilities for expansion.

'The UK has been a good country for us to migrate to,' he says. 'There are good chances to get on. My mum, who is a very good chef, taught us to work hard. She really likes the tea we import from Hong Kong.'

Down the road is a brand-new mainland Chinese establishment: a karaoke bar called Mic Box. It's run by Stephen Meng, who comes from the furthest eastern province of Heilongjiang. He has a degree in hospitality from the UK.

It's windowless and very bling indeed. But, on a good night, the Johnnie Walker Black Label flows as if from a burst pipe. A typical party consists of 10 Chinese students who will sing their hearts out until the early hours, spending about £40 each. Every now and again, a customer will blow £200 on a bottle of brandy. Business is good. Meng likes Britain because he says business is done in a straightforward way.

He'd like to remain in the UK, especially if his parents are permitted to come and visit him. He also likes the way 'we laugh openly'.

Well, some of us at least. Stephen Chung has yet to pay a visit.

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