In 2018, my parents said goodbye to their Chinese takeaway in South Wales after 30 years of being in business. It was heartbreaking and emotional because, like many other British-born Chinese families, the takeaway was their whole existence.
My parents emigrated to the UK from Hong Kong in the 80s to start a family and in search of a better quality of life. Both were uneducated – their only option was to work in low-skilled manual labour jobs such as cleaners, or run corner shops, fish and chip shops, takeaways and restaurants. Many immigrants back then worked hard and sacrificed their livelihoods to provide the best life for their children so that the next generation didn’t have to go through the same hardships as they did.
There were many reasons for selling our family business. Whether it was down to a change in people’s eating habits, competition, inflation, no one to take over, operating on a cash-only basis or not being able to keep up with the times and modernise, business gradually took a nosedive. Inevitably, they couldn’t cope, retired and sold the shop.
Recent statistics from research and consulting firms CGA and AlixPartners show that “restaurant numbers are falling by 3.4 percent in the year to the end of June, with a net 18 closures each week”. The most “precipitous decline”? That would be Chinese food, “where the number of restaurants slumped 7.3 percent to 2,074.”
To me, these numbers aren’t really surprising. Like my parents, many Chinese restaurants and takeaways across the UK face similar problems as well as, dealing with harmful, stereotypical fear-mongering headlines about “Chinese restaurant syndrome” and the constant bad press blaming Chinese food for serious health warnings. All these factors correlate – the odds are stacked against independent family-run businesses.
“My parents are still very traditional. Every time I go back it's like a time warp where nothing's changed in the last ten years,” explains journalist Jun Kit Man, whose family ran a Chinese restaurant and fish and chip shop in West Wickham, southeast London for the last 15 years. “They don't understand how fast the world is changing. Chinese people are naturally cautious and superstitious – if you ask them to change something or invest money to be listed online they don't see the point of it.”
Despite a drop in the number of Chinese restaurants and takeaways, that doesn’t actually mean that the demand is dropping. “Chinese food continues to be the nation’s favourite takeaway,” says Joe Groves, Head of Consumer Communications at Deliveroo. “We have seen orders rise by 136 percent in the last year.”
The online restaurant delivery company works with over 1,050 Chinese restaurants across the UK, but what these figures don’t take into account the establishments that haven’t digitised. Times are changing and so have people’s appetites. Thanks to the meteoric rise of food ordering apps in the UK like Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats – an industry worth £8.1 billion and steadily growing since 2017– smaller, independent businesses stuck in the past are getting left behind. Most of the older Chinese generations who opened restaurants and takeaways in the 80s and 90s don't understand the digital age of online ordering systems, websites and social media. Or, they straight up don’t want any part of it.
“When we first started 22 years ago, Chinese food was considered as ‘new’ and ‘exotic’ to people,” explains IT consultant Ying Ling Shum, whose parents used to own a Chinese buffet-style restaurant in Hampshire. “Current owners need to introduce something new to stay relevant and remind themselves that there’s more competition than ever before.”
We’re now at the stage where we’ve hit peak Chinese restaurants and takeaways: the original restaurant founders are retiring and Chinese food gets a bad rap. It’s considered old fashioned and out of touch with what today’s younger consumers are looking for in a dining experience. There’s a shift in healthy eating and more people embracing a plant-based lifestyle.
“Independent restaurants have seen the biggest decline in numbers. In the last 12 months, there’s been a -3.9 percent decline and much of the Chinese sector is dominated by small family operations. In fact, 97 percent of Chinese restaurants are independent,” explains Karl Chessell, the Business Unit Director in Food and Retail at CGA. “It feels that there may be an opportunity for the Chinese sector to re-invigorate both food and drink offer in the way some of these new-style Indian restaurants have such as Dishoom and Bundobust.”
A new wave of Chinese restaurants and takeaways might be happening sooner than you think. “Chinese takeaway is so much more than prawn crackers and sweet and sour chicken balls,” Groves says. “It’s great to see Brits being more adventurous and enjoying great dishes like bubble tea, xiao long bao [and] dim sum.” With the rise in the popularity of regional Chinese food like Sichuan, Xi’an and Hunan cuisine, it’s not just Cantonese food on offer now – there is far more choice and variety.
There are also big changes happening in London's Chinatown. Traditional Cantonese restaurants are slowly dying out and being replaced with shiny new specialist places like China’s biggest hot pot restaurant chain HaiDiLao and the introduction of ‘dessert alley’ on Newport Court. Only time will tell if this diversification will be a good thing or not. “I think the decline of Chinese takeaways and restaurants is inevitable, but it's not about the food or the taste – it's more about the family,” explains Man. “The families who run these businesses are in decline because they simply can't keep up. They’ve moved on to better things or have become better integrated into British society because the next generation will grow up into working white-collar jobs instead.”
Whatever your thoughts on Chinese takeaways or restaurants, they’ve been fundamental to the British economy and to many immigrant families who came to this country with nothing. Not only was our family business our main source of income, working behind the counter taught me important life skills. Takeaway kids like me will look back on the fond nostalgic times. Soon, Chinese restaurants and takeaways will be a distant memory and replaced by the next big thing. Or, failing that, yet another Starbucks.