London Chinatown moves on in the aftermath of the pandemic with a “new normal”
Feature image: Chinatown in London. (Credit: Hulki Okan Tabak/Pixabay)
London Chinatown is back - with tables spilling onto streets and diners tucking in while sunbathing under scarlet lanterns. The “new normal” in this village after the months-long of closure to delay the spread of the notorious coronavirus is the result of a successful campaign pushed by a landlord in the central London area to pedestrainise the neighbourhood and ban cars from entering 17 streets in the area to allow businesses to take over the streets.
Business owners in the West End district may have felt relived with the “continental-style” outdoor dining planning introduced by Westminster Council, which allowed bars and restaurants to put tables on pavements and roads from the beginning of July.
Customers are dining outside restaurants in London’s Chinatown. (Photo: Samuel Atunrase for Out And About London/Instagram)
However, with businesses feeling the financial pressure brought about by the epidemic already a month or more before the lockdown itself and reduced capacity and operating hours since reopening, many claim that things are nowhere near to normality and that business could never return to pre-COVID normalcy until a vaccine is available. The virus is an added threat on top of the challenges that businesses in London’s Chinatown have been facing for a long time.
“People just started to avoid going into Chinatown due to the fear and belief that you would most likely catch Covid-19 if you visited the place”, said Wai Keung Law, director of Lo’s Noodle Factory – one of the most beloved Chinese family-run businesses producing freshly made rice noodles such as Ho Fun, and Cheung Fun. Having been running for forty years, the factory supplies noodle products to 95 percent of restaurants in London’s Chinatown and the surrounding area.
Wai Keung Law, director of Lo’s Noodle Factory. (Photo: Wai Keung Law)
Wai, having worked at the factory for the past 13 years, and finally took over the business from his father Kit Foon Law three years ago, has witnessed in the past ten years the gradual closure of many of the long-term businesses dating from his father’s generation. Throughout the years, he has observed that many of the old tenants that helped form the community, have been slowly priced out of the Chinatown area due to the ever increasing costs associated with rent, business rates, and the influx of big money investment from foreign companies who can pay what is considered to be very high rent by many current business owners in Chinatown.
Having currently survived the initial redevelopment plans and now been given a new two-year lease, Lo’s Factory still continues to produce noodles at the same location in Chinatown while they anxiously wait for the landlord to finish reviewing their redevelopment plans in the hope that they will be allowed to stay.
But there was no time for rest. When Covid-19 arrived, the decision was made to temporarily close the business on the 19 March – four days before the official lockdown was announced – due to early precautionary actions taken by many of his clients.
“We have to see how it goes day by day.” – Wai, director of Lo’s Noodle Factory
During the lockdown, the rent was paid in full under the previous temporary lease extension agreement he had at that time which ended on 23 June 2020. In late May, he was contacted by the landlord, and was informed that they hadn’t yet finished reviewing the redevelopment plans due to the pandemic and was offered a further two-year extension, which included a 6-month period of rent reduction, in the hope of taking pressure off of tenants and helping them to move forward after having been unexpectedly forced to shut for the past three months.
However, businesses like Wai’s, are not out of the water yet. “It is still too early to say how well the business will do after the six months,” said Wai, “we have to see how it goes day by day.”
Lo’s Noodle Factory at Dansey Place in London’s Chinatown. (Photo: Stavroula Konidari/Four Square)
Wai waited until 5 July for what they hoped would be a financially viable time for them to reopen as many of his clients had just started to reopen as well. Since opening, the factory has seen fewer orders and walk-in customers. Some of the staff are still on furlough while others are slowly returning, but on reduced hours due to the business being a lot quieter than usual.
“Our restaurant and distributor clients are still just getting by and haven’t yet set the regular daily or weekly standing orders that they used to have, which makes it very difficult for us to gauge how much product we need to produce every day and how many staff we will need to ask to return for the day,” he added.
Freya Aitken-Turff, CEO at China Exchange – an organisation connecting and engaging the UK public with China, Chinese culture and London’s Chinatown through various cultural events and talks, said, “There is an enormous risk that many of the businesses, particularly those that reflect the intangible cultural heritage of the area, will not survive [from the pandemic].”
She said that many businesses in London’s Chinatown had faced several months of slow business before the UK lockdown began across the country. Pandemic aside, the changing footfall of visitors to this place is another concern for the future of this village. “People are now able to buy some of the things that they previously would have had to travel to Chinatown to get online…or maybe from local British supermarkets,” said Aitken-Turff.
Lipwai Lau, a 39-year-old Chinese takeaway-owner who was born to parents from Hong Kong that immigrated to the UK in 1969 said he has been visiting Chinatown in London since he was little on their family’s days off on outings for utilities and stock for their shop and food that wasn’t available at English supermarkets for themselves, as well as his favourite flavours as a child.
“The days Chinatown monopolised services for Chinese Hong Kong immigrants was over.” -- Lipwai Lau, a frequent visitor to London's Chinatown
He recalled that the year of 2000 was a game changer for London Chinatown with the opening of a big Chinese restaurant and a Chinese supermarket chain store a few hundred yards away from the Southern Blackwall Tunnel near the River Thames where his family lives. Both are two to three times bigger than ones in Chinatown with a large free car park.
“It’s not economically effective to go to Chinatown with similar establishments opening all over London, taking away business and money from Chinatown,” said Lau “The days Chinatown monopolised services for Chinese Hong Kong immigrants was over.”
He also witnessed how changes in Chinatown were made to adapt a to new generation of visitors over the years. “The restaurants that went bust were transformed, updated and made funkier to target tourists and other Londoners and the general population, rather than just the Hong Kong community…casinos opened up replacing the two big nightclubs in Leicester Square next to Chinatown,” Lipwai said.
“London’s Chinatown will still exist…but will have lost a great deal of things that for many people make up the heart and soul of the area.” -- Freya Aitken-Turff, CEO at China Exchange
On the other hand, food is not the whole image that London’s Chinatown presents, suggested Aitken-Turff. “It's a very reductionist approach to just associate one area and the entire spectrum of a community with just eating,” she said, “There is also a total lack of understanding of the heritage and the community spaces in Chinatown and the value that they bring.”
This is why she thinks recording the stories and understanding the heritage experience of people who have lived, worked, and operated in that area for a long time, particularly those who were part of the original communities that actually founded and created Chinatown are crucial to addressing those issues. Coming out of the lockdown, Aitken-Turff said, “London’s Chinatown will still exist, it will change to become something else, but will have lost a great deal of things that for many people make up the heart and soul of the area.”
Moving on with a “new normal”, with a reduced workforce and temporary opening hours due to lower footfall in Chinatown, Wai says, “We will just have to wait and see if we can adapt to these new challenges as they come to determine the future of our business.” While Lau has begun going back to Chinatown after the short break during the lockdown. Along with his family they feast on the flavours of dim sum and yum char, the flavours he so fondly remembers from childhood.
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