英國空間 中式菜單

Yatwan Hui  許逸韻 (Urban Beings)

yatwan huiThe menus of Chinese restaurants in Britain have changed, developed and diversified throughout the last few decades.  What about the places where Chinese food is eaten?






The menus of Chinese restaurants in Britain have changed developed and diversified throughout the last few decades, what about the physical places where Chinese food is eaten? How do the restaurants in London Chinatown compare to the local Chinese restaurants? And how do the layout and furnishing of the restaurants affect the way diners behave?

London Chinatown, 1990s

When I was a child, my family used to make a weekly pilgrimage to London Chinatown to ‘yum-cha’. Yum-cha literally means to ‘drink tea’ in Cantonese but it’s actually a very filling lunch of dim-sums. Although the buildings in London Chinatown were converted Georgian terraces, the crowded Chinese shop signs and other Chinese motifs reminded me of Hong Kong. This was a welcome fix of homesickness for Hong Kong in the early days of emigration.

The restaurants would be also richly decorated to recall the tea houses in Hong Kong. There would be water features, such as a small pond with goldfish or koi. Space may be separated with intricately carved wooden screens and the odd dragon can be found curling around a column to surprise and delight diners. The walls would be covered with textured wallpapers with hanging framed prints or fabrics of Chinese calligraphy and water painting. Heavy padded wooden chairs would be effortlessly added to by nimble waiters to accommodate extra diners onto tightly packed tables with flowing layered beige or salmon pink tablecloths.

Diners were predominately Hong Kong Chinese immigrants, though a small number of British and international tourists would also venture in for a taste of the Orient. As diners would sit within touching distance of the table next to them, a round table would create a human wall for some privacy. The lighting would be bright and the restaurant would reverberate with the sound of hundreds of diners chattering loudly catching up on the latest events and gossips. In restaurants where trolleys laden with steaming hot dim sums negotiated a circuit around the restaurant, the waitresses would add to the chatter by shouting out the names of the dishes on offer.

One stark difference between London Chinatown and the Hong Kong tea houses is that the London appeared to be much cleaner. British Chinese diners would not be seen to wash their chopsticks, bowls and tea cups with jasmine tea, nor would they be sweeping food off the table onto the floor. The floor of British Chinese restaurants would also be covered with thick heavy duty carpets, usually of a dark colour with richly decorated patterns, whereas in Hong Kong floor surface can be easily swept and mopped.

Though one might assume the highly decorated Chinese motifs would appeal to the general British public for a quick visit to the East, London Chinatown was a hub for the Chinese community to gather for a reminder of their homeland.

Local restaurants, 1990s

Although some local restaurants on the high street would also be richly adorned like their Chinatown counterparts, they would not have the same heaving and bustling atmosphere but retained an air of quiet and localness. Most of the local Chinese restaurants would be family run businesses, where the food would be the main feature and function more valued than decoration. They tended to be simply decorated with neutral colours, perhaps with a framed artwork as the main feature (calligraphy or a plastic relief landscape). The tables and chairs would be similar to the ones found in Chinatown, probably because they bought them from the same importers.

There would be few Chinese diners, as many Chinese at that time were in the catering business themselves. Diners would be predominately British locals who would appreciate the more generous spaces between tables than in the Chinatown restaurants. There would usually be tables available for walk-in diners of any group size and even when they were busier on Friday and Saturday nights, diners would still be able to hear the soundtracks of popular 80s and 90s Canto-pop playing softly in a loop in the background. The lighting would tend to be dim with a yellow glow to create a mysterious atmosphere from the orients.

The simple, no frills local Chinese restaurants offered similar menus with their competitors for what they perceive the British public would want and these menus have made few changes throughout the years. Similarly the decors are simple and had few changes and seemingly forgotten to be renovated.

Chinatown, 2010s

The high turnover of restaurants and customers in Chinatown today means many restaurants are constantly re-inventing themselves or frequently renovating to keep up with the fierce competition. Customers have become more diverse and restaurants have to attract the old Hong Kong crowd, their grown-up children, Londoners of all ethnic groups, tourists curious for a taste of the orient and the numerous Chinese visiting, studying and working in London.

Most restaurants have swapped their heavy, dark and intricately detailed furnishing for lighter, brighter and simpler décor to achieve the ‘modern Chinese’ look. Restaurants are now more spacious and frameless graphics are hung on white-washed walls, or even painted directly on the wall to showcase that they’re bespoke and not purchased from the same importers. Hard floor surfaces such as polished and stained wooden floorboards replace the dated heavy duty carpets. Tablecloths are still laid, but have also become whiter in colour to match the clean interiors. Simple but dark lacquered wooden chairs suggest the Chinese heritage.

The lights have also become brighter and different types of lightings are introduced to the typically recessed ceiling spotlights. Some restaurants have up or down-lighters by each table and some even have large lanterns hanging above the tables. These crown the identity of each table in its rightful place in the restaurant. The hard surfaces in the restaurant also reverberate with the chatter of diners with a similar buzz to the restaurants in yesteryears, though it is now a blend of Cantonese, Mandarin, English and other foreign languages.

The decorations of the restaurants are now designed to match the menu and the cuisines on offer. For example Leong’s Legend named after the classical story of revolutionaries is aptly decorated like a village tavern with portraits in the legends of the story. The rise of restaurant chains such as Royal China offer regulars with the peace of mind to know they can have all their favourites no matter which part of London they are in. This brand is reflected in the interiors such as the colour palette of rustic gold on shiny lacquered black surfaces.

Fierce competition in Chinatown means restaurateurs pay attention to all aspects of their presentations, from the menu, food, interior, staff and website.

Local restaurants, 2010s

The London based architect Wendy Liu has been designing a few Chinese restaurants in London, Plymouth, Southampton, Manchester and Swansea. Apart from the Swansea project, all are on high streets or in the city centres. She described how Chinese restaurants have become more savvy and aware that the interiors can attract the desired clientele and which fit in with the surrounding environments. For example, the Plymouth restaurant is close to the seaside and follows a white and blue colour scheme to create an airy modern seaside feel.

Many local restaurants have also opted for the ‘modern Chinese’ look with light, airy spaces, hard wall and floor furnishings. Large windows allow in natural lighting in the day and create a transparent surface for passers-by to see the diners and food inside. Though some restaurants still favour the Oriental mystique with dimly lit richly ornate details and furnished with moon doors, these are conscious design decisions to create a certain ambience. Similar to their Chinatown counterparts, local restaurants also realise the importance of all aspects of presentation to compete with the other cuisines available on the high street.

Restaurants as social places

The clientele that come with these restaurants have also changed. I remember London Chinatown to be a social gathering space for the British Chinese community. Families, relatives and friends would meet on a weekly basis at their usual restaurant and you would always find someone you know. Before the popular use of mobile phones and social networking sites, this weekend meeting would be the opportunity to have some time off, catch up with each other and to have a taste of the old Hong Kong in a familiar environment.

Perhaps the older generations still meet like this, but the younger generation has become more fickle with where they would try out different restaurants according to which friends they’re with, the time of the day, the type of food and the offers available. The restaurant has become more than a meeting place for comfort food, the younger generation and also the non-Chinese customers are curious to try out new dishes (of good value, of course) in a comfortable environment. They are more demanding and require a wider set of criteria to fulfil their satisfaction and retain their loyalty.
The local high streets have also become more competitive as young professionals develop an eating out habit for business and leisure, for weekday lunches and dinners as well as on weekends. Perhaps the second generation now running the family business also eat out themselves and have a more business approach, local Chinese restaurants have become more sophisticated to reflect current trends in the market.

With the simple eyes of a child, I used to think there were two types of Chinese restaurants – the noisy and highly decorated ones in Chinatown playing up the ‘traditional Chinese’ style and the quieter, simple and humble local restaurants on the high street. While some restaurants continue on the traditional furnishing route today, many have opted for the cleaner and simpler ‘modern Chinese’ look more akin to a modern British restaurant, but with a few distinctively Chinese motifs or colours. Could this reflect that Chinese restaurants are comfortable enough with their place in Britain to shred off the heavy traditional heritage veneer to explore its future development in line with other modern British establishments?























































Author 作者


Yat emigrated from Hong Kong with her parents as a seven year old to London. She studied architecture at Bath and a master in sustainable urban design in Sweden. She has travelled to and lived in many different places around the world to explore how architecture affects our daily lives and behaviour. Upon her return to London she established Urban Beings, which builds on the human experience of being in a city to help people enjoy the city better though design, research and event projects.



許逸韻七歲跟隨父母從香港移居倫敦,在巴斯大學修建築課程後,再到瑞典進修持續性城市設計碩士課程。她遊歷及居住世界各地,探索建築對我們日常生活及行為的影響。回倫敦後,成立了 "Urban Beings",以城市人的經歷為基礎,通過設計、研究和活動計劃,令大家可享受城市生活。



许逸韵七岁跟随父母从香港移居伦敦,在巴斯大学修建筑课程后,再到瑞典进修持续性城市设计硕士课程。她游历及居住世界各地,探索建筑对我们日常生活及行为的影响。回伦敦后,成立了 "Urban Beings",以城市人的经历为基础,通过设计、研究和活动计划,令大家可享受城市生活。


Translator 譯者

chun-yee chengAfter finishing Secondary 3 in Hong Kong, Chun-yee Cheng continued her studies in England and achieved an A grade in A-Level Chinese through self-learning. She has previously worked at the Science Museum in London and is currently a Research Associate in the Chemical Engineering Department of Imperial College. In her free time, she also enjoys training and competing in Brazilian Jiujitsu.




鄭俊宜在香港完成中三課程後, 轉到英國升學, 並自修考取高級程度中文科A級。她曾工作於倫敦科學博物館, 現於帝國學院化學工程系任職研究工作。空閒時, 她亦喜歡參加巴西柔術的訓練及比賽。



郑俊宜在香港完成中三课程后, 转到英国升学, 并自修考取高级程度中文科A级。她曾工作于伦敦科学博物馆, 现于帝国学院化学工程系任职研究工作。空闲时, 她亦喜欢参加巴西柔术的训练及比赛。