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Is this the end of Chinatown — or a new beginning?
How Hello Oriental is ushering in a sleeker era
By Jack Dulhanty
Wedged between a karaoke bar and a dim sum restaurant is an advert. It’s inconspicuous. Easy enough to miss, among the neon and general bustle of George Street, Chinatown. But the fact it’s there at all is significant. “We’re on the look out for hospitality superstars to join our team,” it reads, going on to list available positions.
It’s for Hello Oriental, an underground food market/café/mini mart specialising in Pan-Asian food and groceries, which opened back in February. If you’re assuming it opened in Chinatown, you’d be wrong. Instead, it’s beneath Circle Square, a new development by Bruntwood on Oxford Road.
Nobody could fault it on ambition: it sprawls across three subterranean levels. Blond wooden slats bracket the ceiling and industrial lighting fixtures dangle from exposed pipes. Students bask in the glow of their laptop screens, drinking boba tea and chatting. One lunchtime I overheard a group weighing up their post-graduate options: “I wouldn’t be averse to taking a more junior position,” one said, eyeing the Korean chicken he had pincered between chopsticks.
The venue feels reminiscent of Bang Bang Oriental Foodhall, which opened in London in 2017. The idea is simple enough — it’s a one-stop shop for any sort of Pan-Asian food you might hanker for, in a setting that is a pastiche of Hong Kong market cafeterias and Singaporean hawker centres. At Hello Oriental, you can get sushi, Malaysian noodle soup, Taiwanese bao buns and Cantonese roasts. Plus, you can get it without having to stand up or speak to anyone, since everything is ordered via a QR code.
There’s also a convenience store and a café, serving milk tea in branded cups and soft serve ice cream in fish shaped cones called taiyaki. It’s thought of everything; it has everything. It’s basically the Gen-Z Chinatown, but the question is: can the original keep up?
‘Chinatown was the Ancoats of the day’
Let’s rewind. During a labour shortage in the 50s, people born in British territories like Hong Kong were given the right to move to the UK. Better known now as the Windrush generation, many were farmers leaving a rapidly industrialising Hong Kong for a UK that was beginning its industrial decline.
And, among that industrial decline was Manchester, with its run-down cotton warehouses, many of which were clustered in the area that is today Chinatown. Being so central with relatively cheap rents made these buildings ideal for Chinese entrepreneurs wanting to start businesses with low-running costs.
Many of the early migrants started laundry businesses, but as the Windrush migration continued into the ‘70s, more restaurants began to open to meet increased demand. “They themselves were looking for their own supply of Chinese provisions, they were looking for some sort of cultural attachment,” says Gerry Yeung, who came to Manchester in 1970, and whose family founded the legendary Yang Sing restaurant chain in Manchester in 1977. “They were also looking for genuine, proper Chinese food.”
This is an article, not a history book. So in the interest of sidestepping a couple hundred pages analysing later migratory patterns, changing tastes and the general development of Manchester, let’s just say: Chinatown boomed. By the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was at its height. The area was regenerated, the council partnered with the Chinese government to build the central Paifang — the arch — and more and more businesses opened in the area. Not just restaurants, but Chinese-owned acupuncturists, lawyers’ offices, supermarkets, accountancy firms and banks.
“Chinatown was the Ancoats of the day, if you can think of it that way,” says Yeung, speaking in terms of buzziness and popularity, not hipsters and unconscionable rents. “It had that very distinguished character that you find in Ancoats today.” Which poses today’s problem: that same character hasn’t changed much since then. To walk around Chinatown can sometimes feel like walking around a time capsule. And, many of the family businesses that opened back in the ‘80s have unstable futures. The owners worked hard so their children could go to university and have professional careers, not so they could inherit their restaurants or supermarkets.
David Lee, the chair of the Manchester Chinatown Business Association, says this has led to a sort of stagnation in the area, as business owners — already resigned to the fact their businesses won’t be handed down — stop investing in them. “Half of them are still owned by people who came here 30 years ago,” says Lee. “They’re just thinking about retirement, they don’t want to spend much on decorations or refurbishment.”
“We know our kids won’t take over the business, not a chance,” says Debbie Law, who runs the Arts and Crafts gift shop with her husband David and whose children are both studying at university. The shop — which was opened by David’s parents in 1987 and sells calendars, beckoning cats, tea sets and stationary — is the last of its kind in Chinatown.
“During the ‘90s there were maybe four other shops like ours,” says David. He reckons it just came down to demand. When the shop first opened, it catered mostly to the local Chinese, who wanted Hong Kong magazines and newspapers. Now it’s more the preserve of students who want quirky stationery sets or a Maneki-neko for their dorm.
Manchester’s student population, particularly the cohort of international students from China and other parts of east Asia, has been a boon for the area. That’s not to suggest it has been students alone keeping Chinatown going, but it certainly hasn’t hurt.
‘Chinatown is interwoven in our DNA’
Students! The lifeblood of our city — and Hello Oriental’s obvious target market, evidenced by their well-oiled social media machine and Instagrammability. It also doesn’t seem like a coincidence that, in opening beneath Circle Square, it happens to have placed itself on the doorstep of a student living complex called VITA.
VITA isn’t exactly what you think of when you think of student accommodation in Manchester: mould pooling in the corners of an icy Victorian terraced house. Instead, it’s a byword for a certain level of luxury, with studios starting at £1,000 a month, and attracts a large proportion of the thousands of Chinese students who come to study at Manchester’s universities.
Indeed, when VITA opened a residential site in Sheffield, a now-defunct British Chinese website called Nee Hao said it was “the perfect base with the highest degree of luxury for young Chinese people getting ready to start their journey at the prestigious universities in Sheffield.”
In reference to one of Hello Oriental’s founders Ricky Yip, Yeung tells me: “I think the Yip family saw an opening there and thought they would do something more modern. But if you’re actually wanting to buy proper Chinese provision, you’ll probably still have to come to Chinatown.”
Azim Kourah, Yip’s business partner and childhood friend, would agree. He says that Hello Oriental’s focus on fusion dishes — what others may less generously call Anglo-Canto cuisine, i.e. Chinese food adapted to Western tastes — means that Chinatown will still have a monopoly on authentic dishes, and Hello Oriental won’t be a serious commercial threat.
In fact, Kourah reckons they’re the opposite: “I think we can be the gateway to Chinatown,” he tells me. “You might come here for our glass noodle hotpot (a Sichuan delicacy), then you might look for a Sichuan restaurant in Manchester.” Someone might have Hello Oriental’s xiaolongbao and then “might wander through Chinatown and see a menu with that and think: 'oh, they do xiaolongbao here, I'll go in’."
This is a wholesome and upbeat way of looking at things. Of course, the unspoken alternative is you might just keep going to Hello Oriental for your glass noodle hotpot and xiaolongbao, with Chinatown never getting a look in. During our conversation, I can tell that’s a thought that genuinely worries Kourah. "In terms of this being the new Chinatown, it's really difficult for us,” he says. “Chinatown is interwoven in our DNA.”
But, at the end of the day, that’s just business, and it could also be just the thing Chinatown needs, according to Lee from the Business Association: “when you’ve got competition, the only thing you can do is make yourself better.”
He says the newer businesses in the area, those that have opened in the past 10 years, have been opened by younger, mainland Chinese who are more web literate and operate differently to the original family-run businesses. “Before, the boss was also the chef, or the restaurant manager. But now they have different owners, and more professional management structures.”
Not only that, the mainland Chinese are opening restaurants that serve a different kind of food to those that were opened back in the ‘70s and ’80s, which were mostly Cantonese dim sum restaurants opened by those from south China and Hong Kong. The new operators are opening Sichuan and hotpot restaurants that are not only easier to sell to international students (many coming from mainland China) but also make Chinatown more representative.
Lee and Yeung believe this is exactly what the area needs; to get out of what Yeung calls “the sweet and sour routine”; serving the same dishes they were serving in the ‘80s, while similar restaurants in other parts of the country innovate. “I mean, in London, there are Michelin star chefs, Chinese chefs providing modern Chinese cuisines, but it's not happening in Manchester yet. I think Chinatown has become dull.”
Will this newer, sleeker competitor galvanise Chinatown’s businesses to innovate and keep up? Or will it draw custom away? Hard to say. One thing’s for sure, though. Chinatown is on the brink of a transformation — for better or for worse.