"Having partially grown up in a Chinese restaurant owned by family friends, I have a unique insight into what really goes on behind-the-scenes at these eateries"Olivia Lisle IG: @livcollage

When people think of Chinese takeaways and restaurants, they usually think of succulent meals, incredible flavours and textures, and family meals at home, tucking into chow mein whilst watching TV. Since the arrival of East Asian and South East Asian immigrants to the UK from the 1960s onwards, Chinese food has become a staple dish in the British culinary landscape. It has risen from the food of migrants hoping to achieve a better life for their children, to a British family’s go-to on a night out with friends, or a comfort food when the adults don’t feel like cooking that night. It’s amazing how the food of a once marginalised people in British society has inserted itself into the culinary tapestry of this country. No longer is it unusual to see Chinese restaurants in small towns and villages, and even supermarkets are trying to cash in on the popularity of Asian food. However, beyond the delicious meals, it’s not often that we consider the lives of the people who make Chinese food - the people who sacrificed a lot for a new life in Britain, who sell a part of their culture so that they can afford a better life for their children.

Having partially grown up in a Chinese restaurant owned by family friends, I have a unique insight into what really goes on behind-the-scenes at these eateries. Consequently, I attach a lot of sentimentality to Chinese restaurants. Because I spent so much time in the restaurant with this family, I have a greater appreciation of how these places are run, and Chinese meals have become something of a comfort food to me. I have carried these memories of the food and restaurant with me into adulthood. Whenever I’m in a city, I automatically hunt out the best Chinese restaurant, and if I’m ever feeling low or too tired to cook, I usually order Chinese food. It was only recently when looking back on my turbulent childhood that it suddenly dawned on me why I have this strong connection to Chinese eateries.

“I was just grateful to have a stable home away from my difficult life with my mother, and for a while the Yips gave that to me”

When I was living in London with my mother, we lived next door to a Chinese restaurant with the most unusual name: Charisma. It was the first ‘fancy’ word that I learned, and I often deployed it with pride, trying to impress my schoolmates. My mother became friends with the owners, the Yips, who originally came from Hong Kong. They bonded over their cultural similarities and their shared language. As time went by, our families became closer, and I would often get looked after by the Yips and their older children. My mother worked and wasn’t around a lot when I was a child, so I spent a lot of time with the Yips. I loved their company, and despite being a raucous child, they were patient with me, treating me as their own. I have strong memories drinking Capri Sun with a meal of black bean beef with rice (I never deviated from this combo when ordering from their restaurant), saying hi to Mr. Yip who was toiling away in the kitchen before I walked up to the house above the cafe, and watching TV with the older children in the cramped living room. I would also often steal the family’s Nintendo DS (a classic noughties staple) and rise through all the levels on Mario Brothers.

The Yip children were a lot older than me, but somehow we were able to form a strong bond, perhaps because of our shared cultural background and the fact that, like them, I was an East Asian child of an immigrant mother. I didn’t really understand the ‘grown up’ things they were doing, like studying for exams and applying to university. Even the TV shows they watched seemed a bit beyond my comprehension (who else thinks that TV shows on the SYFY channel would completely go above a child’s head?). But I shared wonderful memories with them, like the time I shovelled snow off our street with Mr. Yip and his son, and the times when we would play on the family’s Wii together. The restaurant memories stand out particularly strongly amidst all this – I would often read or write in the café, and Mrs. Yip would invite me to stand behind the counter and sometimes let me serve the customers. The bonds I formed in Charisma, and the joyful experiences I had there, made it a home away from home, and for this reason it will always be so much more than just a restaurant to me.


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Now that I look back at it, the restaurant wasn’t anything special. It was essentially a greasy diner situated on the main road that served Chinese food to the builders that would visit every day. I probably wouldn’t enjoy the food if I were to visit as an adult. But as a child, I didn’t notice those things - I was just grateful to have a stable home away from my difficult life with my mother, and for a while the Yips gave that to me. I often wonder what happened to the restaurant and if it’s still there - all four of the children went to university and are too busy with their own careers to ever run the restaurant. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yips decided to close it down, having done their bit to get their children through university - it is not uncommon for Asian immigrants to set up restaurants to financially support their children and then close these businesses once they have served this purpose. But even if the restaurant has since closed down, I will always remember it fondly. Because of the positive experiences I had with the family, and the comfort I associate with the setting and the food, I have always gravitated towards Chinese restaurants, which ground me in a way few other places do.