The many flavours of Chinatown: London's window into East and Southeast Asia

by Great British Chefs 31 January 2022

Year after year, London's Chinatown continues to develop and change to reflect the food trends and traditions of East and Southeast Asia, with its influences now stretching far beyond the bounds of China. We delve into the history of Chinatown and find out from those who run its restaurants what makes is so unique.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

Bright red lanterns hang from above, tourists from all over the world spill out of restaurants and a torrent of tempting aromas waft through the air – there aren’t many areas of London more recognisable than Chinatown. A tourist hotspot for decades as well as a home away from home for many expats, this clutch of streets in the heart of the West End is far more than a collection of Asian restaurants, supermarkets and dessert parlours; it's a glimpse into East and Southeast Asia (ESEA) and its ever-changing food scene. Chinatown has been through a number of changes on its journey to becoming what is today, but how did it all begin?

It’s difficult to picture Chinatown being anywhere other than where it is today, but Chinatown actually began its life further east in Limehouse at the start of the twentieth century, where the first Chinese immigrants settled many years earlier. However, after British soldiers started to return to central London from Asia newly enamoured with the cuisine, Chinatown moved to its current Soho location in 1937. By the late sixties, the area was becoming closer to what we know today; restaurants and shops were springing up all over the place as more workers moved over to London from Hong Kong – a British colony at the time. Over the next twenty years, Chinatown became more and more established, with some of its most notable features such as the Chinese gates appearing and the streets becoming pedestrianised.

Approximately 17,000,000 people visit Chinatown every year.
Chinatown is also home to a number of ESEA supermarkets where chefs and members of the public alike can buy authentic and specialist ingredients.

Founder of Chinatown mainstays Dumplings' Legend and Leong’s Legend, Geoff Leong moved to London from Hong Kong in 1986 with his family and has had a presence in Chinatown since the mid-nineties. In the past twenty years, Geoff has specialised in serving Cantonese cuisine and has introduced a wider range of regional cuisines to the area. 'For me, the key moment was when we were opening Leong’s Legend,' says Geoff. 'My mum was Taiwanese and I thought it was time to do a really great Taiwanese street food place, so no roast duck or hors d’oeuvres. We wanted to create a restaurant where we weren’t just doing the same as everybody else. It was about the aromatic tastes of southern China and Taiwan and when it opened it was incredibly well-received.'

Geoff is now best-known for his restaurant Dumplings' Legend, famed for its xiaolongbao (Shanghai soup dumplings), where as well as Cantonese classics, such as yum cha (a traditional Cantonese brunch involving Chinese tea and dim sum) they also serve a myriad of regional dishes from all over China. 'It’s great to see how Chinatown’s really changed,' he smiles. 'I now honestly don’t think there’s any other place in the world – including China and Hong Kong – where there’s so much food in two or three streets. Nowhere else has this incredible diversity of Chinese regional cooking all in one place.'

It’s by no means just regional Chinese cuisine that’s become a part of Chinatown over the years, however. Food from all across ESEA is now represented in the area, with everything from Japanese food at the likes of Yatay to Vietnamese at Wardour Street’s Viet Food. One such restaurateur who decided to offer something different in Chinatown was Ellen Chew, the owner of Rasa Sayang – a Malaysian and Singaporean restaurant. Noticing the lack of places offering the hawker-style Malaysian food she loved, in 2008 she decided to open her restaurant in Chinatown and quickly found that while she was getting plenty of passing local trade, a lot of her customers were actually from Southeast Asia.

At Dumplings' Legend, the team produce over 8,000 dumplings each day.
Since opening Rasa Sayang in 2008, Ellen Chew has gone on to open a number of other restaurants around the UK.

'We’d get a lot of students coming in who grew up in Malaysia and told us they were missing the food from home,' says Ellen. 'They would often come to Rasa Sayang to eat our homestyle Straits cuisine, with many of them still coming in ten years later!' It’s this sense that Chinatown is also a home away from home for people from so many different parts of ESEA that makes it such a unique place. Since opening Rasa Sayang, Ellen has also seen how much easier it has become to run a restaurant in Chinatown, particularly in regards to sourcing ingredients. 'It used to be very difficult to get a lot of the ingredients we use in the restaurant,' she explains. 'Sometimes we had to buy them when we were visiting Malaysia, vacuum-pack them and fly them back over. Now, though, you can order most of them online, and many of our specialist ingredients are available from shops in the area.'

More recently a different style of food altogether has taken Chinatown by storm, bringing a whole new generation of business owners to the area. East Asia’s dessert craze has been booming for a while now, with new trends constantly finding their way over to the UK. This has led to Chinatown now having its own dedicated 'dessert alley' down Newport Court, packed full of colourful, innovative and delicious sweet treats and bubble tea shops. One such dessert parlour is Mamasons, founded by Mae Maglanoc and Omar Shah, which specialises in Filipino ice cream and desserts, including popular Filipino sundae Halo Halo and ube-filled bilog, a pandesal milk bun filled with purple yam ice cream. When they were first approached about opening in Chinatown, they were worried it wouldn’t be the right place for a concept like Mamasons but it has gone on to be their most successful site. 'At the time we hadn't really considered Chinatown as our next location,' explains Mae. 'When I initially thought of Chinatown, I just thought of Gerrard Street and traditional Cantonese cuisine, but we were presented with the idea of the development of a specialist 'Dessert Alley', which was great. When I saw the massive queue on opening day, I was amazed and almost cried with happiness.'

Mamasons' Halo Halo comes topped with their signature ube-flavoured ice cream, made from a type of of purple Filipino yam.
The waffles served at Bubblewrap are inspired by the egg waffles first made by Hong Kong market traders in the 1950s.

Mae has also seen for herself how Chinatown has developed over time, as she has been visiting the area for most of her life. ‘My family used to come to Chinatown every Sunday for dim sum,’ she says. ‘But afterwards there were no dessert places to go to; they just didn’t exist. Now Newport Court has more of a selection than any other part of London and that’s really cool.'

For Tony Fang, who in 2017 opened bubble waffle cone concept Bubblewrap on Wardour Street, one of the biggest appeals of launching in Chinatown was the fact they’d be part of a new experience for people visiting the area. ‘Chinatown is just such a unique area,’ Tony explains. ‘It isn’t the same as places like Covent Garden where tourists are purely sightseeing – people come for an immersive and new experience. There are so many different cultural cuisines to try and experience and I honestly think it will stay unique forever.’

No matter who you speak to in Chinatown, the word that people keep going back to when describing the area is ‘unique’ and it’s easy to see why. The abundance of traditional Cantonese restaurants which fill Gerard Street are still very much at the core of Chinatown. However, as more restaurants offering other styles of cuisine have gradually opened over the years, it has become somewhere which doesn't just reflect the food trends of China, but of ESEA more broadly. This is one of the many reasons why Chinatown continues to be one of London's most popular and exciting dining destinations.