Come and explore our community
Manchester’s China Town is a fantastic, if a little mysterious part of our city. I dip in and out – feeling a little like I’m peeping in on someone else’s world. But the China Town community – like a lotus flower – is keen to open up and share all it’s fabulous traditions, secrets and food to the wider community.
Bonnie is a dedicated champion of Manchester’s Chinatown. She is a passionate Sino-Mancunian, proud to have a cross-cultural heritage and is also an enthusiastic advocate of Manchester’s culinary offerings.
Manchester’s Chinatown is a mainstay of the city’s socio-cultural geography; it flies the flag for Manchester, for independence and grassroots enterprise. The area is compact enough to retain a real sense of community and camaraderie but diverse enough to offer a rich and varied experience.
It has grown organically, from one or two pioneering laundrettes and eateries in the early 20th century, to a sprawling assortment of South East Asian cultures and businesses. Chinatown is a neighbourhood for a thriving community; home to some of the city’s top kitchens, and a cornucopia of characters and cultures, of all ages and origins.
China Town’s history
Formerly the old Jewish quarter of Manchester, many Chinese took over the properties being vacated.
The architecture of the old textile warehouses in the area leant themselves well to the handful of small businesses that grew up here.
Odd nooks in buildings and atmospheric basement spaces continue to be occupied by tiny retailers and owned by independent family run businesses. The growth of Chinatown can be attributed in part to a generation of traditional Chinese and Confucian thinkers, where family and community preceded the individual.
My parents, and those of many of my friends, arrived in Britain with the mindset that success came only with hard work. Sacrifice was not a mere quixotic notion, it was de rigeur. This rigid family structure coupled with infamous Chinese thrift, and an indomitable work ethic paved the way for self employment, enterprise and economic accomplishment. From the 1960’s Chinatown saw social and economic growth – successive decades brought boom.
Our current socio-economic circumstances have bred an entirely different environment. The dining out experience is so rich and varied that one can eat out every night of the month at a different venue.
Wider changes have renewed Chinatown, with a number of new exciting places opening their doors in recent years. A new wave of settlers from the North of China, have replenished the community, they have added to its complexity, our eateries also increasingly reflect the diversity of Chinese cooking.
A new generation of British born restaurant-owners, are also trying to bridge the gap between West and East in a different way. They are offering much more ‘authentic’ food, keen to share that which mirrors their own identities and experiences.
The clinking of porcelain, chopsticks against china, the clatter of teapots against teacups are the score to which life in Chinatown is set; along with a babel of different languages, dialects and accents.
There are eateries catering to every niche, palate and budget.
There are cheap and cheerful buffets that are designed to cater to everyman; their dishes range from anglicised ‘Chinese’: much beloved sweet and sour chicken, egg fried rice and chow mein et al to all you can eat ice cream feasts.
New kids on the block: Tops epitomises the China of the 21st century; efficient, lavish and executed with meticulousness. As you enter, its palatial reception opens onto a vast and showy dining room that belies its investment and enthusiasm.
Similarly, Tai Wu on Oxford Road has bowed to the buffet gods and converted to a canteen style international buffet.
The Portland street side of Chinatown is quickly becoming an homage to self service. Consumers laud the idea of a bargain and adore the seeming array of dishes on offer.
The likes of the New Emperor, Happy Seasons and Pacific are purveyors of southern Chinese cuisine and serve succulent dim sum, homely casseroles and the famed Hong Kong style roasts that can often be seen hanging like tempting curios in a display window.
The family that run the New Hong Kong restaurant does so well with their regulars that some of their customers have been with them since their inception – some thirty years ago. The owners are so well liked and respected that some of their longstanding diners even insist on serving themselves!
I have sampled dim sum all over the world; from China to the Americas and it is a rarity that any betters that of my father’s.
The Yang Sing which has been in my family since its inception in November 1977, specialises in dim sum and authentic Cantonese cookery.
In his youth my father Harry, and his father before him, were renowned in Chinatown for two things: their frightening tempers, but also their impressive dim sum.
In his twilight years my father’s temper shows some signs of abating but his dedication to his kitchen remains’ unprecedented. As a result I am proud to be able to say the reputation of the Yang Sing’s dim sum has spread far and wide. Each dumpling is expertly crafted by deft fingers, nimbly folded and filled with fresh fabulous ingredients.
Yang Sing is a phonetic translation of one of the names of the city of Guangzhou in Southern China – ‘the City of Rams’.
The majority of my ancestors have their origins in the far, far north of China; political upheaval and regime change moved them to the province of Canton, and the city of Guangzhou – where they flourished until the advent of Communism.
A move to Hong Kong, meant that my grandfather could continue practicing his culinary magic; from Hong Kong he moved, along with his family to the UK and lived in London, Glasgow and finally Manchester and the rest as they say is history.
From all accounts he was a terrifying personality, with a penchant for bad habits, but his reputation and after him my father’s and uncle’s – went from strength to strength. Today under my generations steerage I hope to continue to offer innovative, gourmet food- modern twists on my grandfathers recipes, techniques, and traditions.
Yang Sing is housed in a beautiful grade II listed building and set over many floors, a veritable maze of rooms – I am incredibly lucky to be a part of such a legacy and remind myself everyday not to take anything for granted.
Now even with the Yeung family expertise there are some things which even we prefer at other restaurants.
The Great Wall restaurant is presided over by the Leung family. ‘YoYo’ as their proprietor and head chef is affectionately known by Chinatown, produces spring onion pancakes and Beijing style dumplings that are unlike anything you will have tasted before. His hand pulled noodles are also a fantastic speciality.
Unusually for Chinese tradition the family and the restaurant is dominated by matriarchs; every evening three generations of women will gather here and eat together whilst the men folk remain at their work stations toiling away.
Wong Wong’s and Ho’s bakeries are bastions of Chinatown attaining almost cult status in the city. The fluffy cloud like brioche buns that sandwich an array of various fillings and toppings, both savoury and sweet, plague my thoughts day and night.
It is always necessary to buy several items, not only the buns but the colourful slices of oriental gateux, and then there’s the doughnuts, the cookies and not to mention the drinks! Oh the drinks! It’s not greed that motivates customers like myself to indulge at the Chinatown bakeries; I’d like to think that it stems from a desire to immerse oneself in the oriental philosophy of yin and yang.
Non Chinese businesses
The non-Chinese retinue that make up Chinatown are also numerous and alluring: Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese to name but a few.
There are old favourites such as Teppanyaki, the place for restaurant theatre and Wasabi for rotator belt sushi – venture upstairs for their delightful dessert room and absolutely try the sweet tofu and durian snow ice.
There are also rising stars in Chinatown such as I am Pho and Yuzu. I have spent numerous mealtimes at both the aforementioned and a great deal of time telling my friends and family about the fantastic food that can be found at both.
I am Pho serves wonderful classic Vietnamese comfort food; their summer rolls are my all time favourite and can beat even the offerings of Kingsland road in London.
Yuzu are purveyors of seriously clean and fresh Japanese Kaiseki dishes and small plates and has caught the eye, and indeed the taste buds of some serious Manchester foodies.
The Northern Chinese settlers in Chinatown have brought us great gutsy contenders such as Hunan and Red Chilli; where intestines and lung are commonplace; and where garlic, chilli and pepper is used in abundance. This is food you will recall for a long time afterwards because your body won’t let you forget about it.
Pungent Hot Pot or BBQ dining are a convivial style of dining. Dunking or grilling one’s own food; is casual dining at its best. This kind of eating isn’t a meal to be hurried: it’s more an event than a feeding opportunity.
In Chinatown proper there is Red Hot and BBQ but on the other side of Canal street there is also Han Dynasty which is self service style. You’ll be provided with an array of condiments and soy sauce to make up your own dipping sauce: spicy chilli paste, barbecue sauce, peanut paste and dried fried garlic, which can become addictive.
Non foodie businesses
Amongst my favourite things about Chinatown are the hairdressers, beauticians and salons in the area.
Chinatown is a great place to be pampered; one can administer to ones appetites as well as ones appearance.
At one end of the spectrum one can have a wash and blow dry at a hairdresser from £10, the service is fast and efficient, an appointment is never needed but for those with no time pressures a languorous full spa day experience at hidden gem – the Bali Health Lounge is a must.
Amongst the other businesses in Chinatown are the casino and betting shop which are more social clubs than dens of iniquity, the independently run craft stores, grocers and supermarkets.
Kim’s and Wing Fat are but a couple of the retailers that serve our community. Their role in Chinatown is vital, providing restaurants with many of the specialist ingredients required and at a time when out of town Oriental shopping and food colossus are increasingly appealing – our little supermarkets with the familiar faces, rickety shelves and cramped aisles represent an intimate and authentic experience of the community and its people.
Kim’s, which is probably the smallest of the aforementioned is run by an elderly couple known to me only as ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’ and can often be found behind a screen in one corner perched on makeshift table and chairs cooking up a riot in their compact rice steamer and kettle at mealtimes.
It is sights like these that beatify Chinatown; there is nowhere in the city today that one can share something so personal and evocative.
We live in exciting times where change is commonplace, where newness and innovation carry the day, but equally it warms me to know that in Chinatown there are some sights, sounds and flavours that will be cherished and defended.
The imperial arch that dominates our skyline, has long presided over Chinatown and has had some works done to it recently, though it needs much more TLC to be restored to its former glory.
The pavilions that sit either side of the arch, resting places for the foot weary and people watchers have in recent years been beleaguered by miscreants and vagrants who litter and graffiti.
Chinatown is by in large a peaceful community and as a result many of the difficulties and frustrations of our forefathers were born with patience and stoicism, however, the rise of China, and the 2nd generation British born Chinese who are straight talking Mancs as much as they are Chinese have brought about some key changes.
‘Generation Y’ of Chinatown is far more active, better equipped and prepared to make improvements, respond to detractors and speak out about ever tougher parking rules, immigration policy and community concerns.
I am gratified that I am a part of a community that safeguards the traditions, the conviviality and the quirks that make it unique. Chinatown has nourished, added to and served the city for many years, its identity and continuing preservation is vital to the geography of Manchester.
Come and visit, try food that you might not ordinarily, ask questions and enjoy our stories, many of the families and businesses that inhabit the area have been around for longer than I have existed and long may they continue.
This blog post is sponsored by Yang Sing
Other articles by Bonnie