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The sweet and sour sides of growing up in a Chinese takeaway

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

Takeaway: Stories From a Childhood Behind the Counter Angela Hui

Trapeze, pp.352, 16.99

Angela Hui was born into a life of service: Chinese takeaway service. Her parents had fled mainland China, where they experienced borderline starvation under the communist regime before arriving as exotic newcomers to provincial South Wales in 1985. There they become part of a Chinese diaspora, financially sustained by dozens of family-run takeaways dotted across the Valleys. The Huis set up in Beddau, a former pit town of 4,000 people that was still struggling socially and economically after the then recent closure of the mines.

They call their restaurant Lucky Star. Hui’s mother is always trying to find ways to invite good fortune but as with most of her other attempts, the choice of name doesn’t prove especially fortuitous: running the takeaway will be almost as hard a life as the coal face had been for their new neighbours.

The takeaway will be Hui’s nursery, playroom and, when she is barely out of infant school, her work station, where she is expected to toil from 5 p.m. until late at night, forgoing a social life and doing whatever homework she has on the counter top.

Her parents and older brothers are either cooking, in a cramped kitchen hot with smoking woks and deep-fat fryers, or out delivering in the Welsh rain.

Angela is front-of-house, as it were, on the physical front line between the Hui’s private home behind her and the public area leading back to the high street outside. She answers the phone – her parents never feel confident in English and rely on her as translator – and warily greets the walk-in punters, many of whom are tipping out of pubs and are consequently drunk. On one occasion a drunk trying to reach across to steal a can of cola topples over and takes all the lucky house plants with him; this is not good feng shui.

Her mother attempts to grow something from home – shark fin melons, a kind of squash – in their unpromising back garden. When they are almost ready to harvest, some youths kick their gate open and smash the fruits for fun.

There’s also, inevitably, racism. Even a regular customer will call them ‘Chinks’ in a row over a few pence. It can become menacing. The family doesn’t involve the police on these occasions. Instead their deterrent is Mr Hui waving a meat cleaver. He’s dextrous enough to wield two at once, like some Cantonese gunslinger.

Having been motivated to get to Europe to escape hunger, Hui’s parents subsequently surround themselves day and night with food. When they’re not cooking, on their one day off, they head to Cardiff to stock up on Asian supermarket ingredients before going to eat someone else’s Chinese food – at a dim sum restaurant where extended family and other takeaway owners convene each Sunday afternoon. Even their solitary annual holiday, to see relatives in Hong Kong, is an extended shopping trip from which they return with suitcases stuffed with ingredients and kitchen kit.

The familial relationships are characterised by conflict, food serving as peace offerings: both her parents are what are now called feeders. During the endless family rows you mostly side with young Angela. Until, that is, she gets into her teen years and starts drinking, colouring her hair, sneaking around and listening to some dreadful goth-emo bands, at which point you do start to see her furious parents’ side. But the family’s story has moments darker than those provided by goth guitar groups, not least in Hui’s portrayal of her parents’ often toxic marriage.

The food passages provide welcome relief. Chapters are bookended by recipes, for takeaway staples like spring rolls and prawn toast but also for off-menu items enjoyed by the family alone. I was particularly taken with Chinese steamed eggs, a kind of savoury set custard that’s as light as a soufflé.

Takeaway is a personal history, compellingly told, but it also tells a universal story. ‘Thousands of Chinese takeaways were born after waves of migration,’ as Hui puts it. ‘From China’s communist revolution to the Cultural Revolution… I am just beginning to understand the depths of my parents’ goal to move across the world for a better life for their children.’

Now the restaurants that those migrants of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s established are starting to close down – as Lucky Star finally does in 2018. By then Hui has left the takeaway and Wales, too, setting up as a journalist in London where she writes for fashionable millennial titles like Viceand gal-dem. One can’t help thinking she might have done better by her parents’ dearly held ambition for her long-term prosperity had she followed her brother’s career path into the electronic gaming sector rather than journalism. But then we might never have had this rather charming memoir.

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