Big grumble in little China

Circa 1969 the only restaurants in Britain were Chinese ones - or at least, that's the way I remember it. They had placid aquaria in their front windows and strange, liquidly bubbling music was piped through their dimly lit interiors; the piquant aromas of chicken and sweetcorn soup, Peking duck and sweet-and-sour pork balls rolled across the dusty-red carpets, while the staff padded to and fro with the soundless self-effacement of sorcerers' apprentices. To us kids, Chinese restaurants were all the fun of the fair as we faffed about with chopsticks and contemplated the unbearable lightness of being a prawn cracker; but most exciting of all, the arrival of the food was preceded by the lighting of a candle inside a tabletop heater. What was this? As a child I assumed it was of a piece with shrines and gongs and burning paper money at funerals - another figure in the strange chinoiserie of suburban London.

Of course, once we had read Timothy Mo's brilliant novel Sour Sweet, we all understood what a performance the standard British Chinese had been all along: the cuisine a dockside fusion designed for the barbarians' uncouth palates, and the obsequiousness actually wary indifference. But where
are the Chinese restaurants of yesteryear? I search for them high and low, on provincial bypasses and in the armpit of brutalist shopping centres - and still I cannot find them.


I don't mean that there are no longer Chinese restaurants; it's just that they no longer tend to an archetype. Just as the quintessential "Indian" seems to have died out some time in the mid-1990s, so the "Chinese" went extinct a decade before that. Perhaps both depended for their genre status on first- and second-generation immigrants operating in a more monochrome society.

Nowadays, at the hipper end of the spectrum, there are eateries with names like New Culture Revolution, which are all blond-wood benches and rubber floors - Scandinavian echt dangling in a basket of rice noodles. In fact, New Culture Revolution is the name of a small chain of Chinese restaurants - or "noodle and dumpling bars", as they style themselves. Whenever I pass by one, I wonder if its owners - who I assume aren't Chinese - are quite aware of how crass this ascription is, playing as it does upon mass internecine murder. It is on a par, surely, with calling a salt-beef joint Yo-ho-Shoa!, or a borscht and vodka set-up Gulag-it-Down.

I will never eat at New Culture Revolution, but I'll eat at just about any other Chinese restaurant I can. I cherish Chinese food above all others, and find it comforting to the point of making me weep - as if I were thrusting my head between the great warm dumplings of an ancestral mother spirit. This Oedipal passion dates back to one afternoon around 1977 when I went up to the West End with a gaggle of friends and we ended up eating at Poon's Wind-Dried Duck Company in Soho.

Feast or famine

This was an altogether different experience from the pork balls of the previous decade. Poon's was a bustling establishment crashing and banging up four storeys of a narrow terraced property on Lisle Street. The food was at once plainer and more tangy than the usual Anglo-Cantonese fare, and the waiters were bracing in their open contempt for their clientele. So began a lifetime of regular eating in Chinatown, during which I have patronised just four restaurants: I shifted my business from Poon's to the cheaper Man Lee Hong some time around 1981, and then to China China on Gerrard Street. I stayed put there for two decades until, around three years ago, I rounded the corner to discover that it had transmogrified into an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Oh, woe! What is it with the all-you-can-eat buffet? The marginal unit of preference between healthy plenitude and disgusting gluttony should be evident to anyone who has reached their majority, so all such establishments can possibly represent is a society gorged with its own contempt for impoverishment. That the Chinese should operate them here is ironic, given that their homeland has suffered from terrible famines within living memory.

Still, I was reading this week that "peak food" could soon be reached, so we may live to see all-you-can-fight-to-the-death-for buffets. As for me, I switched to the Canton 30 yards away in Newport Place, and there I remain.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil