Godfather of Chinatown

85696804 (c) Getty COVERDouglas Blyde meets leading culinary entrepreneur, Stanley Tse

Stanley Tse surveys frontage of Lisle Street’s SeeWoo. He opened the shop – one of the first Chinese businesses in London’s Chinatown – in 1975 with his brothers. Today coherent with brightly-lit, fully-stocked aisles, it is actually formed of three units bought over time, including, says Stanley with a glint in his eye, a comparatively shadowy ‘peep show palace…’

Stanley left his village in Hong Kong’s New Territories for East London’s India Docks in 1961. Initially toiling in Italian and French restaurant kitchens in order to send money back to his widowed mother, eight years on Stanley progressed to founding his own eateries, beginning with The Happy Star in Stanmore where he encountered a major reason to stay in Britain: his wife-to-be, Caroline. This was followed by The Lantern House, Bushey. Offering Cantonese and Peking cuisine, it soon attracted a celebrity clientele including Dame Barbara Windsor, Sir Roger Moore, and George Michael.

Determined to ensure a consistent and varied supply of quality ingredients for his eateries, and spotting opportunity, but in the spirit of cooperation with entrepreneurial Chinese migrants, Stanley begun importing provisions direct from Asia into a lock-up inside a Bermondsey railway arch. He recalls those early days. ‘As restaurateurs, we became increasingly frustrated by the
lack of authentic produce on our shores. SeeWoo would seek to rectify that.’

Over the ensuing decades, the business became one of the UK’s largest suppliers of Oriental foods, employing over 400 across three supermarkets, a wholesale operation and factory under the badge, ‘Way-On’, and restaurants including a 500 cover operation in Glasgow and the contemporary SeeSushi in Paddington. In recognition of these successes, as well as the deep philanthropic streak which saw him help raise £78,000 for victims of the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, Stanley was awarded ‘Lifetime Achievement’ at the 2011 World Food Awards – the same year he was elected President of London’s Chinatown Chinese Association. ‘40% of our staff have been with us for over 10 years,’ he says, ‘and some for more than 20.’

‘This is one of best Chinatowns in the world – and one of biggest in Europe,’ Stanley begins as we dodge delivery vans rushing to fulfil orders before the midday curfew sees the streets fully pedestrianised. One bears the number-plate ‘A1 WOK’. Above us, lanterns marking Tuesday’s moon festival carry casino sponsorship. ‘70% of people in London’s casinos are Chinese,’ says Stanley, reminiscing of the early days when betting in cellars below these streets was commonplace. ‘But I’ve never been a gambler,’ he says. ‘I hate to lose money!’


Stanley sees a cosmopolitan clientele roving today’s Chinatown, drawn by a more intense variety of merchants. ‘Now we’ve got Hunan, Szechuan, Guangzhou and Taiwanese restaurants. In the old days, everywhere would be Cantonese.’ A Chinese tour group marked in identical caps swerves past. ‘It looks like they come from Hong Kong,’ he comments. But how does he know, I
ask? ‘By the way they walk!’ Stanley greets the manager of the Golden Dragon restaurant, who wears notably shiny collar studs.

While the duo fires jokes at each other, Stanley’s daughter Lucy (SeeWoo’s marketing director) points out spiky, strong-smelling durian fruits at the Loon Fung supermarket. I smelt their high, mango-like aroma long before casting eyes upon them. A blue plaque on the brick wall above informs me that ‘John Dryden, Poet’ once lived here, testament to the area’s colourful history. ‘We have to fly durian in underripe for legal reasons,’ Lucy explains. ‘Some customers complain.’ But Stanley’s more interested in the papayas. ‘I’m checking out the competition,’ he says. Does he rate durians? ‘They’re ugly smelling fruits,’ he says. ‘Good for a lady’s complexion, while whole sea cucumbers are good for men…’ I acknowledge his wink regarding that suggestively-shaped aphrodisiac. Lucy adds, ‘We had one customer who came in every day for a durian; he only ate durian.’

I notice how handsome Chinatown’s buildings are. ‘Listed,’ says Stanley. However, mammon  may mean misery for some business owners. ‘They keep putting the rent up,’ he says. Apparently property prices are being driven higher by the influx of mainland Chinese who are prepared to pay considerably more than the local Chinese for this slice of London. Dismissing the all-you-can-eat buffets as ‘just for tourists,’ Stanley gestures towards a window festooned with whole reddened ducks. ‘Four Seasons is one of the busiest restaurants for ducks,’ he advises, adding, almost unbelievably, ‘we must get through a couple of thousand ducks a day in Chinatown.’ Across the street, crescent-shaped jiaozi dumplings are being made fresh, their corners crimped fast. Despite her time-worn face, another chef crafts plump Beijing dumplings with surprisingly dexterity. Meanwhile, sweet, cream-filled ‘tai yaki’ guppies (‘4 for £1’) emerge from a waffle press, visible through another plate glass window. ‘The machine costs a lot to buy, but you can make the money back in one week,’ says Stanley.

Now back at SeeWoo, Stanley continues the tour, grappling with bitter, grapefruit-like pomelos then lychees. ‘We’re famous for our variety of veg,’ he says, gesturing to servery of Chinese chives, available with flowers on or off. ‘They’re not cheap, but you pay for their air tickets!’ he says. Stanley says the Vietnamese love to chew on sticks of cane sugar – ‘good for the teeth.’ Banks of temptingly glass-topped freezers contain such delicacies as pig’s uterus. Nearby, I ask after the hang fong pork sausages. ‘Chinese bacon!’ exclaims Stanley. And the bamboo fungus? ‘Stir fry!’ What about the rigid, dried flat fish? ‘With won ton noodle soup!’

Lucy, meanwhile, puts aside a sachet of addictive ‘White Rabbit’ rice paper sweets for her own children. Stanley has assembled a large bag of ingredients of his own, which he brings to his friend’s restaurant, Imperial China, a few doors down. There, we cross over a small stream teeming with koi carp and ascend to one of Chinatown’s few private rooms, where fragrant jasmine tea and wine immediately flows. Talk somehow turns to cookery tips for snake. ‘Deep-fry it if it’s big, or if it’s small, best in soup,’ says Stanley, who is clearly a feeder. Despite the absence of serpents, we eat well: frizzy-shelled taro croquettes, tactile chicken feet, which Stanley guarantees ‘come from UK’ in glutinous, rich, abalone sauce, and the chef’s take on Stanley’s ingredients – sliced pork and bitter melon in black bean sauce. ‘The bitter melon is good for your blood.’

As we leave I notice a busker melodiously playing The Godfather theme on a violin. It seems apt given Stanley’s flourishing presence. It transpires SeeWoo supplies up to 80% of the businesses in Chinatown. ‘If we closed for three days, there might not be any food; don’t be surprised!’ says Stanley. ‘But we only close two days – Christmas and Boxing Day.’ How does one get to work with him and his family? ‘You’ve got to be a friend first,’ he says. ‘Price doesn’t mean everything…’

A brief history of Chinatown

By Tom Ville (chinatownlondon.org)

Haunt of Boswell and Reynolds, birthplace of the post office, first site of Ronnie Scott’s, host to immigrant communities from the Huguenots to the Maltese and now London’s vibrant Chinese quarter. The bustling Chinese community of restaurants and businesses has been here since the 1950s; however, the Chinatown story goes much further back – across London and all the way to the Far East.

London’s original Chinatown was in the East End, where Chinese employees of the East India Company first appeared in the 18th century. The Company employed thousands of Chinese sailors; most were based in China, but a small number chose to settle at Limehouse docks. By 1914, there were a few hundred Chinese running some 30 businesses here: mostly small shops and restaurants catering to Chinese seamen. However, the post-war years posed a major threat to the small community; Limehouse had been destroyed during the Blitz, and the decline of the British shipping industry resulted in union rules that made it virtually impossible for non-British seamen to find work on British ships. By 1950, London’s Chinese were short of income and a place to live. However, a new phenomenon was to turn this around. British soldiers had returned from the Far East with a new appetite for Chinese cuisine.A few restaurateurs set up business in Gerrard Street in the West End, a street that already had a reputation for interesting cuisine as the site of some of London’s first European restaurants. The popularity of the new Chinese establishments attracted more entrepreneurs away from the East End to seek their fortunes. Today’s Chinatown was born.

The area had an interesting history: one that stretched back to the terrible Great Fire of 1666 in which London was destroyed by flame. In the aftermath, attention turned west of the old city to the area of present-day Soho, then mostly farmland with a prime location near the three royal palaces of Westminster, Whitehall and St. James. The area of modern-day Chinatown was a military training ground where soldiers drilled with pikes and primitive muskets!

In 1677, Lord Gerrard, owner of the area, gave permission to a developer named Nicholas Barbon to build houses on the military ground. Barbon completed Gerrard Street in 1685 then acquired the adjoining land on the east from Lord Newport. Here, he built more houses and a livestock market, complete with a market hall and slaughterhouse which stood on the site of the present-day Newport Court.

Within a century, the area developed a lively reputation. The upstairs of the market hall was taken over by a congregation of immigrant French Huguenots and named ‘the Butcher’s Church’ after the slaughtermen beneath. Gerrard Street became home to many of London’s most famous painters, metalworkers and writers. Intellectuals and political luminaries met at the Turk’s Head inn to discuss issues of the day in the liberally-alcoholic atmosphere. In the 19th century, the Newport Market area developed a reputation as a notorious criminal slum which persisted until the new streets of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road were driven through in the late 1880s. All the while, new waves of immigrants arrived: Italians, then Jews, then Maltese. Kate Meyrick ran the notorious ‘43’ club at 43, Gerrard Street and Ronnie Scott set up his first jazz club in the basement of number 39. By the time the Chinese arrived in the 1950s, the area had developed a reputation for great nightlife and cheap commercial rents.

By the late 1960s, Chinatown was truly established as a centre for London’s Chinese community – now numbering in the tens of thousands as more workers arrived from Hong Kong’s British territory. The area became home to a Chinese supermarket, Far Eastern travel agency and other services to cater for the ever-increasing number of restaurant workers. Families were reunited as wives and children arrived from Hong Kong to join their husbands; and as the community grew, so did the area’s world-class Chinese cuisine. Chinese Gates and a Pavilion were added as Chinatown came of age – symbols of the success and cultural heritage of this fascinating area.

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