Chinatown – In Praise of (the closed) Young Cheng

By Ian Chan 

Young Cheng is dead.

The venerable Young Cheng Restaurant. The venue where I went alone to ruminate on life over a plate of triple roast meats with rice for more than a decade – is no more. It was the place I took every friend and family member safe in the knowledge a sumptuous feast would be had at the best possible price; the ever-dependable constant in a continually changing routine in London. Whether I was studying full time or working a 45-hour week, Young Cheng had been there for me.

Now it has gone, and part of me has gone with it.

With no warning, no fanfare or farewell, one evening I arrived, and the lights were out. Peering inside it seemed the closure had been abrupt: bowls stacked up haphazardly on the tables; it looked eerie, a sudden departure. It scared me, I had never seen it shut.

Over the next week or two I revisited with the hope that it was just a holiday break, but the scene inside remained. I Googled it: young cheng london closure. Google didn’t know either. Weeks went by. Still, no news. I was prepared for the worst. And then I knew. A web search confirmed my fears: the restaurant was no longer in business. Like finding out a loved one had died from a local listings page, it was brutal.

And so I announced to myself that maybe it was time to leave London after all.

There seemed nothing else left to be done. That I had such a wild reaction surprised me; it also revealed how much I had taken this establishment for granted, and just how much Young Cheng had defined the London I loved.

Not to be confused with its two namesakes on Lisle and Wardour St, the Young Cheng on Shaftesbury Avenue was unique. Our ten-year-long relationship had been straightforward enough. I would wander in, in various states of ravenous hunger, and be fed accordingly. Young Cheng was never a place for small talk with staff. Eye contact and raised fingers to indicate the seats required was sufficient to be pointed to your seat. The man doing the pointing was a serious fellow and a stranger to chitchat. Always with hair neatly combed and making an effort with his appearance, he had the air of a once famous Cantopop star whose career had burnt out by the early eighties – once he commanded the stage and now he commanded a restaurant floor. So long as you treated him with the respect that a fallen pop legend thinks he deserves, nobody would get hurt. We understood each other well and I soon got used to his brusque style. It was part of the wider charm of the place: an efficient no-frills service – exactly what was called for when needing a quick pit stop in London’s rat race, and a refreshing contrast to the token smiles given by default elsewhere.

My ordering routine with Cantopop king would often play out like a comedy sketch. In an effort to impress everyone present, I would try to order in my best British-born Cantonese, which would be met by a blank stare from him. I would attempt again but with a few choice English words thrown in, before admitting defeat and repeating my order in full English. He would then bark back my order in fluent Cantonese. I would nod. I will miss him greatly.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Once seated, how to navigate the picture-less tome of a menu would be the next challenge facing the novice Young Cheng customer. More official audit document than menu, it was page upon page of dishes listed very matter-of-factly, with each dish doing its utmost not to stand out. To confuse you further, more menu options were displayed on brightly fluorescent paper strips stuck on the walls around. With so much choice, and with the urgent pangs of an empty stomach, ordering could be a potentially delirium inducing experience.

The experienced Young Cheng customer soon learns a quicker way of deciding: to have a good nosy around at what other people were tucking into. But in the end, what you chose was always decided in the very moment you ordered, and eyeing up those mouth-watering dishes landing on tables all around, you were always left ruing whether you had made the right decision.

If only I could eat them all.

No matter. I would add these dishes to my list of favourites to try next time; like queuing tracks on Spotify but with chilli beef instead of The Chilli Peppers, you soon learned which dishes should be skipped and which were the classics to be played over and over again.

My favourite Young Cheng dish of all – the one I will remember it most for – was not even on the menu. I have to thank my good friend Lau for many things; he introduced me to Young Cheng whilst I was still finding my feet in London, and before he left, he also let me in on this secret dish.

The triple roast meats with rice (or Sam Sui Fan) was an indulgent feast for one. I would boast to friends of how large the portion was, how sweet the sauce that dripped over the classic triad of Cantonese roasted meats: Cha Sui (barbecued roast pork), roast duck and crispy belly pork. All next to a portion of rice worthy of a growing man. I regularly take calls from a concerned Grandma back in Liverpool, and they centre around a reoccurring theme: food. She calls me up to ask if I have eaten yet, what was it I ate, or to remind me to eat. When I was in Young Cheng I could field my Grandma’s calls without fear: worry not Grandma, these portion sizes are truly worthy of your still growing grandson!

In truth, sometimes the portions were a tad too large. I fought to finish them, not out of any form of Chinese etiquette, but because I was scared that leaving an unfinished plate would be the green light to reduce their portions next time. So it was a battle of wills, a culinary cold war, but a most delicious one.

So how could a Chinese restaurant ever become my way of defining London?

For one, Young Cheng created a picture of community that was unique to this city. I recently visited Leipzig and enjoyed eating at aVoKü, or people’s kitchen, at Das Japanische Haus, and the contrast with the usual dining experience in London could not be starker. The VoKü was a focal point for people to gather and chat whilst sharing a collectively made meal. Here in London, one of the pleasures of dining out is to enjoy the atmosphere that others create, so long as they – those folk on other tables – don’t actually interact with you. Yes, give me that warm feeling I’m sharing a group experience, but hell, don’t actually talk to me.

At Young Cheng, such notions of me and you, us and them, are put into sharp relief. Space is at a premium, tables are often shared and you must sit very close to your neighbor – you might even have to share the same pot of soy sauce and chilli. Observing people eat there was fascinating. Elderly Chinese gentlemen cheek-to-cheek, heads in bowls of soup, elbow-to-elbow, chopsticks clashing with Soho hipsters. It was simultaneously a display of cultural integration at its finest, and a live experiment in defining personal space in the most impersonal of cities. Yes – we sat alone and often in silence, but we also sat together, bonded by our love of roast duck and that most basic of human needs: to eat.

It was a place that knew what its customers wanted and unswervingly stuck to it. To act as a place for clientele to socialise, to offer groundbreaking new cuisine, to give customers a dining experience – these roles were given no importance at all, left for the new breed of restaurant to scrap over in a fight-to-the-death to claim top dog in TimeOut.

Young Cheng showed no regard for the passing trends. It was as if by holding its own time and space with such utter conviction, it believed it could shield itself from the winds of change blowing outside. It followed its own laws, and by entering its doors, you obeyed them too. Here was a place you could ask for a table-for-one and be confident you were not the only one, order a hot water without the staff batting an eyelid, not leave a tip and expect an outcry. It was a place you could go after a hard day’s night, look as hungry as a dog and eat like one. Young Cheng was also not a place to hang around – you could be certain that your bill was on its way as you munched on your last mouthful.

But I also wondered whether this also led to the restaurant’s demise. Had its stubborn unwillingness to change made it lose touch with the modern customer? Though this seemed unlikely, given that it was always packed when I went. Did it finally succumb to the rising rents, like so many others? Or had the owner simply had enough after so many years in the game?

I wonder what happened to the fallen Cantopop legend and his fleet of backing singers, the host of other staff – all of whose faces I can still vividly remember. I wonder whether the signature sweet sauce they used to cover their roast meat with, would ever be made again. What becomes of the recipes and experience built up over so many years? Will the cooks go on and be employed elsewhere, giving them the chance to share their gift once more, or will their creations never grace the dining table again? Of course, what is lost cannot be so simply reduced to a list of recipes. What is lost is immeasurable. And precisely because it cannot be measured – it goes unnoticed, until one day we are left to ponder – just at what point did we become so heavy with nostalgia, pining for better days gone?

Change and progress go hand-in-hand, and progress means things change for the better – or so the old story tells us.

I wondered what was better about a world without Young Cheng.

Perhaps in the end, it closed down for want of not selling out and ratcheting up its prices to match the new restaurants taking hold all around, like the new slew of noodle bars which ooze style over substance, serving glamorous pot noodle in oversized bowls. I can just picture my Grandma‘s reaction, screeching in her Hakka dialect: worth it? Like hell, worth it!

Grandma who had survived on grains of rice during the war taught me food had a certain value. No amount of intangible ‘added value’ or dressing can hide the fact.

Will the new restaurants ever rise to become institutions, like Young Cheng once did? Rents are increasing and the sight of new shop fronts as routine as the changing of the season. New Chinese money is flooding into Chinatown, not from Hong Kong but from the mainland, the makeup of its streets more dependent on the price of the Chinese Yuan, than any links to a colonial past. It’s hard to imagine we will see the likes of Young Cheng again.

I never did find out why it closed. My investigations lead to nothing. The staff at the similarly named Young Cheng on Wardour Street could only inform me they had different owners. A chap working at the New Mayflower next door, helpful though he was, could only say Young Cheng had been bought out, and was to become a new Vietnamese restaurant.

So I would like this to be my story of why it closed, and my story to remember it by: Young Cheng did not sell out. It would rather close in its prime than short change its fans, burn out than to fade away. Decent, honest food, for a decent price. Until the very end. Grandma would be proud.

Farewell, Young Cheng!

Check out Ian’s blog here 

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