By Young Tan and Joanne Tse
When people get used to a particular restaurant and end up being regular diners, others may find it bizarre how attached they become to it. The Chinese are notorious for this, especially those who are part of the older generation. Over the first few times they go, they’ll befriend the people who work there, usually blossoming from the question “where are you from?” Young Chinese people will probably realise how often their parents will always want to visit the same restaurant and already know the owners and employees.
First impressions and familiarity are very important to us. If a Chinese restaurant fails to meet high standards and expectations of food, hygiene and customer service, you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll refuse to ever visit again. But if they pass said standards and each time is as enjoyable as the last, a long lasting affinity will be built.
And word of mouth is another factor that helps determine a restaurant’s reputation. Unlike Westerners, Chinese people probably don’t read or write online reviews as much, preferring to rely on the opinions of those close to them than random strangers.
The HK Diner in London Chinatown has, over 22 years, built up a great reputation amongst the local Chinese community and just like everywhere else has gained a number of loyal customers. A hip, modern Hong Kong inspired restaurant that had a license to open until 4am to serve extremely late night diners, clubbers and casino-goers, HK Diner stood out in Chinatown as a must-visit place. However, unfortunately, it has now closed. Rent prices that soared above £300,000 a year – more than the average rent in nearby Leicester Square – was one of the factors responsible for its untimely demise.
Jo Tse, one loyal customer who regularly enjoyed eating at HK Diner is surprised and saddened by its closure.
“I used to go on average about once a month but when I used to club more around that area I’d say about two or three times a month,” she says. “It’s a real shame that it’s closed as no matter what time of day it was, people would know it would be open.”
Jo Tse also interviewed Jon Man, HK Diner’s owner, who talked in depth about the difficulties and problems of running a restaurant in Chinatown.
HK Diner was popular for its relatively cheap Hong Kong street food and bubble tea, which alongside its contemporary décor that differed vastly from the more traditional looking restaurants in Chinatown, were what helped it to stand out. Man says that it started off as more traditional restaurant but that changed in the early 2000s.
However, while well-priced food is of great appeal to many people, it doesn’t always mean the number of customers and therefore revenue will increase. And unfortunately, even though Chinatown attracts huge numbers of visitors every day, most are tourists passing through who do not always stop to eat and spend money, meaning some restaurants end up losing out and are unable to make enough profit to keep up with the massive increases in rent.
Jo was a big fan of the diner’s bubble tea, insisting that it’s the best she’s had. “There’s no messing around, with its frothy texture and the original tapioca pearls; not like the other chain bubble tea houses around Chinatown.” She also loved their specialty dish, baked pork chop, which she ordered for her last meal there. “There was no big ending or farewell when it closed,” Jo says, “We only found out a couple of days before and I posted the notice via social media.”
Jo also spoke to Fai Liu, former owner of China City restaurant, who sold his business about six months ago due to very similar reasons as to why HK Diner closed. Fai Liu is one of the founders of the West End Tenants Association, which Jon Man is currently the Chair of.
Jon and Fai say that several tenants who run businesses around West End and Chinatown have different deals in terms of rent with the landlords Shaftesbury PLC – who own 66 shops, 72 restaurants and 112 apartments in Chinatown, London – for being greedy and unreasonable, without much care as to whether businesses stay or go. Their on-going rent increases make it too difficult to make a restaurant sustainable.
Fai Liu says “they say you either pay or you go” and adds that he would have needed to make £6,000 extra per week on top of what he was currently making in order to pay rent and stay afloat, which is why he was forced to sell up.
There is also an issue of the allegedly negative attitude from Westminster Council licensing officers, who seem to be making it as difficult as possible for restauranteurs rather than to work alongside them. Desmond Tang, the owner of Tao Tao Ju and Super Star Chinese Restaurant both on Lisle Street, was banned from working in his restaurant for more than half a year after a ‘fracas’ with council inspector Francis Keegan (Nee Hao is currently investigating this matter and will follow this up with another article).
Though many restaurants in Chinatown still seem to be going strong, it is a shame that a more unique place that could provide a different alternative to others such as HK Diner has gone. For many of HK Diner’s loyal customers, it might be unlikely they’ll find a new favourite; the Chinese are not always used to change and perhaps not so adventurous when it comes to trying something new.
The closure of HK Diner may mark the end of more than two decades of great food and memories for Jon, its employees and customers but perhaps what is even more worrying is the future of the many businesses still operating in around Chinatown. How many more will succumb to the combination of low footfall conversion, licensing officers being over zealous in their pursuit of minor transgressions and high rent prices? Hopefully others will not have to suffer the same fate of shutting down or being left with no choice but to change owners and that the landlord will soon change its attitude towards the local tenants who run shops and restaurants that keep this area of London so popular and multicultural, as well as a home for people like Jon and Fai to make a living.
This is a 1st of a 5 part special on London’s Chinatown. Follow us on Facebook so you can immediately know when we publish the next article on this topic.