A fascinating new feature by BBC Stories sheds light on the children of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong who moved to the United Kingdom in the 1950s to begin a new life.
Many of them started small restaurants for their livelihood, creating a generation, or two, of kids who grew up helping out in the family eatery business a couple of decades later.
The feature noted that since families moved to avoid competition, nearly every British town has at least one Chinese takeaway. This resulted in the isolation of the children who often ended up being the only Chinese students in the entire school.
Ying, Cafie, Jun Kit, Jhen, and Kaz, the children dubbed the “Takeaway Kids,” shared a Chinese restaurant dinner with BBC host Elaine Chong to talk about their experiences of what it was like growing up while working at the family restaurant.
Kaz revealed that she started helping at her family’s takeaway by washing dishes when she was around six or eight years old.
“I wasn’t actually tall enough, so I had to get a little stool to kind of do the washing up,” she shared.
According to Ying, his parents first started working in family restaurants and after saving up their own money, were able to buy their own place.
“When I was seven years old I was peeling prawns. It’s a never-ending task, but it’s a fulfilling task. You do it for…for the love of the family,” Ying noted.
Jun Kit admitted that his responsibilities at their restaurant affected his social life as a teen.
“I resented the fact that I had to work on a Friday night,” he said. “Like, if I was going to meet some friends at a house party, I’d smell like fish and chips, because that’s where I’d been working.”
Jhen, who helped his brother with chores at their eatery after school, also shared how he’d miss parties because of his workload.
“I would finish school, I’d go to the takeaway, do my homework, help out and end up, my day done. And then the next day I’d go to school and hear my friends talk about this great house party they’d been to.”
According to Kaz, there have been uncomfortable moments when customers would ask her out on dates while she’s at the counter.
“You can’t just leave after saying ‘no’ because you’re still serving them,” she explained.
Cafie seemed to share similar, slightly creepier, experiences; she was only 16 when when a man suddenly asked her to marry him. “I was like, ‘I can’t, I’m 16,’” she said.
Being children of immigrants, the “Takeaway kids” have had their share of prejudice and micro-aggressions thrown their way.
Kaz spoke about the times when she had to take phone orders near a noisy kitchen.
“When I take the phone orders it’s quite loud. So I was on this phone call for probably about ten minutes, trying to get the order down. She was obviously getting really agitated. And she was like, ‘Um, can you please just get someone who can speak English on the phone, please?’”
Jhen recalled that when he was only nine, two hostile customers spat on his father’s face after an argument over demands of chips.
“It’s just not pleasant… at that age. And it’s… You feel kind of powerless when you’re seeing your parents go through something like that. There is quite a common stereotype of Chinese people being quite timid, quite passive and unwilling to stick up for themselves for the fear of confrontation. As I grew up I got a little bit angry about it because I thought to myself, you know, it shouldn’t be like this.”
Jun Kit further lamented the times when they received prank calls and people would mimic his parents’ accents.
“There’s something that’s really quite deep about it, cos you can’t change the fact that my mum has an accent… Kids will just find that funny, just to call up the local takeaway or the fish and chip shop and just put on a Chinese accent and say, ‘I want to order a dog,’ or something like that and it’s horrible.”
Ying shared that when instances of racism would happen, his parents would, “try and shield me away from it all and just usher me off, you know, just to quickly move. Because they knew what was going on. They just want to protect me, at the time, to not listen or hear about it.”
According to Jhen, the opportunities of living comfortably and getting an education were all due to the hard work of their parents.
“My mother, she stayed on her feet for, you know, 13/14 hours a day. And it really does make you appreciate how lucky we have it. That our parents, you know, sacrificed a lot in their early lives to build up what we have now,” he said.
Jun Kit agrees, noting that his “parents came to this country with nothing. They were immigrants, they weren’t really educated at university… They’ve done a lot to sacrifice their lives for us to have a better life.”
Watch the entire feature below: