Seven surprising things we learned about working in a Chinese takeaway
In BBC Radio 4’s new Book of the Week, Takeaway, the author Angela Hui gives a vivid account of growing up behind the counter in her family’s Chinese takeaway.
Her parents came from Hong Kong in 1985 and settled in Beddau, a former mining village in the South Wales valleys, where they opened "Lucky Star".
Here are seven surprising things we learned about life and work in a Chinese takeaway.
1. You might feel like Cinderella
When Angela was a baby, she slept “in a cardboard chip box in the pantry storage under the stairs” while her mother worked. Her parents taught her and her brothers the ropes as soon as they could walk and talk. Then when she was just eight years old, she started helping out with the business. “I used to stand on a stool, reaching over the counter to serve customers,” she recalls.
They all worked their socks off, and there was “no life outside of family”, says Angela. “Throughout my childhood, I lived like Cinderella. Whatever I was doing, or wherever I was, I always had to be back and ready to work by 5pm.”
2. Some tasks rank higher than others
When it comes to food preparation, “some tasks rank higher than others,” says Angela. “Quartering white button mushrooms meant a free pass to wield a meat cleaver.” But de-veining and de-shelling prawns was the worst job: “First, twist and rip off the head, then pull off its ten legs. Dig your nails in to peel off the exoskeleton shell and tail.” Then she would pass the prawn to her brother Jacky who had “the all-important job of scraping out the digestive poop tract with a knife.” They might get through 150 prawns in one sitting.
But the “king” of all prep work, she says, was “bagging vats of freshly fried snow-white prawn crackers that are still warm to the touch.” It would be “one for the bag. One for the gob.”
3. The day you open your takeaway matters
Angela’s parents opened their Chinese takeaway, Lucky Star, on the luckiest day of the century: 8/8/1988. “It’s an auspicious date,” explains Angela, “because the number eight is lucky in Chinese culture, signifying good wealth, fortune and prosperity – three key factors needed for a young, growing immigrant family.”
4. Even staff outside of the family start to feel like relatives
Cecilia, a Welsh lady in her late sixties, was the Lucky Star counter assistant. “She hobbled about on a crutch and smoked like a blast furnace,” says Angela. “Cecilia took me under her wing, fended off drunk customers and was probably the closest thing I had to a grandma.”
There was also Dewi, the delivery driver. “He was a lanky, dorky blond Welshman who laughed at his own jokes. Often, he’d have the kids in the car strapped in the baby seats while he did his delivery rounds. Other nights, in between orders, he’d be standing around reading the papers and watching TV with me and Cecilia,” Angela recounts. “In a way, they were my extended family,” she says.
5. You probably don’t eat the food you serve
Before service, Angela’s mum and dad would make the family dinner. They would have food like steamed Jasmine rice and lap cheong (Chinese sausage), and lap yuk (Chinese cured pork belly).
“Contrary to popular belief, we rarely eat the food we serve customers,” says Angela. “Mum calls fried foods ‘yeet hay’, a Cantonese phrase that means ‘unhealthy’, and literally translates to ‘hot air.’”
6. Sundays aren’t for rest
“For many people, Sunday is a day of rest, but not for the Hui family,” states Angela. “It was the one day of the week to venture out of the village, drive to Cardiff and stock up on goods for the business.”
This meant a trip to the cash-and-carry wholesalers. Angela describes the other shoppers: an Indian man stocking up on sweets; a Somali family browsing spices; another Chinese man lifting a large sack of onions. “As I grew older I realised we were all there for the same reason,” she says. “We were all immigrants with immigrant food-businesses – trying to make a living, provide for our families and stay afloat. We’d bring back our hauls to our tiny rural corner-shops, delis, newsagents, takeaways and restaurants.” Without this trip to the wholesalers, Angela’s family wouldn’t be able to cook the exotic dishes that their livelihood depended on.
7. Customers are the best and the worst part of the work
Angela recalls a group of teenagers causing chaos in the takeaway: lying on the bench, rummaging through the glass bowl of sweets for customers and “throwing chocolate bars at each other.” Then, they shovel their food in, letting mountains of rice and splotches of curry sauce fall to the floor. “When the boys finally leave, we let out a collective sigh of relief,” she says. “The counter and waiting room are in a state.” There is racist abuse to contend with too.
Thankfully, there are lovely regulars too. Like a sweet, old couple who always arrive before the takeaway opens, order the same boiled rice and beef curry to share, and always ask after the family.
“Customers are the backbone of our business,” says Angela. “They’re the best and worst parts about working in hospitality. Without them we wouldn’t have a roof over our heads.” But she wishes some customers were more like this couple, treating them with kindness and respect.