Of all the waves of Chinese emigration that have taken place throughout history, it is arguably the Cantonese diaspora that has left an indelible mark wherever they have settled around the globe. The footprints of early migrants—mainly from Hong Kong or southern mainland China—can be tracked by the opening of Chinese takeaways, through which a (Westernized) taste of home was introduced to foreign lands.
The colonial history between the United Kingdom and Hong Kong has long positioned the “Nation of Shopkeepers” as a top choice for Hong Kong-born Chinese seeking opportunities elsewhere, and the recent British National (Overseas) visa programme has triggered a fresh flood of immigration onto British shores. But the story of the Lucky Star takeaway and its Chinese diasporic proprietors begins much earlier, 40 years on from the initial British Nationality Act of 1948, on a rural patch of Welsh soil.
Food journalist Angela Hui’s Takeaway: Stories from a Childhood Behind the Counter is an engrossing memoir of her experience growing up in a Chinese takeaway in the rural village of Beddau in the South Wales Valleys. Between her childhood and early adulthood, Lucky Star was the center of the Hui family’s universe, where commercial overlapped with personal, and business clashed with family. Homework was squeezed into the precious minutes between serving customers, and no one was exempt from helping with chores. Hui and her two elder brothers rotated between answering phone calls, taking orders, packing boxes, and “lid duty”—a repetitive task of pressing lids onto aluminium foil trays filled with hot food and folding down the four sharp corners—while her parents tossed heavy woks in the kitchen from late afternoon till night. In the cramped space of the shop, she experienced the joy and safety of food as a love language, but also the frustration and shame of being pigeonholed as “the Chinese takeaway kid”, and the consequent war between her cultural identities.
Lucky Star’s takeaway counter was the “shrine” of the business, “the only space in the house where we actually had any room to move about without bumping into one another.” Life revolved around this versatile space, and there’s an undertone of pride when Hui describes the occasions she’s witnessed in her years behind the counter:
Name me one other room where you can blow out birthday candles, watch a live drunken boxing match between two rowdy customers, enjoy a steam facial from the multiple Boxing Day hot pots bubbling away on portable gas stoves, witness a hen party aftermath where the bride-to-be is sick in the corner, host a high-stakes mahjong tournament with three tables going at once, and hold an unofficial Six Nations rugby viewing, where chips and fried rice is strewn everywhere whenever Wales score a try.
Takeaway feels familiar, in the sense that the author invites the reader into her home to watch her grow up amid the bulbous jade plants and waving lucky cats of the shop, with the good, bad, and ugly all on display. The reader witnesses the small moments of daily life: Hui rushing home after school to help open the shop for business, sharing family meals before service over newspaper-covered tables, and the weekend trips to nearby Cardiff for dim sum, Chinese lessons, and bulk ingredient shopping for the takeaway.
But Takeaway is also heart-breaking and raw. Hui puts forth a painfully honest account as the child of first-generation immigrant parents, peeling back the surface to reveal her existence in an in-between space: the internalised crisis of not being Chinese enough and not being British enough; the Chinese and English language barriers and generational trauma that drove a wedge between her and her parents; the frequent racial abuse she experienced that she buried away, never to be unearthed again. Takeaway does not shy away from forcing the reader into Hui’s shoes as she confronts her inner teenage demons. Her time spent behind the takeaway counter speaks of experiences that countless people will intimately understand—in fact, one would be remiss in assuming that only Chinese readers will find joy, laughter, and tears in the pages of her powerful memories. Takeaway is a heartfelt tribute to the strength of immigrants, interwoven with deeply personal recollections, disarming humour, and an unabashed love for the takeaway shop, despite its many challenges.
“Food is how my parents express their love to us,” explains Hui, recalling memories of her father infusing silky steamed eggs—the author’s favourite—with an unspoken apology following a tumultuous fight the night before. Love shines in the recipe for emergency freezer dumplings, which her mother sends her off to university with. Hui artfully weaves her brutally honest narrative with mouthwatering descriptions of food, ending each chapter with a family recipe pivotal to shaping her identity, balancing a delicious subject matter with deep self-reflection. Sweet potato congee tells the story of her mother’s childhood, spent in poverty during a time of famine. Pickled cabbage with minced pork vermicelli noodle soup recalls the family’s annual trips to Hong Kong to see family, reconnect with their roots, and stock up on essentials for the takeaway. Egg fried rice is a “peace offering” to her classmates, representing the bridge that food can build to overcome cultural differences. Shark fin’s melon (figleaf gourd) and pork soup speaks the silent language of care and nurture when words fail.
The conflict and pain within Hui are palpable as she describes her fracturing relationship with her increasingly aggressive and intemperate father, who was meant to be her protector; the fear of losing her ageing mother to illness just as they both arrive at the cusp of a tender understanding that bridges their generational gap; and the resentment she harbours for the harsh reality of having to grow up too fast and serve as the parent to her parents in a foreign land, being forced to handle administrative affairs and translating documents written in a language unfamiliar to her parents. At the heart of it all was the takeaway, its homely food providing comfort and a sense of unity, a balm to the troubles of the day. But sometimes, even food is not enough to fill the hole in one’s heart. “How can I feel hungry when I’m full of trauma?” she writes.
Food brings the family together, but it also tears them apart. When the time comes for Hui and her parents to move on from Lucky Star, it’s a bittersweet goodbye, a silent passing of the baton that occurs without much fanfare. A place that gave so much to a Welsh village in the Valleys also exacted a heavy toll on its owners. As Hui re-examines her past, she also pieces together and reconciles the love-hate relationship she had with her family, identity, and food, and how to move on from the loss of the takeaway.
Her life began with the takeaway counter, but now it is spent
figuring out how to reconfigure and reshuffle myself. Takeaway life and post-takeaway life. What now? Who am I without the shop? What person will I be?
A profound sense of loss permeates through the final chapters, a love letter to a childhood lost:
I’m trying simultaneously to numb the grief I feel for losing something so dear and to burrow into that grief, so that I can stand behind it and serve at the counter one last time.
It is this attempt at finding balanced closure that drives the narrative of Takeaway, in the hopes of leaving readers with a deeper understanding of the nuanced stories and lives behind their next takeaway meal.