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Award-winning writer and editor Angela Hui’s first book, Takeaway: Stories From a Childhood Behind the Counter, is a food memoir about her experience of growing up in a Chinese takeaway in Wales. It shines a light on the food, culture and identity of East and Southeast Asian communities and their experiences of racism and discrimination in the UK. Hui, a former Time Out food and drink editor and HuffPost lifestyle reporter, speaks to Nina Meghji about reliving her painful past, the book’s unexpected readership, harnessing her cultural identity, and why battered sausages often appear on Chinese takeaway menus.
Takeaway explores the intersection of food, race, identity, culture, language and family. Can you explain how you approached these issues?
It’s a food memoir so it’s very much about lived experience. My parents came to the UK from Hong Kong in 1985 and worked at various Chinese takeaways and restaurants around London, Reading and Bournemouth before finally saving up enough money to buy their own place in Wales.
When we had racist attacks or dealt with drunken customers, my parents never reported it to the police because they didn’t want to draw more attention to themselves or kick up a fuss. As a kid, when you’ve dealt with racism or sexualisation, when you’re working on a counter and there are all of these micro aggressions, you don’t really acknowledge them, you don’t really sit with it until later on in life when you’re older.
I didn’t really enjoy the writing process because it was such a personal thing… It was very therapeutic but also very painful, reliving all of the traumas and memories.
What motivated you to write the book?
It was my way of preserving that time and memory, to get it down on paper because it was still very fresh in my mind… When my parents sold the takeaway in 2018, I had all of these mixed feelings of happiness, nostalgia, going down memory lane and remembering all of the good and bad times. It was such a huge part of my life.
When I was writing it, there were [lots of] Covid-related hate crimes against [East and Southeast] Asians… I read all of these reports about Asians being attacked in the street or beaten up or Chinese takeaways being vandalised. It made me really want to use my platform or talk about these issues and about Chinese takeaways, that there are families behind each of these immigrant businesses. I wanted to highlight and celebrate the hard work they go through to make ends meet, the things they have to do to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. It was more of a love letter to Chinese takeaways.
Have you been surprised or touched by any of the responses to the book?
Yes, absolutely. I get emails all the time — weekly, daily — from people who I never thought would read the book. I get people messaging me saying, ‘I grew up in a takeaway and I absolutely felt exactly what you were going through and I wish I knew you as a kid.’
But what surprised me was the range of people who have reached out. The other day I had a message from an 87-year-old Irish man, a white man. He said he grew up in a pub and had worked there since he was 16, and he felt the [book] resonated with him [particularly with regards to] not having a childhood of his own and feeling obligated to work in a family business. I never thought that would be my demographic at all.
‘I never really saw myself represented in the media growing up’
In the book, you say that as a child ‘I shrank myself and obscured my identity to take up less space’. Do you intentionally take up more space now?
I never really saw myself represented in the media growing up… It was a very confusing time when I really hated who I was because I didn’t know who I was. Going to school, was I Welsh or was I only known to be the Chinese girl in the Chinese takeaway?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely felt a bit more comfortable with who I am and this is both Welsh and Chinese. With the work that I do now as a journalist, I want to shout out about these issues.
As an adult, how have you managed the pain — racial abuse, alienation and loneliness — you talk about in the book? Did you find writing it cathartic?
Yes, I did. As painful as it was, I really felt like I had another chance to reassess all of the experiences I went through. It was like a therapy session.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve connected with a lot more East and Southeast Asians and other takeaway kids who went through the same experience as me. We talk at length about growing up in a takeaway — what it was like, all of those kinds of past traumas and hurt.
It’s like having an amazing support network that I never really had growing up.
You write candidly about your parents and the family dynamic. What was their response to the book?
They haven’t read it yet because they can’t read or speak English very well, they only speak Cantonese. But they know the gist of it.
In Chinese culture we don’t really talk about our feelings, we connect through food – we talk about whether you’re full or whether you’ve eaten yet. All of the recipes in the book I developed and cooked with my mum so it really brought me and her closer… The book is coming out in Mandarin next year, so I think she’s very excited to read it. They’re very supportive and very proud.
We had the book launch in Hackney Chinese Community Centre and my parents came up and cooked everything [for the event]. That’s how they show up – they show love through actions rather than words.
‘British Chinese takeaway food is its own unique thing’
The book is filled with delicious recipes, but you describe Anglo-Cantonese food as a ‘simplified, watered-down Western version of Cantonese cooking’. Your parents’ home aside, where’s the best place to eat ‘authentic’ Cantonese food in the UK?
I think the word ‘authentic' is wrong because one person’s ‘authentic’ is completely inauthentic to someone else… British Chinese takeaway food is its own unique thing – it is food that’s created and invented by Chinese people.
A lot of Chinese families who set up Chinese takeaways in the UK took over old fish and chip shops – that’s why you would get chips and battered sausages and fish alongside egg fried rice, chow mein and spring rolls. I hate the word ‘fusion’ but that’s what you get — a fusion between British and Chinese food… With more traditional food, which is the food that I grew up with my family at home, it’s very home-style cooking, which is quite different.
My favourite places in Wales are Happy Gathering, a dim sum place that also does Cantonese cooking, and New World, another restaurant in Cardiff… It was important for me and my parents to go for weekly dim sum because every other Chinese takeaway in Wales would descend on this one place to have Chinese food, surrounded by other Chinese people.
What are your plans for the future?
At the moment, I’m really enjoying focusing on doing different projects. I haven’t thought about writing another book yet… It’s always the ‘what’s next?’ or ‘how do I follow that?’ and that’s kind of terrifying.
Takeaway: Stories From a Childhood Behind the Counter is out now in paperback.
Nina Meghji is a freelance researcher, writer and editor and an education, gender and international development specialist.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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Main photo © Kenneth Lam
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