Won ton lust in London

It’s not easy to find the best restaurant in London’s Chinatown, an area located between the famous Leicester Square and Soho – best known for its colourful nightlife and for the creative industry that has established itself in the area’s art centres, collaborative workspaces and office buildings. But it doesn’t take long to find the best pub. After running the pressed-duck gauntlet of Soho’s Gerrard Street, Mei takes it upon herself to take a survey of patrons at the cozy King’s Head. In this dark, corner venue for downing a lager or three, the habitués are straight out of a Somerset Maugham tale from the East. A rotund, boozed-up Malayan Mama harangues a couple of bemused barristers with her pidgin cries of, “What you do, Charley?” Near the door, a teahouse circle of Cantonese ladies are nursing their pints of stout.

“We’re a mixed crowd here,” says the barkeep, in an understatement that may apply to the entire country. “But we all rattle along.”

Under rows of tankards turned on their end, singing along to Broadway show tunes as he drains the tap, this merry, one-earringed leprechaun lives up to the sign over the bar: “Michael – Charming, Confident, and In Control.” While chatting with us like we already live at the pub, he receives various videotapes that pals keep slyly sliding across the bar. Soft-core porn? Michael insists that these are travelogues about Hong Kong. But why plan a holiday there when half the place is already in the King’s Head?

Most of London’s 150,000 Chinese arrived from the rural areas known as the New Territories before the sixties when laws restricted the flow from former colonies. After Tiananmen Square, the Conservative government allowed another 50,000 “top Hong Kong people” to qualify for residence. But despite the calls of Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, the home government has done all it can to assure that any post-1997 influx won’t upset the nation’s “racial balance.”

“When I’m off, I go to Fook Lam Moon,” recommends Michael, a well-balanced bloke.

“Don’t listen! New Diamond bettah!” insists a Vietnamese-Chinese card dealer from a nearby basement gambling club. “You follow Numbah One, right?”

“Number One!” the bartender teases. “Is that how your mum named you?”

Wong Kei

Neither of their suggestions make our top ten. Unsatisfied, we follow the lines into Wong Kei, the most infamous of Chinatown’s chow mein factories. Here is the archetypal Chinese experience that Caucasians from here to nowhere have come to savour – perhaps as just punishment for their race’s pillaging of the East. There’s a long wait, three floors of noise, hard seats, and bare linoleum tables shared by groups of strangers with barely enough elbow room. The legendary waiters are so brusque and haughty that customers actually come here to get insulted.

“Every floor full, so must be the best,” declares our surly server as he slaps down some decent Cantonese duck over rice and curry-tinged Singapore-style noodles, all at the bargain rates that are Wong Kei’s ultimate draw. Trying to provoke the waiter, Mei teases, “How can you make it so cheap?”

“Because you so cheap!” he snaps back on cue. Asked for the secret to Wong Kei’s success, the waiter deadpans, “Some information you go to pay for.”

Instead of paying for ours, we require further guidance from some local Chinese. Crisscrossing Gerrard Street for the tenth time, I muse in Mei’s direction, “If only you had a relative here! It’s hard to believe that you don’t.”

“Wait a sec! Actually, I do,” she now remembers. “A distant cousin from Shanghai that I haven’t seen for fifteen years. His grandmother is the sister of my stepfather’s mother.”

While I’m trying to untangle the genealogy, Mei steps into yet another Chinese grocery to continue her impromptu survey. She strikes up a conversation with a thick-set bull of a man who loudly barks out dining recommendations. As I join them, this pinstriped gent presents his business card. Not only is he the vice president of the London office of the Bank of China, but this Mr. Li turns out to be the very same cousin Mei just mentioned! Think of the odds! As soon as we get back to California, I’m going to make her play the lottery.

The busy VP and VIP begs off on unspoken familial obligations by whipping out a mimeographed chart from his attache case to prove that every lunch is booked solid for weeks. But the banker promises to ring up management at the few Chinese places where he can take visiting deal-makers without “losing face.” Is that why Mei’s cousin barely cracks a smile at our amazing encounter? Speaking of his own march toward affluence, Mr. Li trots out a new Chinese aphorism: “It’s a lot easier to sell half a chicken (ji) than half an airplane (feiji).”

Imperial City

Awaiting his introductions, we make our way to the Imperial City, a surprisingly ritzy restaurant, considering that it’s in a basement snug against the back end of the Royal Stock Exchange. The exposed heating ducts have been improved with painted dragons, and the Chinese-Americian food writer Ken Hom – fitting heir of Ken Lo – has created the menu. Owned by a consortium that specialises in Thai restaurants, the Imperial City is run by a suave Hong Kong-raised Englishman named Richard Miller. He suggests that we try an assortment of half-portions that are light, fruity, and certainly among the most original in London. The stir-frys here sit pertly on the plate, braided with red and yellow peppers. A Sichuan pork uses fresh chili paste, à la Singapore, not the more authentic flavour of charred chili pods. The food here is less Chinese than pure Ken Hom. As soon as the British boss hurries off, an agitated Chinese head waiter slinks up to Mei and whispers, “A thousand apologies. We haven’t shown you true hospitality!”

Since that’s usually measured out in shrimp, scallops, and lobsters, I’m quite relieved. But the clash of cultures is illuminating. I can see why the experimental Imperial City isn’t on the list of recommendations from our traditionalist, mainland banker. The financial-set hangout preferred by Mei’s cousin is Poon’s in the City, as distinguished from various other Poon’s that crop up on every major double-decker route. Arriving just after lunch, we’re greeted by the proper, if slightly bedraggled, Mrs. Poon, who fights through the effects of a morning’s root canal to tell us that Poon’s brought the first “homemade wind-dried meats and sausage” to London. After eighteen years of success near Covent Garden, they had been forced out by high rents and a young crowd whose idea of dining “consists of little more than jacket potatoes.”

The original Mr. Poon (pronounced “pung”) is an abstract fellow, chugging on a curved meerschaum pipe as he shuffles about in sandals, soiled white T-shirt, and pants that are about to slip down his backside. The descendant of numerous chefs in Hong Kong, he helped launch the restaurants of four Poon brothers and sisters. On the side, he’s quite a patron of the arts. The walls of his restaurant are a gallery for Chinese artists in London. Fledgling opera singers and numerous Tiananmen exiles have filled his staff. Is that why Mr. Poon exudes the air of a painter just out of his garret?

“Yes, I love art and Chinese food, which is an art in itself. Why, we can make a great meal out of anything, even pig trotters. Just like a painter with his colours, the chicken stock is the soul of the cooking. Mine is concentrated like a jelly. The first scoop is always reserved for shark’s fin soup.”

A tall and elegant waiter, whispering in upper-crust tones, turns out to be the next generation of Poon, identified by his father’s disbelieving remarks about having “raised an English boarding-school boy.” Yet the son loyally bears forth his father’s scrupulously adapted Cantonese cooking, which includes a memorable pocket fish – steamed Dover sole stuffed with its own flesh. “You’ve got to adjust to British ingredients,” says the chef. “When they brought a Chinese over to demonstrate noodle-making by hand, his dough fell apart. I was the only one who knew to add bicarbonate.”

Mr. Poon declares, “I wouldn’t have bothered with England if not for my high school sweetheart from Hong Kong.” From the way she blushes through the years of kitchen exhaustion, we realise that he’s talking about Mrs. Poon. For once, we’ve found a chef whose romance with food pales before his romance with his wife.

“She’s the one who wanted to come here for the culture, the theatre, ballet and opera,” explains Mr. Poon, while she nods away. There could be worse reasons for opening a restaurant than his claim that, “I’ve spent my life cooking so my wife can have her Shakespeare.”

China City

Between meals, I’m introducing Mei to this Sceptered Isle’s civilized pleasures: the old map stores along Charing Cross Road, the dream bookshops lined with every Penguin edition ever printed, a Pinter revival in the West End, Volpone at the National Theatre. How is it that the British emote so much more genuinely on stage than in person? Mei is hardly impressed by the gray roast beef at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese but can’t stop humming the Kurt Weill turn “Surabaya Johnny” after seeing a production of Happy End staged in an Elizabethan bathhouse. Joining Leicester Square’s after-theatre crowds, this Johnny pauses to watch the medieval whirligigs mounted above the modern Swiss Centre hammer their bells to toll another ding-dong London day.

“Thinking about your daddy?” Mei asks, always able to read my heart, if not my worrying mind. I’m thinking, in particular, about trips when he made sure I was outfitted in the sharpest oxford tweeds – advising me to “think Yiddish and dress British!” Now I realise how lucky I’d been to have parents who took me to the premiere plays of England’s Angry Young Men. Though at age twelve, how could I know all the things in the world to get angry about? Continuing our journey in the midst of mourning only sharpens the preciousness of these moments with Mei – and of our once-in-a-lifetime excursion.

There’s no time to get maudlin because we’ve got a Bank of China intro to China City, an unadorned two storeys protected from Chinatown’s bustle by a landscaped courtyard. To each side are wings “shaped like a bucket to catch customers.” At least, that’s the concept according to K.C. Tang, co-proprietor with the unrelated Ivan Tang. But this Ivan “hain’t no Russian.” He’s our first Chinese with cockney with cockney accent, a curled-up do like Elvis Presley, plus a cocky attitude like Michael Caine’s Alfie.

“After work, most ‘usbands ‘ead for the pub, and when the pub closes, it’s Chinese or Indian takeaway. Lately, we’ve overtaken the Pakis as the number one food in the U.K. Of course, there hain’t much choice, considering what the English put out.” He may not realise it, but he’s seconding the opinion of philosopher Lin Yuntang, who once wrote, “The only time an Englishman thinks about his stomach is when it aches.”

Despite his indelible, incongruous Britishness, Ivan concedes, “I been thinking about pushing off to America. If I could come eight thousand miles to make a quid, what’s a few thousand more?”

He’s an earthy character straight out of one of those classic proletarian plays I’d seen, Chips with Everything. Only now it’s fried rice with everything. While the China City packs them in with Hong Kong cooking that’s one rung above the norm, the co-owner admits, “We can’t go to extremes like they do back ‘ome, what with killing off a thousand birds to make a dish o’ their tongues.”

But Ivan Tang very much wants us to know, “For gettin’ a licence ‘ere, you got to study the sanitary procedures an’ all.” He fairly summarises all our research by adding, “This hain’t just a matter of ‘anging out yer red lantern.”

Taken from John Krich’s book “Won Ton Lust” with permission. © John Krich. Published by Kodansha International. ISBN 1-56836-178-5.