“I worked in Chinatown for over 35 years and men looked at me like I was from the moon”
We’ve all come to think of Chinatown as an integral part of Soho and the capital. But the tourist destination would never have become what it is today without Christine Yau, a 76-year-old woman who opened one of Soho’s oldest Chinese restaurants, hosted the first Chinese New Year celebration and built the Chinatown’s iconic gate on Wardour Street.
Her restaurant, Yming, opened in 1986 but, despite being originally from Hong Kong, Christine initially struggled to fit in in Chinatown. To her male peers, Christine and her company were an anomaly. She told MyLondon: “I struggled at the time because it was a man’s world.
“At that time, Chinatown was much smaller and the business community was dominated by men. They socialized, gambled and played Mahjong [traditional game] together, so they also did business together. I was really an outsider and they didn’t really understand where I was coming from. They looked at me as if I came from the moon.
READ MORE: ‘I followed in my father’s footsteps through India for a year and created a restaurant inspired by my travels’
Determined to carry on, Christine continued her business even when her partners gave up running the restaurant. For a time, she had to endure 12-hour shifts, six days a week: “For us, it’s important to do things right,” she explains. Eventually, the hard work paid off and her restaurant gained a loyal following. Occasionally it was even frequented by celebrities such as Colin Firth.
Along with running her restaurant, Christine made progress in developing Chinatown. In 2015, she took on the responsibility of building the traditional Chinese gate on Wardour Street. By this time, Christine was no stranger to managing large community projects – she had already organized the first Chinese New Year celebration in Trafalgar Square 13 years previously. His London Chinatown Chinese Association team became the first to use the area to host a completely free event.
In 2003, Christine also worked with Westminster Council to clean up the streets of Chinatown. She said: “Chinatown has become a victim of its own success. Many people started visiting Chinatown and because of that it became dirty and crowded. We worked with the council to change that and now Chinatown is getting better and better.
For her contributions, Christine has received countless nominations and awards, including the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2014. However, her restaurant, like many others, has unfortunately fallen on hard times during the pandemic. After the first lockdown, the restaurant reopened briefly before closing permanently in October 2021. Now the Museum of London plans to showcase its restaurant as part of London’s history.
“Every restaurant in Chinatown has been affected by the pandemic,” Christine said. “Closing mine was a decision made for me, not by me and I was very sad to see it disappear after 35 years. But the fact that Yming is part of a museum is a very pleasant surprise.
Despite the loss of her restaurant, Christine continues her work in Chinatown as president of the London Chinese Community Center in Soho. The centre, which Christine has been involved with for over 10 years, was the first and largest of its kind. It provides support to Chinese expatriates in London and preserves Chinese culture in the capital by offering a range of courses from smartphone workshops for older people to Chinese calligraphy lessons for younger people.
One of their most loyal members was 103-year-old Wan Lan, who had traveled to the center every day from Greater London for more than 30 years. Christine said, “It’s important to have a community center like ours. Language is the biggest obstacle for the Chinese community in London and it takes time to adapt to Western customs. He can be lonely, so there needs to be a place where people feel comfortable coming to talk and ask for help.
“There are also certain customs and traditions, which must be remembered. The younger generation can choose to observe them or not, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they know what Chinese culture is.
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