For decades, the restaurants in London’s Chinatown have offered western diners a taste of the east. But a new goal is to serve affluent Asian tourists a taste of home.
Popping up between the traditional restaurants serving staples such as sweet-and-sour pork and dim sum are shops offering Instagram-friendly Bubble Wrap-shaped waffles from Hong Kong, green tea ice cream and Japanese-themed hamburgers.
Shaftesbury, which owns about four-fifths of the area, has been courting established Asia-based restaurant operators and has hired a Chinese PR agency to spread the word.
The property company says Chinatown has become “stuck in a bit of a time warp” and wants it to reflect a more modern view of Asia.
Wedged between Soho, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, Chinatown boasts one of the best locations in London. Shaftesbury began accumulating its portfolio as Chinese businesses, drawn by cheap rents, moved to the area in the 1950s.
In recent years Shaftesbury has been trying to balance the needs of London’s Chinese community, which relies on Chinatown’s supermarkets and health stores, with updating what the area has to offer.
Rising commercial rents and the unwillingness of many of the children of the original operators to work in the family business have brought about the closure of many restaurants and warnings that Chinatown’s “soul” is being diluted.
“Some of the restaurants haven’t really moved on and, of course, the customer base has. They’re now looking for something a bit more sophisticated,” says Brian Bickell, Shaftesbury’s chief executive. Many of them are high-volume, low-margin and compete on price, he adds.
In his sights are Chinese tourists — about 160,000 visited the city last year, each spending £1,370, compared with £850 for the typical American or £420 for Germans, according to London’s tourism agency.
“You can’t push these things through too quickly and, of course, existing tenants have got leases, they’ve got rights to stay there,” says Mr Bickell. “If they want to modernise and trade well, then we’re more than happy they stay . . . If they don’t want to stay, then Shaftesbury will buy them out of their lease.”
Andrew Price, portfolio executive at Shaftesbury, insists that the company wants to stay true to the area’s roots. “We appreciate that we’ve got this amazing asset,” he says. “It’s a one-off. It is a community, it’s not a theme park, and what we thought we’d do is just look at it strategically and enhance it.”
Tenants’ representatives say Shaftesbury’s strategy has created a feeling of transition. Lawrence Lee, a dentist and spokesman for the London Chinatown Chinese Association, says there are vacancies in the area for the first time in three decades. “All these years I have been working or visiting I never see any empty premises. But only in the last year or so, it’s started to get worse.”
Shaftesbury says premises are vacant for a range of reasons, including refurbishment.
Mr Lee has mixed views about Shaftesbury, which was a “very supportive” landlord but was “running a business so they have to follow the market rent, so they do raise the rent”.
Immigrants from Hong Kong have traditionally operated in Chinatown. But Mr Lee says more people from mainland China have been opening restaurants and other businesses in recent years. “They’ve started to buy into the restaurants, they have more back-up financially,” he says. “There are a lot less Hong Kong Chinese getting involved in Chinatown. They are a still a majority, but the proportion is shifting.”
Instead, Hong Kong Chinese families are moving their operations, and their custom, outside central London. Jon Man of the West End Chinatown Tenants’ Association, says rising rents forced his Chinese restaurant out of the area.
He is sceptical that newcomers could succeed in the area, pointing to high overheads. “They don’t have a clue what the market’s like. They think it’s a gold mine and that’s not how it is.”
Shaftesbury says change is unavoidable. “Chinatown is going to have a future if it evolves to reflect what people want now, not what they wanted, 20, 30, 40 years ago,” says Mr Bickell. “If they carry on doing the same thing, I’m not sure what the future is going to be. We want to see it prosper.”
Pressure for longer hours
Shaftesbury is also pushing Westminster council, which is responsible for most of the West End, to allow bars and restaurants to open later. It is “unfortunate” that much of the city centre is shut by midnight even though five Underground lines run all night, says the property company.
Brian Bickell, chief executive of Shaftesbury, says: “Tourists [are] wandering around thinking ‘why is it all closed?’
“Have a meal after going to the theatre, that wouldn’t be the end of civilisation if you could do that,” he said. “I think Westminster are starting to get their heads round that now . . . we and others are sort of pushing them to think about relaxing licensing hours.”
Westminster says it has to “balance the demands” of visitors with those of residents. “We welcome the Night Tube and continue to review its impact.”
About 180,000 Night Tube journeys are made each weekend, according to Transport for London data from the start of this year.
Mr Bickell acknowledges there had been problems in the past with excessive drinking, but says the trend is now towards “eating out, which generally causes less disorder”.
“The ‘vertical drinking’ establishments, the massive bars, have had their day.”
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