Kung Hei Fat Choi! Manchester Chan dynasty reveals that city’s Chinatown is strictly a family affair

By Helen Le Caplain

As Manchester bids zàijiàn to the Year of the Snake and says ‘ni hao’ to the Year of the Horse it’s hard to imagine that as little as 50 years ago Manchester’s China Town didn’t exist.

There was the odd Chinese restaurant scratching a living in the city but the cultural hotspot we all know and love, adorned with Chinese lanterns, bamboo screens and the stunning imperial arch was merely a pipedream.

Those looking for authentic Chinese cuisine would have to make the 60-mile round trip to Liverpool just to get their chopsticks around some delicious dim sum… until Hong Kong native Chan ‘Charlie’ Loi came to town.

In something akin to a Hollywood film script Charlie came to England in 1956 with just the clothes on his back, having left his wife and son behind in Hong Kong, and worked his passage on a merchant liner to make a new life for his family.

It was from these humble beginnings that the Manchester Chan dynasty grew and has now been placed in the capable hands of Charlie’s son 60-year-old Raymond San Kwai Chan.

Raymond, who is chair of the Manchester China Town Business Association, explained that his father’s success lay in hard work and responding to the needs of the Chinese community in the UK by setting up social clubs where people could relax and play games such as Mahjong.

Raymond said: “When Chinese people had the day off the social clubs became the only place they could have their own socials.

“They didn’t drink that much back then and they didn’t speak English so they couldn’t just go to the local pub.

“Every big town had a social club – my father had one in Liverpool – so he started one here in Manchester in 1966, on the year that I arrived in Manchester.”

Once the social scene was accommodated for, people started to seek out authentic Chinese cuisine which reminded them of home.

Raymond added: “In the early 1960s when my father was here there were no restaurants.

“You passed a couple on Oxford Road but not in China Town itself.

“They weren’t proper Chinese restaurants in Manchester just chop suey places. They wanted some proper dim sum but the nearest one was in Liverpool – which is a long way to go for dim sum!

“They asked my father to open one up – he found a couple of chefs started one over the social club like a café offering dim sum and that’s how it started.”

This was the predecessor to iconic Chinese restaurant Charlie Chan’s which opened in China Town in the early 1970s and counted Coronation Street actress Pat Phoenix and Manchester United legend George Best among its clientele.

Charlie Chan undoubtedly laid the foundations of Manchester’s China Town, and during the 70s and 80s Chinese launderettes, supermarkets, social clubs and restaurants started springing up in the area.

In addition to his other enterprises Charlie also opened up a casino in Albert Square back in 1976 to accommodate some of the Chinese community’s love of gambling.

By the time Charlie had firmly established his businesses his wife joined him in Manchester, a whopping 20 years after her husband left Honk Kong leading to the arrival of his younger brother who is 21 years his junior.

Raymond added: “It’s funny how it’s grown so fast in the last 40 years – the time up until 1985 was the time you saw the really big change but I’m so proud with how it’s turned out.”

And the development of China Town has an economic hub is something that his family, including his brother and children, have continued to work on.

Between them they own other businesses including flower shop Rose Petal and the building where lap dancing club Long Legs is.

These, and a variety of other China Town businesses, will be celebrating in spectacular style on Sunday and will be welcoming the traditional lion and unicorn dances at a variety of stops on the route.

“The Chinese dragon is the costume everyone automatically thinks of in the Manchester Chinese New Year celebrations, but that is owned by the council and was a gift from China,” Raymond explained.

“The lion and the unicorn came first and the delicate paper and bamboo costumes are shipped over from Hong Kong each year, which is funded by China Town businesses.

Two people are needed in each of the costumes and they perform high-octane dance routines based on marshall arts moves along the route.

“It’s a great tradition as you teach the kung fu moves-based dance on to the next generation to perform.”

Businesses opt to be included on the route which sees the lion and unicorn perform and ‘bless’ the building and people to bring them good fortune.

Raymond revealed: “When they visit the business a cabbage, containing an envelope with cash inside, is ‘eaten’ by the creature who then gives a New Year blessing before moving onto the next part of the route.

“The New Year is really important, it’s about beginning afresh. There is no cleaning done at New Year because the belief is that you ‘sweep out’ all of the good luck.

“We hand out envelopes containing money to children and unmarried people, the idea being that once they themselves are married they continue to the tradition – which can get very expensive!” 

Featured picture courtesy of Vintage Lulu, with thanks

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