Scalding oil, racist prank calls and endless ‘lid duty’: growing up in a Chinese restaurant

Read Time:17 Minute, 43 Second

The Guardian

RING RING RING. The silver-corded phone that sits to the left of the counter, worn from years of being picked up and slammed down, is shrilling again. I hastily pick it up. “Hello, Lucky Star. How may I help you?” I regurgitate automatically in my sing-song takeaway-order voice.

“A delivery? Sure, can I have your address” 34 Heol-yr-esgob. OK. What would you like to order? A special chow mein. But no prawns? OK. Black bean beef. Uh-huh. Two bags of chips. Yep. A portion of chicken balls. Sure. Anything else with your order? No? That’s it? That’ll be £17.20, plus the extra pound for delivery. So that’s £18.20 in total. Your order will arrive roughly in …” I turn my head round to check the rustic wood-framed clock on the wall … “half an hour to an hour’s time? OK, thank you. Bye.”

As soon as I place the phone down: RING RING RING. RING RING RING. “Hello, Lucky Star. How may I –”

“Ni hao!” I hear, followed by barely covered sniggers.

“Hello?” I ask tentatively.

“Ching chong ching chong! Hahaha!”

There’s now a guffawing. It’s starting to dawn on me what’s happening.

“Egg flied lice, pwease! Me so hornee. Me love you long time!”

I slam the chunky handset down and throw it across the counter in rage.

Not again. If I ever find out who it is, I swear I’ll set my dad on him. This happens every other night and I can feel my blood boiling. I don’t even want to be doing this shitty job, dealing with these idiots. I just want to go hang out with the girls and play like the other 12-year-olds.

I wish I was someplace far, far away from here.

Like many Chinese immigrants who came to the UK believing the British streets were paved with gold, my parents left Hong Kong in 1985 to search for a better quality of life. With little money, no English and only low-paying manual jobs on offer, they went wherever there was work, moving from Bournemouth to Reading, then London and finally settling in the former mining village of Beddau, Wales. Most Welsh coalmines were closed by the end of the 1980s when my family arrived and their ends were hastened by Thatcherite decree. Beddau was gloomy, rainy and insular. With a population of just over 4,000, everyone knew each other – and each other’s business.

In the end, my parents saved up and opened their own Chinese takeaway, Lucky Star, on the luckiest day of the century: 8 August 1988 – the number eight is lucky in Chinese culture. The takeaway is named after a song from Mum’s favourite Cantopop singer Alan Tam. Plus all the good names, such as Lucky Dragon, The Gold Lion, Happy Gathering and Happy Garden, were already taken by my uncles and aunties who’d settled in neighbouring Welsh villages in the valleys. (The Huis strategically opened Chinese takeaways in south Wales surrounded by a close-knit network of family and friends: near enough to offer an emergency lifeline in case anything were to happen, but not close enough to be fighting over the same customers.)

My parents, two older brothers, Keen and Jacky, and I lived above the takeaway and we barely left the building. The counter was a shrine to me and my brothers. The walls featured awards from school, colourful drawings and art decorations, all surrounded by quiet reminders of Hong Kong: shelves filled with imperial guardian lion foo dog ornaments and golden waving lucky cats.

Sometimes I would sit on the counter on my own, sometimes next to Keen and sometimes next to Cecilia, a Welsh lady in her late 60s who was our long-serving counter assistant. She had short frizzy grey hair, wore the thickest brown square glasses and smoked like a blast furnace. There was also Dewi, our delivery driver. He was a lanky, dorky blond Welshman who laughed at his own dad jokes and overshared about his baby sons.

Long after the phone call, I can’t stop thinking about it. What have I done to deserve this? I hate my life, I hate this stupid job and, most of all, I hate being Chinese. Why couldn’t I have been born into a normal family? Life would be so much easier.

As I walk down the narrow white hallway to the kitchen, I feel a blast of hot air punch me in the face. The air is brimming with enticing smells of aromatic curries, fiery satays, funky black beans and fragrant sweet-and-sours all rolled into one. It’s a tight space, made even tighter with five bodies frantically scurrying around trying to get things done without knocking into one another. We have two stainless steel silver surfaces, one central island for packing orders, a line of heavy-duty wok burners, a deep-fat fryer station, a domestic gas cooker that always has bubbling pots of sauces on the hobs and a giant fridge clearly too big for the room.

Our setup isn’t much but it somehow works, and so do we. I take the paper ticket and yell, “One special chow mein with no prawns, one lemon chicken, one black bean beef, two bags of chips, chicken balls with a sweet-and-sour sauce” to my parents, then stub the ticket on the makeshift receipt spike, which Dad made out of a small piece of wood and four nails.

Hui today: ‘The customers seemed never-ending, the phones rang off the hook. It was relentless.’ Photograph: Alex Ingram/The Guardian

“OK, lah, ah mui!’ Dad shouts back (ah mui is Cantonese for “young girl”) as he effortlessly rocks the steel wok back and forth with his left hand while stirring the lemon chicken with a wok ladle in the right. He grabs a bottle of lemon juice from the wonky white shelf that Mum fashioned out of old tiles and squirts it directly into the wok. As soon as the liquid touches the wok, flames creep up the sides, licking the ingredients and bringing a charred smoky addition to the dish.

I can hardly hear him, or much else, over the jet engine-like roar of the industrial wok burner range; the clash of the metal spatula; the hiss and sizzle of Mum plunging chicken balls into the scalding hot oil. It’s a war zone in there, but thankfully run with military precision.

The takeaway has always been a part of my life. According to Mum, when I was a baby I slept in a cardboard chip box in the pantry storage under the stairs by the kitchen while she worked and occasionally checked in on me. I started helping out when I was eight. I used to stand on a step stool, reaching over the counter to serve customers.

My parents taught me and my brothers the ropes as soon as we could walk and talk, so we could help ease the burden and, one day, take over the business when they retired. I couldn’t think of anything worse, and neither could Keen and Jacky. Even though my parents made cooking, especially cooking with a wok, look like a piece of cake, in reality it was tiring and repetitive.

Their hopes of me taking over were quickly dashed when they saw me pathetically struggle to pick up a wok. That thing weighed a tonne. Not surprisingly, I was quickly relegated to less labour-intensive roles such as answering calls, dealing with customers and lid duty. (What is lid duty, you ask? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like: mindlessly putting lids on aluminium foil trays, pressing down the four corners to secure the hot contents inside, again and again.)

But truth be told, lid duty and telephone answering aside, my parents didn’t really want us to get too involved with the family business. They knew it was backbreaking and unsociable work. My parents didn’t run a takeaway out of passion and love; they did it in order to fund higher education for me and my brothers, so we could study hard and get good jobs. My parents came to cook so that we didn’t have to.

The customer comes in to collect his order. He isn’t sniggering or looking at me funny, so I don’t think he is the prank caller. While Cecilia sits next to me puffing away on her bar stool, I lean my plastic yellow stool back against the wall and continue catching Pokémon on my Game Boy to decompress before the next onslaught of orders.

Minutes later, the same man reappears at the door. Approaching the counter, he gestures towards the bag. “This isn’t my order. I ordered fried rice, chips, sweet-and-sour duck and curry sauce.”

Uh-oh. Dad’s going to kill me. I walk back into the kitchen and break the bad news to my parents. As suspected, Dad flips out and starts shouting at me. His angry voice is so loud that customers waiting in the front room don’t know whether to flee for their lives or cower in the corner.

“I’m sorry, I- ”

Hui’s mother cleaning at the Lucky Star. Photograph: courtesy of Angela Hui

“Ah mui, you’re so useless and stupid! Be more careful next time and always read back the order to customers to prevent mistakes.”

Despite all my efforts, I can’t seem to stop the tears that are welling up. I never understand why getting an order wrong is such a big deal to him, but I don’t have time to dwell – the next round of customers is coming in thick and fast.

“A little help, please!” shouts Cecilia from the counter between the symphony of phone rings. I wipe my tears on my sleeve and compose myself. I run out to see the waiting room has suddenly filled out, with customers packed in like sardines. I grab a notepad and pen, and put on my biggest smile.

“Sorry about the mix-up, sir. We’re redoing your order now, which won’t take long, and we’ll throw a bag of prawn crackers in, too,” I tell the customer, then turn my attention to the next person in line. “Hiya, sorry for the wait. What would you like to order, ma’am?”

I run back into the kitchen, trying to reel off the order above the din, and stub the paper ticket on to a nail along with the backlog of other tickets piling up.

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That order’s ready. It’s the one we got wrong earlier.” Jacky points to the lonely white bag waiting on the sidelines. “Make sure everything’s in there this time and don’t forget the prawn crackers.”

I take the order, hurry back to the counter, hand over the customer’s food and apologise profusely before moving on to the next customer. I return to the kitchen, recite dishes off by heart and add another paper ticket to the pile. While I’m there, I grab an empty cardboard chip box from the stack sitting next to the fridge, place it on top of the silver worktop and start to fill the box with barbecue spare ribs, fried rice, noodles and chop suey, polystyrene cups of amber-hued curry sauce and bags of chips. I close the box and carefully carry the big order back out to the front. Cecilia is coming straight at me with a paper ticket but jumps aside at the last minute to avoid a catastrophe.

“Sorry! I couldn’t see you!” I shout back at Cecilia while she’s already down the hallway leaving another ticket in the kitchen. At the counter, I call out, “OK, we have ticket number 32. Number 32, anyone?”

A family meal before work begins. Photograph: courtesy of Angela Hui

A couple come forward to the counter with their ticket. I hoist the heavy box of food up, repeat their order back to them to double-check everything is there and hope they’ll enjoy their meal.

It’s relentless. The line of customers seems never-ending and the phone lines are ringing off the hook. Back and forth carrying orders, up and down the hallway repeatedly, I feel as though I’m in a Benny Hill sketch.

As soon as the closed sign is flipped at 11pm, after a gruelling 14-hour day, we bolt upstairs to wash off the night’s work and get ready for bed while my parents carry on deep-cleaning the kitchen. When the chores are finished, Dad grabs his jacket and storms out of the house. “I’ll be back later. I’m going out.” He doesn’t need to tell us where he’s going. It’s obvious. Casinos are the first port of call for Dad, and many others in the Chinese community, including many of my aunties, uncles and cousins, because they’re the only places open in Cardiff in the early hours of the morning when they’ve finally clocked off.

Next morning, it becomes apparent that Dad has lost all of yesterday’s earnings playing mahjong. When Mum finds out, she goes ballistic – and she rarely loses her cool. My brothers and I, in our shared bedroom next door to theirs, can hear them at each other’s throats when Dad creeps in at 5am, the three of us lying in our beds, silently awake, wishing the arguing would stop. Eventually, I resort to banging on the walls to finally shut them up.

“SHUT UP! Some of us are trying to sleep. I hate this stupid house and I hate both of you!” I scream, as I pound the walls with my fist.

It isn’t always like this. It depends on the previous night’s winnings. Today is a walking-on-eggshells kind of day. Gambling felt like the root of all our problems: if only Dad didn’t gamble, we wouldn’t have to work twice as hard; if only Dad didn’t gamble, maybe he wouldn’t shout at us all the time; if only Dad didn’t gamble, maybe he would stop making me cry.

The next morning, everyone is in a foul mood. I hate my parents, I hate my life and I need to get out.

I slam the front door, sprint upstairs and sling my school bag into our bedroom to avoid any further confrontation. I’m exhausted from the stress of last night, my mind is foggy and my stomach growls and I’m starving. Too anxiety-ridden replaying yesterday’s events over in my head, I barely ate anything at school. I nag Keen or Jacky to get some food for me but neither brother’s brave enough to venture downstairs – they’re taking refuge, too.

I sneak down to try to get a snack without being noticed. Mum and Dad are in the kitchen with their backs to me. I pause in the doorway and watch them quietly work away making our pre-service family dinner. I’m crushed that I told them I hated them yesterday. I know everything they do they are doing for us, by whatever means possible.

‘Dad lifts the lid of the rice cooker like a magician’: Hui with her parents in 2018. Photograph: courtesy of Angela Hui

Contrary to popular belief, we rarely eat the food we serve customers. Mum deems fried foods “yeet hay”, a Cantonese phrase that means “unhealthy” and literally translates to “hot air”. Chinese takeaway food should be reserved for a weekly treat. Although Dad would never apologise for his behaviour and outbursts like the previous night, nor be able to make up for the money he lost, watching the tenderness with which he and Mum prepare our family meal shows me how much they care about us, and each other. I seldom see the soft side of my parents, particularly Dad, but maybe this is his way of reaching out. Without telling us, he is trying to make it up to us and win back our love.

Dad lifts the lid of the rice cooker like a magician performing a spectacular illusion and disappears behind a plume of rising steam. I’m instantly hit with the smell of jasmine rice’s almost buttery popcorn-like sweet, floral aroma, intertwined with the smoky-sweet fragrance of lap cheong (Chinese sausage) and lap yuk (Chinese cured pork belly). Dad plucks the steamed charcuterie out with his fingers, places it on the wooden circular chopping board and begins slicing it into bite-size pieces before returning it to the pot.

You could have sworn he was hacking down a tree rather than slicing. The banging of the cleaver is so loud, it echoes all the way through to the front counter. He scoops up the chopped meat with his cleaver in one swift motion and splays it decoratively on top of the rice. Mum appears by his side, drizzling the dark soy sauce mixture in.

He looks over his shoulder and spots me hovering around.

“Ah mui! Ah mui! Ah muiii! I’ve made your favourite bo zai fan,” Dad chuckles. (Bo zai fan is claypot rice.) “Call your brothers down to sik fan.” It’s time to eat. My mouth’s watering just looking at the fluffy steamed rice studded with maroon and white marbled pieces of sausage and dark brown cubes of Chinese cured pork belly flecked with bright green spring onions. I’ve forgotten all about the snack.

I know Dad’s ulterior motive. He often conveniently “forgets” any of the previous night’s events even happened. My parents have so much pride that they’d rather hide how they really feel. After years of repressing emotions instead of discussing them, it gets harder and harder for them to admit mistakes.

This flavourful bowl of rich, savoury rice goodness, lovingly prepared by my parents, might be a delicious peace treaty and an act of love, but just once I wish Dad felt comfortable enough to be apologetic. Baby steps. I’m sure one day we’ll get there. I grab a bowl excitedly but before I can dig in to appreciate this elaborate family meal …


An overeager customer calls in their order ahead, before we’ve even opened.


“I’ve got it!” I shout at the phone, as if it can hear me. I put down my bowl of rice and get the phone call in time.

“Heeell-loooo! Lucky Star! How may I help you?”

There’s silence on the other end of the line. “Hello?”

“Me wan the noo-doo pwease! Hahaha!”

Oh great. Him again. I slam the phone down angrily and rush back to the kitchen and the tenderness of the family meal.

“Who was that? Order, mui?” Dad asks.

I shake my head and carry on eating, lifting the bowl closer and using my chopsticks to scoop grains of rice into my mouth. Dad can sense something is wrong. Without saying a word, he slips a piece of lap cheong into my bowl and nods at me: it’s a signal that everything is going to be OK.

Takeaway: Stories From a Childhood Behind the Counter by Angela Hui is published on 21 July by Orion at £16.99. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

July 16, 2022 at 06:06PM Angela Hui

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