Dishes that Changed Manchester: Sweet & Sour Chicken

Where would the city be without these first Chinese pioneers?

Drew Taylor // Unsplash

I came home from work last night and my wife and her mate were ordering a Chinese takeout, so naturally – I got myself a few little treats to enjoy whilst they watched the atrocious Bratz movie on Netflix.

Quite why Jon Voight decided to be in that movie I don’t know. Perhaps he had a divorce to pay for.

Anyway, that’s not what we’re talking about today, no, we’re going to talk about that Chinese takeout – and how exactly we came to have such a wide range of dishes available to us on an almost 24/7 basis.

Sure, this isn’t a story that’s unique to Manchester alone – but there’s plenty to be told about what kickstarted the whole thing up here.

It’s easy to just assume that Chinese cuisine has always been a part of everyday life here in the UK, with a vast array of restaurants, takeaways and chippy’s dotted all over the place – all serving up some pretty banging Sweet & Sour, Crispy Duck and those (free!?) Prawn Crackers.

Anyway, back to the story. It’s a generally accepted fact that the very first Chinese restaurant here in Manchester was a little place called Ping Hong, which opened up on Mosley Street all the way back in 1949.

It was around this time when the first wave of settlers from China began to arrive, primarily people from Hong Kong who decided to take advantage of a compensation paid to them by the government who wanted to build on their land in the city, and likely erect some futuristic skyscraper or tower block.

With this compensation, thousands of families came over to the UK, taking advantage of the “special relationship” that we had with the territory at the time (i.e. – we OWNED it) with many of them settling down in what was set to become Chinatown in the city centre.

So, as land and slums were being bought and razed to the ground over in Hong Kong, there was also severe labour shortages over here in Blighty – a direct result of World War II. This encouraged the new Labour government to introduce the British Nationality Act of 1948 – which made easier the British citizenship of people from the current or former British Empire ‘colonies’.

Soon enough, these families began to open up Chinese restaurants, with the very first one in the city – Ping Hong – forever grabbing and retaining that very accolade to this day.

By the mid 60’s, a rather horrific Cultural Revolution began in China, which brought even more immigrants over here to escape the persecution and “capitalist and traditional” purges in the country – and as a result – Chinatown positively flourished.

The Chinatown Arch being built in 1986

By this point in time there were many excellent Chinese restaurants in the city and suburbs, primarily serving up a form of Anglo-Chinese food for non-Chinese visitors – and it’s here where many of our favourite dishes made their appearance on menus.

Chop Suey, Chow Mein, Sweet & Sour and deep-fried Dim Sum were all big hitters amongst the British crowd – and still are to this very day.

The Rice Bowl on Cross Street

The oldest (still open) Chinese restaurant in the city is a little place called The Rice Bowl on Cross Street, which has been open and serving since 1955. Wing Lau and his family left Shanghai for England, settling in Liverpool before re-locating to Manchester in 1960 to open up a new restaurant.

Like most of the Chinese restaurants at the time, the menu at The Rice Bowl was primarily Anglicised versions of popular Chinese dishes, with all manner of traditional, local dishes being re-invented for a completely different palate and tastes.

In Manchester, it wasn’t until around the early 70s, when restaurants really began operating solely to cater for a largely Chinese-clientele, with dishes that you’d certainly never see on the menu of your local takeaway.

Restaurants such as Kwok Man, Yang Sing and New Hong Kong began to offer up something that people had never seen before – authentic Cantonese dishes that you’d only ever really see in mainland China – and the city responded in kind to these brand-new offerings.

As people became more adventurous and educated, so did their eating habits, and these Cantonese restaurants began to draw the crowds in with the help of renowned chefs such as Yang Sing’s Harry Yeung who brought his extensive dim sum experience to the city’s hungry public.

Yang Sing’s Harry Yeung

Over the years, the initial families that arrived from Hong Kong were joined by migrants from mainland China, bringing with them more unique dishes, foods and experiences – typically hotter, spicier and in my opinion – much tastier.

The way of eating Chinese dishes also changed, as the Anglicised concept of “one dish per person” has slowly morphed into the way the Chinese like to eat – multiple dishes on the table, with people all tucking in banquet style.

Today, as Manchester’s Chinese community has exploded over the last decade or so, you can still find the old Sweet & Sour Chicken dishes knocking about – I don’t think people’s appetites for it will ever really go away.

Happy Seasons – one of our favourite Chinese restaurants.

But recent years has seen a truly impressive influx of modern Chinese cooking, with the likes of Yang Sing and Tattu leading the way, alongside fiercely traditional offerings, such as Middle Kingdom, Glamourous and Happy Seasons where you’ll find some truly unique offerings aimed squarely at a largely Chinese clientele.

It’s also true that as the years have gone on, the cuisines on offer, especially in Chinatown, have diversified too – bringing in Thai, Japanese, Indonesian and Vietnamese into the mix. The recent arrival of the phenomenal Pho Cue is testament to this, and seen as a reaction to a British public who want to try something new and different.

Pho Cue – outstanding Vietnamese food in Chinatown. Go!

We’ve never had so much choice, and as I sat there on my sofa, tucking into some Beef in OK Sauce, the Bratz getting bullied at school – I was certainly thankful to those early pioneers of Chinese cuisine in the city more than 70 years ago, who came here with nothing and began empires that permeated our everyday lives. I salute you all.

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