Most of the early Chinese arrived as seamen, after the treaties of Nanking in 1842 and Peking in 1860 opened up China to British trade. However, their population in Britain remained very small. In 1871 it was recorded as 207, and as 1,319 in 1911.The 1991 Census put the number of Chinese in Britain at 156,938.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the second half of the 19th Century, came after China’s defeat in the Opium Wars and, as with the lascars, were mainly seamen. They jumped ship in Britain and settled in the port cities of Liverpool, Cardiff and London and as the new century dawned, the movement away from the docks to the cities into first laundries then catering began. The earliest arrivals were often associated with the East India Company and settled in the East End in general and Limehouse in particular by 1880’s.

By 1913 there were thirty shops and cafes for Chinese people in Pennyfield and Limehouse Causeway although this ‘mini boom’ was to decline rapidly by the 1930’s as shipping slumped.

By the 1950’s the Chinese community began to focus on Soho in London for the theatre trade and when diplomatic relations standardised in 1950, several Mandarin speaking former diplomats opened Peking-style restaurants.

This movement continued and by the 1960’s Soho had become London’s Chinatown and the flow outward to the suburbs and elsewhere started where costs were much cheaper. The first Chinese restaurants in London were opened by Charlie Cheung in the East End but, more importantly, by Chung Koon, a former ship’s chef on the Red Funnel Line who had settled in London and married an English girl. He opened the very smart Maxim’s in Soho in 1908 and soon after, The Cathay in Glasshouse Street which became a Japanese establishment in 1996 which Koon would have hated.

Even though, there were fewer than 5000 Chinese in Britain up until the War and it was not until after the Second World War that Chinese food gained any real popularity fostered by American servicemen taking English girls to The Cathay supported by returning British servicemen with a taste for Oriental food acquired during overseas postings. It is said that even General de Gaulle had to seek out The Cathay to get away from an Anglo-Saxon diet.

Chung Koon’s son John, was born in 1926 and took over The Cathay in 1957. He opened the first real up-market Chinese restaurant, Lotus House in 1958. Such was the demand for his food that John Koon then did the un-heard of and launched the first ever Chinese takeaway in London’s Queensway and followed it up by convincing Billy Butlin to open a Chinese kitchen in every Butlins Holiday Camp with a simple menu of Chicken Chop Suey and Chips. The Chinese quickly adopted the takeaway principle as well as the British love for fish and chips and soon most small villages and towns had their Chinese takeaway which doubled as a fish and chip shop.

Britain had no history of colonial contact in China and Japan except for Hong Kong, so much of the post war influence was from America until the Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1962 introduced the ‘voucher system’.The boom in demand in Britain for dining out was fuelled by the new-found consumer wealth in the Middle Class and Chinese food spread all over Britain until today there are over 7600 outlets turning over £1.7 billion a year and the Chinese population has grown to 157,000.

The breakthrough came in 1951 when the British government finally recognised Mao's communist regime. The decision left the staff of the Chinese Embassy, regarded as functionaries of the now defunct Nationalist government, with a dilemma. They could not return to China, but they also needed new jobs. Catering was the way out. The embassy kitchens had chefs. The diplomats - among them one Kenneth Lo - were a resourceful lot. Together they went to work.

It wasn't until the late 1950s and the arrival of the Hong Kong Emporium on London's Rupert Street that better ingredients became available in Britain. In 1963 the now communist Chinese Embassy once again gave the business a boost when a group of Chinese restaurateurs managed to convince the ambassador's chef, a Mr Kuo from Beijing, to defect. They set him up with his own restaurant, the Kuo Yuan in North West London, and it soon became a huge hit, not least because he was serving the first Pekinese dishes Britain had ever seen, including Peking Duck.

In the south, Choy’s in Kings Road, London SW3 was one of the pioneers, opening in 1937 and Old Friends in Commercial Road, E14 opened in the 1950’s followed by Good Friends in Salmon Lane E14 in 1962 and Young Friends E14 in the late 1960’s. Poon & Co in WC2 also opened in the late 1960’s and Empire Palace in Chelmsford in Essex dates back to 1963.

In 1968, a hair salon designer called Michael Chow opened Mr Chow in Knightsbridge, soon frequented by the likes of Mick Jagger, Marlene Dietrich and the Beatles, Chinese food was finally established as a staple of British life.

In the Midlands and North, The New Happy Gathering in Station Street was the first Cantonese to open in Birmingham in 1970 and Ping On in Deanhaugh Street is the oldest Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh.

There could have been a new surge of immigration from Hong Kong in 1997 when it was handed back to China, with 50,000 families being entitled to move to Britain but the influx was minimal although a considerable flow of investment funds was evident.

Today there is a huge range of Chinese restaurants for the public to enjoy from the simple Hong Kong style that has been successful for so many years, to the smart, modern restaurants opening in Britain’s cities.


There were only some 5,000 Thai people in Britain in 1996 so it is not surprising that the cuisine has not swamped the market despite is rapid growth in popularity. One of the main reasons for growth in interest in Thai cuisine has been the growing numbers of British tourists going to Thailand which grew to 102,209 in 1986 and further to 300,000 by 1996.

The first Thai restaurant in London was The Bangkok in Bute Street SW7 which opened in 1967 followed by The Siam in St Albans Grove off Kensington High Street in 1970 and the owner Mudita Karnasuta, then opened Busabong in Fulham Road and Loy Krathong in Newcastle plus Thai Orchid in Northumberland, all since sold. Her daughter and main figure in the Thai Restaurateurs Association, Mini Chutrakul-Gosling then opened Busabong Too and Busabong Tree alongside the River Thames and sold the former to her mother who opened The Hamilton Arms in 1991.

S&P Thai followed in Fulham Road in 1973 but the real boom came in the eighties. Saigon in Frith Street W1 opened in 1984 and the benchmark for quality and success came with the opening of The Blue Elephant in Fulham Broadway SW5 in 1986. Mantanah Thai opened in SE25 in 1988 as did Tamnag Thai on West Hill SE19 followed by Sang Thai in Glentworth Street NW1 in 1989.

Today there are over 600 Thai restaurants throughout Britain and numbers are growing healthily, especially in public houses, who have been quick to recognise the attractions of the simple, healthy cuisine. Thai restaurants such as Blue Elephant and Yum Yum Thai in Stoke Newington are now considered amongst the top restaurants in London showing how far the cuisine has come in just over thirty years.


Japanese presence in Britain dates from after the Second World War and there has been very little demand for Japanese cuisine by other than the Japanese community and tourists until the last decade of the twentieth century.

The first Japanese restaurant to open was The Ajimura in Shelton Street WC2 in 1972 and even thirty years later there were still only 150 or so. The 1991 Census showed there to be just 25,000 Japanese in Britain and most of these live around London giving rise to a figure of 83% of Japanese restaurants being located in London and the South East.

Interest in Japanese food has grown considerably in the last decade bringing the appearance of new restaurants in other cities but the numbers are likely to remain small. Sushi and Ramen (noodle) Bars are the latest trend to appear.

Malaysian/Indonesian cuisine has been available in London for over thirty years but, once again the numbers are very small - some 100 outlets, 71% of which are in London - based on a population of just 10,000.

Vietnamese cuisine is a relative newcomer to Britain and was boosted by the 20,000 refugees from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the US troop withdrawal. The population has settled down to around 14,000 now, 54% of whom live in London and 77% of the 30 restaurants are in London and the South East.

Korean restaurants have blossomed in the past ten years or so due to the presence of a considerable Korean community working in Britain, mainly in the electronics and computer-allied industries. There are presently 40 Korean restaurants in Britain but almost all of these (91%) are in London and the South East.