The Brutal Truth About Growing Up In A Chinese Takeaway

Takeaway author Angela Hui reflects on her complicated relationship with her upbringing and the important life lessons she wouldn’t change for all the world.

by Angela Hui
Shana Novak, Antagain, magnetcreative, belterz/Getty Images

“Aw, thank you love. Here’s £20, keep the change,” a customer says to me, handing me a crisp note over the counter. “You’re a good kid.” I put on my biggest smile and recite the lines I’ve been taught by my parents, “Thank you so much. I hope you enjoy the food and please come again soon!” I’m eight years old and I’m sporting a wonky bowl-cut, standing on a small blue folding stool in our Chinese takeaway in the South Wales Valleys. I struggle to reach the counter as I hand over two white plastic bags of Chinese food and a two litre bottle of Coca Cola. This taught me how to have better people skills and how to communicate with others in a calm, cool, and collected manner.

I’m thirteen now and old enough to man the deep fat-fryer. I plunge chicken balls into the bubbling hot oil below. The pool of amber liquid sputters and spits, sending flecks of searing oil flying into the air, branding my skin and only narrowly missing my eye. This taught me how to put on a brave face, stand my ground, and be fearless.

I come home after a day of university lectures and it’s another busy Friday night of service; an endless stream of orders flooding in. Dad rocks his heavy wok back and forth over a roaring, flaming wok ring, scooping shredded crispy beef into a silver container with his spatula. Mum grabs a poly lid and presses down the four corners. I grab a white plastic bag hanging from the silver island and begin bagging it all up. My older brother takes the order out to the customer, while my oldest brother brings in more paper tickets to restart the whole process all over again. We’re in a production line working against the clock, trying to fulfil back-to-back orders. This taught me to value my co-workers, the importance – and efficiency – of good teamwork.

Courtesy of Angela Hui
Courtesy of Angela Hui
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These were the jobs that takeaway kids like me, who lived and worked in the same building, did. We did it out of love and necessity, not because we wanted to. I never had a job doing paper rounds, waitressing, or – most enviable of all – working in retail. I was always so jealous of the cool kids who wore plaid shirts, spray-on skinny black jeans, and ballerina pumps to work, effortlessly gliding around the new Topshop in town; holding clothes hangers in one hand and answering the store manager on the little radio attached to their hip with the other. The girls in my school boasted about the perks, too – 25% off everything – while I got scars, work clothes stained with curry sauce, and the odd bag of free prawn crackers (if my parents were feeling generous).

I never considered our family business an “actual” place of work, it was just home and this is what we did. Truth be told, I always perceived our Chinese takeaway as lesser than: not as official as a restaurant chain, not as legitimate as a cafe; our shop a pokey project. I got paid cash in hand, never on a payroll, let alone with benefits. I never had a work email address, and we certainly didn’t have any office parties. But that was the way things were. We all put the Chinese takeaway before ourselves and our own needs. I look back on those memories (even the painful ones) with immense nostalgia. There were times I hated my upbringing, hated the family business, the dynamics of living and working together, but looking back now I realise it taught me the most valuable life lessons of all. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was learning how to deal with money and people, how to problem solve on the go, and how to stay two steps ahead, while still being a team player. All skills and experience I would need and rely on in the future.

Courtesy of Angela Hui

I am just one of many of thousands of second-generation immigrant kids who grew up in their family’s food business. I can still recite the numbers of our most popular takeaway dishes with ease. I can still feel all the coarse chapped cuts on my thumbs from pressing down too many poly lids on silver containers. I remember the pain of standing on my feet for 14 hours straight, my jelly legs threatening to give way. But the thing is, our first jobs, no matter how ridiculous they seem at the time, will always stay with us. My parents wanted us to know how hard money was to earn, and that opportunities did not come easy to people like us. But the lessons I learnt from the takeaway also shaped the person I am today. I always felt that our shop was a burden rather than a blessing, but now I see it the other way round. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Takeaway: Stories From a Childhood Behind the Counter by Angela Hui is published by Orion and out now