Restaurants have only been open for outdoor dining in London for a couple of days, but Susie Lau has already been to Chinatown twice in the same week.
We’re standing outside Golden Phoenix as the Gerrard Street pavement heaves with diners, and Lau – also known as Susie Bubble to her fans – is trying to hustle the floor manager for an order of taro puffs amidst the chaos. But as her friend and photographer Kit Lee and I wait from a safe distance, she slinks out of the restaurant, defeated. “He scolded me for getting in the way,” she laughs. “I’m glad some things haven’t changed”.
One of the original fashion bloggers, Lau started her blog, Style Bubble, back in 2006 in the early days of the pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram internet as we know it. Quickly ascending the ranks as a respected journalist and figure in the global fashion world, she’s known for routinely covering fashion weeks in her own incisive, inimitable style, shining a light on new designers, and speaking frankly on topics that the rest of the industry can often shy away from.
But before that, London-born Lau grew up in restaurants, working at her parents’ takeaway in Camden and waitressing at their restaurant, and spent her formative years visiting Chinatown’s then-numerous Cantonese cafes like HK Diner, Old Town 97, and Cafe TPT. “I grew up in Camden above a Chinese takeaway which my parents ran,” she says. “It was called Bamboo Kitchen and became a dumpling and noodle bar which was part of a chain called New Culture Revolution, which my whole family ran.”
For Lau, as for many people from East and South East Asian (ESEA) backgrounds, Chinatown has always been a focal point. With her entire family working in restaurants (Lau herself also co-owns We Are Dot Dot, a bubble tea and waffle spot in Stoke Newington, along with friend Yandis Ying) and her family background stretching back to the 70s, her roots in the area run deeper than most.
Her knowledge of the neighbourhood – “Chinatown gossip”, as she affectionately calls it – is impeccable, as she darts through Gerrard Street traffic when we meet, calling out who runs what, who owes a favour to whom, and where she and her family like to eat. Her food knowledge of the area is also as comprehensive as anyone I’ve ever spoken to.
“Supporting businesses post-Covid to get them back on their feet is I think super crucial and to respect those food cultures. I do think that is the easiest form of allyship, no?”
Lau’s London-born Chinese identity has also been a key differentiator, first as she initially navigated the notoriously connections-led fashion industry as an outsider, and now as one of the most visible – and vocal – leaders in campaigning against anti-Asian racism. Notably, she organised under the #StopAsianHate hashtag online to speak out against the rising tide of anti-Asian and anti-ESEA racism in the US and UK with fellow industry leaders like Allure editor Michelle Lee, designers Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung, and Eva Chen.
As Chinatown struggles to get back on its feet and instances of anti-Asian racism show few signs of abating, how can people show up for the neighbourhood and the wider East and South East Asian community? “Supporting businesses post-Covid to get them back on their feet is I think super crucial,” she explains. “And to respect those food cultures. But also, for everyone else as well. I do think that is the easiest form of allyship, no? Going to eat Chinese food, that’s the easiest thing!”
“I think for Chinese and ESEA communities in the UK, the businesses here take on a greater significance in terms of wanting to protect them,” she continues. “For instance, when [Japanese patisserie] Kova was defaced, people really jumped on that and were really super protective of that. And I think now, there is more of an awareness, so if something goes down, there is more of a collective impetus to raise awareness and make sure those businesses can recover.”
The following are Lau’s go-to Chinatown favourites and regular spots. If you’re making a day of a visit or stopping through – you’re in for a treat.
Dumplings at Jen Café
We meet at the site of the old pagoda in Newport Court – now the vast new Eastern courtyard – and begin proceedings with a visit to Jen Café, unmistakeable for its vivid green façade.
Lau likes this no-frills spot for its juicy pork dumplings. While some prefer theirs pan-fried for extra crispiness, she prefers hers fresh from the hot water. “They were the first guys in Chinatown to have someone wrapping dumplings – it has a vibe that’s similar to a cha chaan teng, which is sort of like a Hong Kong caff. They were around before HK Diner – that was on the corner near the cash machine,” she says. // 4-8 Newport Pl, WC2H 7JP
Taro Croquettes at Golden Phoenix
After the uncle at Golden Phoenix finally accepts our order, Lau smiles in anticipation of her favourite dim sum. “So we used to go to different places for dim sum,” she recalls. “Loon Fung was a family favourite, as was New World before it closed. And Phoenix is a more recent family favourite, because my great aunt who used to be involved with the Chinese Exchange would like meeting us there.”
“It’s not the most obvious favourite for dim sum, but my personal favourite are the taro croquettes – when my mum bites into one, she literally has a slightly orgasmic face,” she laughs. “So she’s sort of passed it on to me.” // 37-38 Gerrard Street, W1D 5QB
Roast Duck at Four Seasons
Many have sung the praises of this roast duck specialist, and Lau is no exception. “Well, it’s just a classic isn’t it?,” she laughs. “It’s what everyone defers to. But they are pretty much the best, I think. That roast meat is something that’s very hard to do at home.”
She orders a platter of roast duck and siu yuk (crispy roast pork) to go, and we find a spot around the corner to perch to take pictures before digging in. “When you see how Cantonese roast meats are made behind the scenes, which I have done in places in Hong Kong,” she says, “it’s like a real art form.”
“When you see how Cantonese roast meats are made behind the scenes, it’s like a real art form.”
When I ask her to settle a well-known argument about which roast duck she prefers between Four Seasons and Gold Mine, another revered specialist, she politely declines to choose a winner. “Gold Mine – see, I like their roast meats, but I like them more for their homestyle dishes, what we could call family dinner-style dishes. So, I like going as a group and ordering a bunch of dishes, and roast meats was always a part of it.” // 12 Gerrard St, W1D 5PR
Homestyle Cantonese dishes at Café TPT
“Ah! TPT,” Lau grins. “It’s got teenage memories for me. If I wanted to splurge when I was a teen and have a ‘real’ meal I’d go to TPT, and when times were tough, I’d go to [Old Town] 97 for a roast meat and rice plate or ho fun.”
Lau and I had talked excitedly about Café TPT, a dai pai dong-style café on Wardour Street, before we had even agreed to meet. Unfortunately, as with most of the past 12 months, the restaurant remained shut when we visited, and its status remains one of considerable anxiety to Chinatown-watchers.
But her enthusiasm for the place remains undampened: “It’s for the real deal homestyle cooking, claypot dishes, braised tofu, lots of braised dishes. Things that are legitimately what your mum might cook for you at home,” she enthuses. “And it’s all about that menu that’s on the wall in Chinese – the secret Chinese menu,” she chuckles. “It’s not so secret – it’s up on the wall – and they do translate it for people.”
“So TPT – I will you to open up again.” // 21 Wardour St, W1D 6PN
Char Siu and Custard Buns at Bun House
A relative newcomer to the area, the chic Bun House (and Wun’s, its sister bar and restaurant on Old Compton Street) has already built a loyal clientele amongst younger visitors to Chinatown. Lau praises their steamed Cantonese-style bao for their flavour and awards them bonus points for innovation.
“They’ve been really clever with their décor and tapping into the Wong Kar Wai aesthetic, which I love. I stan for that,” she smiles. “It’s very old school – they’re tapping into that 1960s nostalgia of Hong Kong in the furnishings, and the way the menu’s done and the drinks are very old school Hong Kong.”
“It’s a really good snack and an entry level into Chinatown,” she says. “Which I think is a positive thing. Whether it’s bubble tea or fried chicken or buns, it’s visible and if they don’t want to decipher menus or they don’t have an Asian friend to go with them to help them decipher menus, then I think it’s a positive thing.” // Bun House: 26-27 Lisle St, WC2H 7BA, Wun’s Tea Room: 23 Greek St, W1D 4DZ
Ho Fun and Glutinous Rice Cakes at Lo’s Noodle Factory
A piece of Chinatown from years past, this beloved specialty noodle maker tucked away in an alley is hanging on – just about. Rent disputes have made a move likely, but they remain in place for now. Lau has been frequenting it with her family as long as she can remember, and loves their ho fun noodles and glutinous rice cakes.
“We just call it ‘alleyway place’ in Cantonese,” Lau says. “On the weekends they will also have a vegetable stall there. My mum swears by the veggies – she says the veggies are just much nicer quality. And then the ho fun – it’s always great to have handmade ho fun. I just love that they’ve been there forever – well, for as long as I’ve been living.”
“Their glutinous rice cakes used to be such a treat for us. My daughter loves them.” // 6 Dansey Pl, W1D 6EZ
Xiaolongbao at Shanghai Modern
One of two slick, modern restaurants in the shiny new Newport Court development on the site of the former pagoda, this Shanghainese restaurant is evidence of landlord Shaftesbury’s ambitions with the neighbourhood. It’s become a regular stop for Lau since it opened, mainly for their soup dumplings.
“Because Din Tai Fung – which I love as well, you know, it’s a golden standard – is always so busy, if I want that XLB fix I’ll just go to Shanghai Modern,” she says. // 12 Newport Pl, WC2H 7PR
Literally anything at SeeWoo
We finish at supermarket SeeWoo to grab some much-needed refreshment and to grab a few things before heading our separate ways.
“I’m really addicted to those herbal sweet teas, Chinese ones in particular,” she says. “So, in Paris, because the Chinatowns are a bit out of the way and I tend to stay for fashion week in the centre, I’d go on Deliveroo and find a Chinese restaurant and order ten of them to stock up my hotel fridge. But at a very inflated price,” she laughs. “I remember my boyfriend at the time was just laughing… he was in disbelief actually, at how much I was able to spend on this drink that he thought wasn’t that nice. I was like, ‘if you don’t get it, you just don’t get it.’”
“I probably have rocked up front row with a can of Wong Lo Kat,” she chuckles. “One day I’ll go with a Xi’an burger in my hand while watching a show.” // 18-20 Lisle St, WC2H 7BA
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