Building is well under way on Sheffield’s official Chinatown, New Era Square, just over 100 years since the first known Chinese businessman, Percy Wong, opened his laundry at 90 Abbeydale Road. It was probably his brother Harry who had a similar business on Ecclesall Road.
Percy and Harry didn’t have that many compatriots in Sheffield. The Chinese population was tiny. The first record of the Chinese here dates back to 1855 when, according to the burial register of the old St Paul’s Church (where the Peace Gardens now are), A Chow, son of magician Too Ki, was interred.
These days the city’s Chinese population runs into thousands, not only locally born residents but students at the two universities. And, according to Percy and Harry’s successor, personable businessman Jerry Cheung, the new project could make Sheffield ‘the Chinese capital of Yorkshire.’
He is MD of the group building a £65 million complex containing an oriental supermarket, shops, offices and flats for 700 students, many of them from China. It will be on 86,000 square feet of land between St Mary’s Gate, Bramall Lane and Sheldon Street.The scheme will be paid for by Chinese money.
The site is just off the city’s unofficial Chinatown, London Road. I am not sure how superstitious the Chinese investors are. A Chinese businesswoman once told me Sheffield’s ‘dragon’ propitiously had its spine running along London road, its neck up The Moor and its head in West Street, where coincidentally a number of new oriental restaurants have sprung up to cater for the influx of students. But she could have been pulling my leg.
The Sheffield Star calls the new development Chinatown but that is not a handle Mr Cheung is happy with. He thinks the word is old fashioned and “carries a little bit of history baggage.” He might be a little too PC. Sheffielders will call it that, instead of New Era Square, its official name.
As the project starts in the Year of the Monkey, regarded as street smart animal, it is worth pausing to recall the development of the Chinese community here. Numbers remained low until the mid-50s when there was emigration from Hong Kong, caused by a collapse in the former colony’s farming economy and the realisation there was a growing appetite for Chinese food.
It is generally thought the first local Chinese eatery was the Rickshaw at 1-4 Broomhill Street, established by 1957, which advertised itself as a ‘restaurant and espresso coffee bar’ open every day from 10am until midnight. In a city tragically short of nightlife, it proved popular.
However, the Fung family, who run the Orient Express on Glossop Road, claim a great grandfather who married an English girl opened up the front room of their home in Pitsmoor just after he First World War.
The Fungs also had the upstairs Golden Dragon (now Wong Ting) in Matilda Street, which started around the same time as the downstairs Zing Vaa on The Moor (1958). The two businesses were bitter rivals.
A contributor to the Sheffield History website recalls the Zing Vaa being run by Harry Yun, whose family had the Yun Bun laundry in Heeley. Harry was born in Sheffield and had an accent to match.
‘He had a very good business head and knew that success was all about customer service. His restaurant on The Moor was underground, below one of the shops. He used to stand at the bottom of the stairs, greeting customers as they came in. If he recognised you as a regular visitor, he would greet you in a friendly fashion, saying “Oreyt, owd lad?” The last thing you’d expect from anyone who was obviously Chinese was an out-and-out Sheffield accent.’
In a magazine article a few years ago I estimated, with the help of a local Chinese businessman, that the number of Chinese students in the city was around 7,000. That figure didn’t quite match up with what the two universities were declaring but there were certainly enough to power the new Chinese restaurants and supermarkets which sprang up to serve them, incidentally providing Westerners with a more authentic taste of Chinese food.
Now it is powering a major new development. Another Helping wishes Jerry Cheung, who is thinking very big, the best of good fortune. It’s a Red Monkey year, good for starting a business. Percy and Harry Wong, who didn’t think bigger than washing people’s smalls, would be amazed.
And magician Too Ki would have thought he’d worked magic.