“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

William Empson and a little more on London’s Chinese Restaurants in the 1930s

Posted: December 29th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Following on from my post about the London Chinese restaurant scene of the 1930s yesterday. Post two looks at some bohemian types out for a Chinese in the London of the 1930s.

The poet, academic and long time China sojourner William Empson (who sadly often gets left of the roll call of prominent foreigners to have resided in Beijing though is still remembered in some places – see my post on his blue plaque in London) reveals a little of London’s 1930s Chinese restaurant culture in his diaries and letters. In February 1936, the artist Julian Trevelyan and his wife Ursula, TS Eliot, and William Empson dined out at the Shanghai Restaurant in Greek Street, Soho – a favourite of literary types apparently. Eliot was vivacious and loquacious that evening remembers Trevelyan.


Now the Shanghai Restaurant is interesting and a bit of a mystery. The notorious London Chinese Brilliant Chang (no time to discuss him in detail here but his life is summarised here or in Anne Witchard’s Lao She in London or Marek Kohn’s excellent short book Dope Girls) did, for at least a while, run a restaurant called the Shanghai that (I thought) was on Piccadilly or on Regent Street in the 1920s.

So here’s the mystery – it seems Empson (above) might have recalled the restaurant as on Greek where the Shanghai Restaurant was opposite the Canton Restaurant, as the newspaper article below indicates. The same article had a restaurant called “Chinese” in Piccadilly run by a Mr Chang Choy since 1909 (too early and not the right Chang to be Brilliant Chang I think). Can anyone clear this up – have we confused Brilliant Chang’s Shanghai Restaurant with the Greek Street one (hardly far from Piccadilly)? And when did Chang’s restaurant close?

The Queenslander newspaper noted in 1932:

Returning, we take the narrows of Meard Street, across Frith Street into Greek Street, where we come out by the Canton Restaurant, a ground floor with windows full of Chinese delicacies. Almost opposite is the Shanghai, which shares with the “Chinese” in Piccadilly the honour of having been one of the first to open on this foreign shore. The “Shanghai” is much frequented by literary folk, and has been “mentioned more than once in the public prints.” Only the old archway of the Manette Street hostelry divides the Shanghai restau rant from the large provision shop recently opened under the same management.

( LONDON’S CHINESE RESTAURANTS. The Queenslander July 21st 1932)

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2 Comments on “William Empson and a little more on London’s Chinese Restaurants in the 1930s”

  1. 1 Natasha de Chroustchoff said at 10:32 pm on February 26th, 2017:

    Hallo Paul French
    I only today discovered your very interesting blog through googling The Shanghai Restaurant. My father was a regular customer from the 1920s through the 30s, along with his many ‘Bohemian’ friends who included William Empson and other writers, artists and composers of the time. He (Boris de Chroustchoff) and his second wife, my mother, became personal friends of the Cheng family, held them in great affection and remained in touch with them until the 1950s, even to the extent of being invited to daughter Frances’ post-war wedding. My father’s well-used copy of the cookery book is signed by SK Cheng himself and has an inscription or dedication in Chinese (which I cannot read!) to my father.
    I also still possess a number of beautiful serving dishes that came from the Emporium, menus (possibly, or they may have gone now) and many recipes etc. that my father took down from Mr Cheng who always gave him personal attention and a special menu. The crockery was used by my father throughout his life when cooking and serving Chinese food and I am delighted to say it is still in service as my elder son, though born long after his grandfather’s death, has inherited his passion for Chinese cookery and creates outstanding meals using authentic ingredients and recipes.

    I can confirm that The Shanghai was known to its aficionados as Cheng’s, not Chang’s.

  2. 2 Paul French said at 7:04 pm on February 27th, 2017:

    how wonderful – thank you for sharing

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