Philip Chan

Chinatown restaurateur


Philip Hsi Ning Chan, restaurateur: born Nanking, China 10 May 1935; married 1974 Annie Choong (two sons, one daughter); died Manchester 28 August 2006.

The restaurateur Philip Chan was one of the culinary pioneers of London's Chinatown, and also established Chinatown's first welfare association at the end of the Sixties.

He was born in Nanking in 1935, the youngest of four children. The Chan family left China for Hong Kong in 1949, and then moved to England in the late Fifties. Philip studied architecture in London, before joining his father and his brother Billings in their London restaurant business. At this time, Soho's Chinatown barely existed, and it was laundry, not restaurants, that was the mainstay of employment. Until the first Chinese food emporium (the Hong Kong) opened in 1959, authentic ingredients were virtually impossible to come by. The Chan family's China Emporium opened on Rupert Street in the same year, along with their China restaurant in Marble Arch.

In 1962 Philip Chan opened the House of Chan restaurant in the Strand. Soon afterwards, he took over the "La Valbon" night-club in Regent Street, where the pop star David Essex was one of the club's regular crooners. In 1969, Chan set up a welfare association, in the Seven Dials in Covent Garden, to provide the rapidly expanding local community with a Chinese-language library, a film and music society, kung fu classes and medical and legal help.

It was in the early 1970s that Chan made the discovery that established his reputation in the Chinese restaurant world. He had learned to fly and was piloting a light aircraft over north Lincolnshire, when he spotted a farm full of white birds. Flying down to take a closer look, he saw a huge duck farm and an idea began to form in his mind.

Back on the ground he drove up to the farm and put a proposition to the owners. He would give them the know-how to process their ducks in such a way that they could be used to make perfect Cantonese Roast Duck, and the farm would supply the whole of Chinatown. The farm, Cherry Valley, already had the perfect Pekin breed; the process he suggested essentially involved raising the temperature of the water in which the birds were submerged before they were plucked. The increase in water temperature and an improved method of mechanical plucking enabled them to prepare the ideal duck for Cantonese roasting.

At that time not a single Chinese restaurant in England had the ducks we now see hanging in every window. Typical of Philip Chan, it was a verbal agreement sealed with a handshake that was to change all that - an arrangement that lasted until Chan's retirement in 1995.

Chang Hing, the company he formed to supply the ducks, was a huge success and soon expanded to Manchester and Paris. But he was often tempted to push the limits of what was possible. Some of his experiments turned out to be huge successes. He was one of the first people in England to successfully grow Chinese greens such as bak choi and choi sum from his farms in Essex and Suffolk. Other experiments were less auspicious. There was an elaborate greenhouse the size of an aircraft hanger he constructed to produce winter melon - a Chinese delicacy. He managed it. But, out of the whole crop, only one survived.

These failed experiments never stopped Chan's researching into more difficult and obscure areas of agriculture, especially in marine biology. He successfully set up shrimp farms in Gambia and Tunisia and bred rare freshwater fish in China. One of the more bizarre ideas he had was to farm abalone in the middle of the ocean. Another was to use the warm pools of water generated by nuclear reactors to breed exotic strains of carp.

In the mid-Seventies, he bought a stake in Lee Ho Fook - the Gerrard Street restaurant that was widely regarded, especially by visiting Hong Kong Chinese, who made it their first destination from the plane, as the best restaurant in town. Roast duck, unsurprisingly, was its signature dish.

Outside his restaurant business, he was passionate in his study of Chinese philosophy and spent hours reading the I Ching and other classic texts. He was guided by the teachings of Taoism, a philosophy that finds strength in gentleness and counsels us to overcome the will towards confrontation.

Tim Cumming

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