Eric in the Chinese Restaurant he runs in Poplar.
CultureLife & living

This is Home: Chinese in Poplar

In our series celebrating the diversity of Tower Hamlets, we spoke to Eric from Beijing. Now running a Chinese restaurant in Poplar we talked about the importance of food to Chinese people, growing up in a changing China, and his love for the East End.

The first thing Eric does when I enter is to offer me a cup of tea and biscuits. 

He quickly produces a pot of tea and gently pours a Chinese green tea into two small handless white cups. The Chinese tea stands in stark contrast to the bowl of Fox’s biscuits, found all over the UK. 

This juxtaposition, Chinese and British, seems to summarize Eric. 

As we chat in a mix of Mandarin Chinese and English before starting the interview, he explains how he was born in Beijing and moved to the UK as a young adult. When asked about how long he has spent in the U.K he replied with a laugh “I came to the UK when I was young, and now I am old”.

He remarks on my punctuality. I said I would come at 3 pm and I arrived at 3 pm. This is something he likes about Britain: people are, more often than not, on time. In China, he reminisces, lateness is far more typical. If you say to meet at 3 pm, you’d expect to wait a lot later.

What was it like, growing up in China when you were young? What is your favorite memory from China?

Well, a lot of good memories. I think, because when the people were younger, they’re always thinking about a time when you’d have a festival or have some sort of event happening. You can receive a lot of gifts from maybe older generations, and they enjoy some time off from school.

For me, personally, it was a good time for China. It was a few years after the Cultural Revolution. Everybody had strong momentum no matter whether they were a governor or even the normal people. 

Everyone was trying to get good things, thoughts from the West, and economic growth. It was like a new spring. Everything was revitalised, trying to get a good life. 

I was lucky that I was able to grow up in that golden age in China. 

It was much more liberal, in work or as a teacher you could openly show your opinion. But now if I think like, that’s a good window of time. It was something very rare.

Because I was young, I didn’t appreciate that very much, but now looking back, those years were so promising. 

Why did you move to Poplar?

Well, primarily, initially I will say, is for the business, because the shop is here. Many years ago, I did live in the Isle of Dogs, so I’m not completely unfamiliar with the area. I knew a little bit of the area before I even came here. 

I lived there from 2005-2009. That’s more than four years. I used to work in The City at a bank. I found it easy to commute, going back it was just a place to sleep, I barely had time to explore the local area.

I came [to Poplar] for business, to work this job. At least initially I didn’t have personal feelings associated with the area. I came here in quite a random way. 

And why open a Chinese restaurant in Poplar?

Traditionary Tower Hamlets is heavily migrants, historically from Europe, or from the Middle East or Africa and China. Now a lot from like South Asia. You feel here has the highest density of the Chinese population in Tower Hamlets and so naturally Chinese, no matter whether they’re born here, or they moved here for work or family or for whatever the reason. Proportionally, there must be a lot of people who still enjoy the authentic food.

So you’re from China, but you’ve been living in the UK for a long time now. Do you think it’s important to you to be able to have that authentic Chinese food?

Well, this is one question I would like to answer. 

Yes, this is absolutely true. Even if you live here or worked here; to the subconscious, physically, this is undeniable. It’s about your body. In Chinese there’s a good saying: Min yi shi wei tian [民以食为天] Have you heard about that? The food is a king or it’s more important than the king. This is one aspect of Chinese. They love food. 

Chinese people live to eat.

Other than food, how do you keep close to your culture?

Seasonal festivals. 

In China many festivals are related to the four seasons. In the Chinese calendar, you can see it clearly. Before they were often about gods or nature. They normally related to the nature because before all the culture in China was agricultural culture. 

But as time goes on, they gradually get more abstract. Now it’s more like people use that time to get together. 

The next one will be Chinese New Year or Spring Festival. Around Spring Festival family and friends will reunite, get together. They will have food together, and show close family relations and bring good luck for the year. 

In northern China, people come together to make dumplings and make a lot of noise with fireworks. Or make a lot of noise with fireworks to scare away monsters on New Years Eve. 

As a Chinese person myself, I take it very importantly. All of these traditional ones, they are in Chinese DNA.

Do you enjoy spending time in Tower Hamlets?

Of course! Now I am happy. I have a lot of time to explore the area, including something I ignored many years ago, the Isle of Dogs. There are so many, if you look into detail, because I have been here for many years, attractive things. The Docklands, traditionally used to be a lot of sailors and a base of the labor party… now you can see a lot of cultural and historical things. Once you walk along a street you will find plaques and signs introducing what happened there. Not just the Isle of Dogs, but across Tower Hamlets. 

If you look, it’s not just a dull area with tall office buildings and housing, there are so many interesting things.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you can also read: Chinese Association of Tower Hamlets: ping pong, calligraphy and tai-chi for a new generation of East End Chinese

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