Behind the facade of Yming, the iconic blue building on Greek Street and Soho’s oldest Chinese restaurant, is its inspiring owner Christine Yau. Voted The Mulan Award winner for Community Woman of the Year, as well as taking on the role of Vice President of the London Chinatown Chinese Association. Iram Khawaja and Kesh Wang took the opportunity to find out about her 35 year history in this neck of the woods.
“I Started the restaurant by mistake…”
Christine has an adventurous spirit which is evident in how she came to run Yming. She arrived in London 35 years ago and bumped into two friends who convinced her to partner together and buy a restaurant. That was the introduction to Yming in 1986. However, her partners fell out after a few months. “I was quite stubborn being a woman and thought I can’t let this fail within one year. So I stayed on while they left; it was very tough and quite a journey.” Christine took sole ownership, deciding to be brave and carry on despite not knowing anything about Soho or the people there. Though that soon changed.
Christine’s Chinese heritage didn’t automatically put her in the same business circles as her Chinatown peers. “It was a man’s world, they didn’t want to mix too much with women or let them interfere. There was strong resentment towards a woman who tried to be one of them.” she recalls.
But relationships changed and grew stronger over time. This initial division however allowed Christine to meet other people of Soho and get involved with the wider community.
Christine volunteered with The Soho Society, and worked with the metropolitan police to launch a Chinese Victim Support Scheme. Christine also started the Chinatown Renewal partnership with Westminster Council in 2003, where they focussed on repaving Gerrard Street, along with other improvements.
Eventually Christine did join the Chinese association where she was involved in organising the first London public event in Trafalgar Square; the Chinese New Year celebrations in 2003 which have become a major annual event for Londoners and tourists. She was also behind the building and designing of the traditional Chinese Gate in Wardour Street when the new leader of China visited England.
Thinking outside the box of Chinese food
As well as achieving an enviable work-life balance, running Yming has become an essential part of Christine’s daily routine. When she first started out in the 1980s, Chinese cuisine in Chinatown all looked roughly the same: meat and fish doused in black bean and oyster sauce, with most menus including dishes such as sweet and sour pork, and crispy duck. “It was more Cantonese village food, like home cooking,” Christine explained. Unbeknownst to many at the time, menus in China had always been diverse, with cuisines in stark contrast to each other across many different provinces.
Christine devised a menu based on northern Beijing food as she thought it would be the culinary style that would work the best. Devising the menu was a long painstaking process – it was sent to a friend in Hong Kong who then sent it to Beijing for the mother of the friend to check, then re-checked by neighbours and local restaurants for authenticity and accuracy. “It came back and I got 75-80% right with [those] suggestions.” And when the menu came out with dishes such as Mongolian lamb, it confused many in the London food scene. “When people first visited, they couldn’t understand. Even food writers at that time couldn’t understand. There was a sense of curiosity by food writers and that’s how I started building my business slowly,” Christine recalls with a fond chuckle as she took us through the photo album of past customers – an array of household names – journalists, food writers, actors including Colin Firth, the late John Hurt, Charles Dance, and philosopher AC Grayling. “It hasn’t been updated for a long time!”
Ying and Yang
Since Yming was first launched it has enjoyed huge popularity. To Christine, food is not just food, it is vital to the a existence of a person.“It affects your mentality, it affects your health and health affects your outlook in life,” Christine notes with seriousness. “And the Yin and Yang come into this. [In Chinese culture] we believe in Yin and Yang because everybody is built differently. Sometimes you’re stronger with certain elements, so you have to pick the kind of food that will soothe the fire inside you.” Yin being the feminine and Yang being the masculine life forces, it is apparent that the owner of Yming believes in the esoteric healing power of food, and she has brought this passion into running her restaurant.
2021, ‘Y’ not Ming?”
2021 marks the year of the Ox in the Chinese calendar. Uncertainty still lingers due to the global pandemic. However, Christine remains hopeful for the “old glorious days” to come back. Being a Lamb, a zodiac sign just as hardworking as the Ox, she is aware things are never easy in life – “you really have to fight for it,”. At the same time Christine is staying optimistic that things will go back to normal eventually. When asked where she drew the inspiration for the name Yming from, Christine simply answers: “When people ask me why do you call it Yming, I will say ‘Y’ not Ming?” she concludes with a confident smile.
Visit YMING this season
Yming re-opens this *December for the first time since its temporary closure following the announcement of the first lockdown. Christine and head of house, manager William are looking forward to welcoming regular and new customers to Yming. There’s a newly curated All Day set menu which includes options of Cauliflower Y Ming Style (V), Hot and Sour Soup, and Spare Ribs as starters. Followed by main options of Mr Edward Pork, Empress Beef, Dry Cooked Beans (V) to name a few, served with a glass of wine or procecco for £18.
This article was originally published in our winter issue. *Yming re-opened briefly before Tier 4 lockdown was announced in December.
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