Shaftesbury takeaway owner Danny Lai says he is looking forward to his retirement. Last month, he served the last orders of his best sellers – spare ribs and special chow mein from Yuk Wah on Bell Street.
The takeaway occupied a unit in a row of shops which includes the former Bijoux and Willow store and Abbotts Greengrocers. That stretch of Bell Street is being redeveloped.
Danny and his wife Gina have been behind the counter, most days, for 22 years and they’ve taken this opportunity to retire. Danny, a British Citizen, was born in Hong Kong and moved to the UK in 1978 to study for his ‘A’ levels at a college in Rugby, Warwickshire. He took a delivery driver job after completing his exams which led to an opening as a waiter in a Birmingham restaurant.
After Danny got married, he headed north to take up a similar role in Newcastle before branching out with his own restaurant. He worked ‘front of house’ in the business but sometimes deputised for the chef, where Danny developed his cooking skills. After a short spell in London and a role working with his brother-in-law in Northern Ireland, Danny settled in Shaftesbury.
“My brother-in-law, Mr Tant, had owned the Bell Street business for 20 years. He was retiring and he offered me the chance to take over,” said Danny. That was in July 1997. There was little competition then, but choice has increased along with Shaftesbury’s population.
“When I first came here, we only had one Chinese takeaway shop. Later we had one in Beaufoy Close, a Chinese restaurant on the High Street and another one opposite Chutneys,” said Danny. “That closed down after about a year. You don’t have a much greater population but you also have another Indian restaurant and a Thai restaurant.”
When I asked Danny whether he would miss work he instantly replied ‘no’. “It is tiring. It is very long hours. The problem when you have your own shop is that you cannot go for holidays,” he said. When he has returned to Hong Kong for a holiday, he has had to close the business for a fortnight. Interestingly, he says that if he cooked his family dishes from the Yuk Wah menu, they wouldn’t recognise those meals. “This type of Chinese takeaway is adapted to the taste of British people. If you went to Hong Kong and cooked the same food, nobody would want it,” he said.
Danny’s sweet and sour Hong Kong-style dish is the only item which he thinks would have been familiar to his friends back in Asia. When you’re surrounded by Chinese food all evening, understandably it’s the last style of cuisine you want to eat on your day off. Given the choice, Danny says he would go for Thai, Indian or Italian.
I asked his advice on where to go for exceptional Chinese food and apparently, you’ll need to drive. He sometimes goes down to Southampton for dim sum. “If I wanted a really good Chinese meal and distance is not a problem I would go to London. But not Chinatown. I would recommend Yi Ban, opposite London City Airport. You can see the runway from the restaurant,” he said. Now Danny will have the time to visit the best restaurants.
As we finished chatting, he was keen to express his gratitude to his loyal regulars. “I’ve had some good times and some bad times, but I’ve enjoyed working with customers,” he said. “I know enough people here although I can’t remember all of their names, but I know their faces. They all remember my name, though,” he laughed, adding that he can remember many regulars’ orders.
“It’s good working in this town. The people are very nice,” said Danny. And that’s why, after experiencing life all over Britain, he’s chosen to stay in Shaftesbury.
Yuk Wah means ‘precious jade’, a lucky term. ThisIsAlfred wish Mr and Mrs Lai the best of luck and a happy, healthy retirement.