Angela Hui: The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes spurred me on

The writer on her new memoir about growing up in a Chinese takeaway
November 3, 2022

Angela Hui and I are speaking before either of us has eaten lunch, a decision we regret as soon as the conversation turns to slow-cooked ribs. “My dad’s recipe is a mix of sour and spicy. There’s like 10 sauces in the dish and it hits all the right notes and taste profiles. He leaves the ribs to marinate overnight and then chucks it all in a pot. It takes a painstakingly long time and you need to slowly stir the ribs until the meat falls apart.” Her eyes light up. “It’s a real labour of love.”

Food and family were the twin pillars of Hui’s childhood. In 1988, Hui’s parents opened a Chinese takeaway in Beddau, a village in rural south Wales. Hui and her brothers grew up working alongside their parents in the takeaway, taking orders while finishing their maths homework. Splitting her childhood between a Chinese household and a Welsh school was “like juggling two worlds”, she says. “We went to Chinese school and ate dim sum every Sunday, but I can count the number of people of colour who went to my school on one hand.”

Hui’s childhood is the subject of her coming-of-age memoir Takeaway, which she wrote during the pandemic. When I ask if writing the book took on new urgency when the pandemic saw a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, she nods vehemently. “It lit a fire under my ass. We actually changed the introduction to address the rise in pandemic-related hate and the urgency of why this book is needed now. Honestly, it was a traumatic time to be writing, but I’m so glad I did it. It really gave me a sense of purpose.”

While Takeaway is the Hui family’s specific story, it also speaks to the UK’s history of Asian immigration. As Hui is quick to point out, the Chinese takeaway is a product of British colonialism. “There’s a direct link between my parents moving to the UK and the UK’s rule over Hong Kong,” she explains. “It started with the Opium Wars and then the UK ruled over Hong Kong for 99 years. There was mass migration because people didn’t see a future in Hong Kong and wanted to leave and resettle in the UK.”

After arriving in the country, Chinese takeaway owners spread out so as not to be in direct competition with each other. “Whether it’s in the mountains or by the coast, no matter where you go in the UK, there’s a Chinese takeaway,” reflects Hui. “Other than maybe Indian takeaways, there’s no other cuisine that’s adapted to western tastes like Anglo-Cantonese fare. I wanted the book to honour the tenacity and sacrifice of immigrant communities.” 

As a journalist, Hui has previously written about her identity, but Takeaway is the most personal she’s ever been on the page. When I ask her about the writing process, she says she’s been in therapy since the book was published. “It’s the exposing nature of writing a memoir,” she explains. “I really agonised for ages if I should include such personal details of my life.” Hui was concerned at first that her parents, who don’t speak much English, would be upset if she wrote about their ugly arguments or her father’s gambling problem. But her mother encouraged her not to sugarcoat their past and to be as honest as possible. Otherwise, why bother writing the book at all?

Several times in our conversation, Hui refers to her book as a love letter to her parents and “to all immigrant businesses”. Writing Takeaway was a demanding, often exhausting, process, but the book is a tender and affecting memoir served up for anyone who wants to dig in.