On a normal day, by 9 a.m., Kit-foon and Wai-keung Law would have produced one tonne of ho fun rice noodles. They’re the father and son owners of Lo’s Noodles, a third-generation, 380 square foot noodle factory in a backstreet alleyway of London’s Chinatown. With the help of four other long-term employees — some from their ancestral village in Kaiping, China — they’ll have fulfilled their 60 daily orders. It feels like a long time since Kit-foon and Wai-keung started a normal day.
Lo’s is one of the beating hearts of Chinatown, working to supply 95 percent of the area’s restaurants, the U.K.’s first Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant, Hakkasan, and hundreds of individual customers each day. It has has been closed since late March, with no clarity on when it can officially reopen. Like many other food businesses, Lo’s relies on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which covers 80 percent of furloughed staff wages. In the final weeks of trading before the lockdown, the business had already seen a 75 percent drop in orders, with leftover raw ingredients and bags of unwanted noodles going to waste. Such were the effects of COVID-19 being felt more acutely in Chinatown much earlier than elsewhere in the London restaurant industry.
“We plan on waiting it out until it is safe to open up again and there is a demand for our products,” Wai-keung said with a sigh. “If the restaurants and takeaways stay closed, there isn’t much point of us being open.” The latest government guidelines say that the very earliest restaurants can open for dine-in will be in the first week of July; for now, Lo’s is hoping to restart production by mid-June.
Lo’s does not just supply restaurants: its noodles, which have earned a reputation as some of the best in the city, have always been available to walk-in customers for £1 a bag. The ho fun is made to a traditional recipe, feeding a wet rice mixture into a clunky old machine, before a pair of hands delicately pulls, stretches, stacks, and folds sheets of dough into neat layers on a tiny worktop. Finally, the dough goes through a cutting machine like an automatic mini-guillotine, transformed into identical strands of noodles.
“We’ve always prided ourselves over quality and always make everything fresh. We soak our rice overnight and grind it ourselves, which many competitors don’t,” Wai-keung explains. “That way you can control the thickness and help give the noodles a smoother and bouncier texture.”
But because of the restrictions on travel from China, walk-in customers were increasingly few and far between before Lo’s closed altogether. “Cantonese customers [from Hong Kong] used to be the majority, but in the last five years there’s been a huge shift in our customer base — I’d say it’s probably 70 percent mainland Chinese [from the People’s Republic of China] and 30 percent Cantonese now.”
The noodle factory’s troubles date back further than the beginning of 2020. Lo’s has been embroiled in a lengthy battle with its landlord, Shaftesbury PLC, for the past 12 months, after the site was earmarked for redevelopment into an electrical substation. Since last June, when the City of Westminster approved the planning documents, Lo’s has been wondering when it would be forced to close and relocate. Boosting staff morale and trying to operate a business amid so much uncertainty has been a great challenge for Wai-keung and his father. Only in the last fortnight have the owners learned that Shaftesbury has extended Lo’s lease for another year, as the landlord continues to review its long-term plans for the site. Shaftesbury did not respond to Eater’s request for comment on those plans.
“It’s good news that we can remain at our current location for another twelve months, but it’s still uncertain if we’ll be allowed to stay afterwards,” Wai-keung says. “We don’t really know how to plan ahead, or I do wonder if the landlord may put a pause on the plans or even hope that we remain.”
The last three months is the longest Lo’s has been closed since it first opened in 1978. The break would have presented the perfect opportunity for vital refurbishments and repair works to the factory, but with no concrete plans and their long-term future still unknown, the owners have reasoned there is little point in spending the money.
The past year has been a confusing rollercoaster for the Law family. They had made plans to relocate to Canning Town to operate as a wholesale-only business earlier this year. Wai-keung describes how they have “been in limbo” and that for months it has been a case of not knowing “whether we have to leave or if we’re allowed to stay.” The inconsistent messaging from the landlord also takes place in the wider context of changes in Chinatown. With high cost openings targeting an evolving community that remains subject to reportedly discriminatory Home Office immigration raids, Lo’s is having to deal with uncertainty in an area increasingly engineered to be inhospitable to businesses like it.
Right now, there are just a handful of restaurants open in Chinatown, such as Good Friend Chicken, Dumpling’s Legend, Old Town 97. That is subject to change as restaurants do begin to reopen, but the owners fear for the area in the long-term. In a post-pandemic world, Wai-keung is concerned Chinese and Far East Asian restaurants will have to contend with presuppositions about the origin of coronavirus, with changed attitudes towards Chinese businesses and communities.
“Coronavirus has affected all businesses from every industry and I wonder what the future looks like even when lockdown has finally eased to some level of normality. Unfortunately, I believe the after-effects will be felt much longer by Chinese and Far East Asian businesses and communities,” he says. “Whether we would want to return and open is something that changes daily. It’s about how we need to adapt when this is over and that will determine how well we all recover, but I believe Chinatown will never be the same.”