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Manchester's China Town Needs a Kick Up the Arse

It's sink or swim after 50 years.

Photograph by Ben Williams

Manchester's China Town is one of the oldest parts of the city centre with much of its Georgian architecture left unchanged.  It sits in the middle of a conservation area centred on George Street, is littered with listed buildings, and historically speaking, is a gem in the heart of Manchester. 

It's a shame the same can't be said for its once thriving restaurant scene.

Once the go-to place for everything from a cheap lunch time buffet to a grand banquet for a special celebration, the streets of China Town are now dirty, worn out, and worst of all, quiet.

The heart of the area, and China Town's main thoroughfare, known for its traditional pagoda and Chinese arch, has for some time now been home to a huge Bet Fred bookie taking up an entire block on the Nicolas Street side.  Formerly a pretty down-at-heel, all-you-can-eat restaurant, it's no surprise that this property changed hands.  But it is a real shame that it's no longer a restaurant.

Don't get me wrong, there is still good food to be had, but to find the best in East and South East Asian restaurants in Manchester City Centre you need to step out of China Town and you'll discover them in the Northern Quarter, Spinningfields, around the town hall, and even down at the Corn Exchange.  Now ask yourself what these places are doing?  They're offering something different, that's what.  

From the ultra modern, luxury of Tattu to the laid back, funky street food style of Tampopo's Corn Exchange venture what's happening outside China Town is often fresh and new.  Sweet Mandarin in the Northern Quarter, whilst admittedly has seen better days, stands head and shoulders above most of China Town's offerings while Chaophraya on Chapel Walk is the go-to place for Thai in town.  Even the more traditional Rice Bowl on Cross Street and Wings in Lincoln Square feel like a better option than the often tatty places up the road.

China Town, with its once a bustling, thriving restaurant scene, needs a kick up the arse if it's to survive much longer.  Manchester is a city full of foodies and with so much on offer why would they bother going there?  

And where are the cool, classy restaurants within the four streets of Portland, Princess, Charlotte, and Moseley?  Where is the place to be seen by the in crowd?  Sure you can argue it's the food that's important — and of course, no restaurant worth its salt survives long with bad food or a poor menu — but more often than ever the entire restaurant experience is what people remember — the food, the service, the concept, even the decor.  Sadly I can't think of a single venue in China Town that offers such an interesting experience.

The businesses in the area are well aware of the situation and it's been reported locally that they fear the worst too.  There are calls for the council to do more: to tackle homelessness in the area, to invest money, and to clean the place up but surely those same businesses have a responsibility, for their own sakes, to innovate, invest and do something themselves.  

The issues they complain that the council aren't dealing with are not peculiar to China Town.  Just a couple of minute's walk to the Gay Village or in another direction to Piccadilly and you'll see the same thing.  Even down at Spinningfields and over in the Northern Quarter these issues exist, and they're thriving parts of town.

I want to see a modern take on China Town's restaurants, get rid of the plastic menus, lose the tired 80s style table cloths and let's see fresh modern lighting and interiors.  Then tackle the menus — challenge the chefs to come up with innovative, new dishes — traditional is great but I don't believe for a second that Asian cuisine has stopped evolving, so let's see it reflected here.  Finally they should be cleaning up their own back yards — the alley ways and side streets are often revolting and I imagine infested.  If each place took care of their own little bit of the street rather than waiting for someone else to do it, it would make a real difference.  A mop and bucket and a bottle of bleach aren't going to break the bank after all.

I say keep the best of what China Town has to offer and look to the future in order to change the rest.  Evolution and change is key to the success of any neighbourhood or social scene and we need to see it in China Town otherwise the whole place will just go down the pan and we'll be left with a bunch of new offices and "luxury" apartments.  Businesses must take the lead and the city council will eventually follow suit.

Ultimately it's up to them.  It's sink or swim.

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