OFM Awards 2022: Lifetime Achievement – Shun-Bun Lee | Food & drink industry

Towards the end of the summer Shun-Bun Lee, owner of the New Loon Fung restaurant in London’s Chinatown, found himself lacking a dim sum chef for his six-strong team. But he knew what to do. He went up to the kitchen and started filling the prawn har gau dumplings himself. His son, Sunny, shows me a photograph of the compact Mr Lee, in smart collar and tie, putting to good use the dim sum skills he first learned in Hong Kong well over half a century ago. “My father is a bit of a legend among dim sum chefs in Chinatown,” Sunny says proudly.

It’s a lovely story, but the winner of our Lifetime Achievement Award has skills that extend far beyond the perfect pleating of a translucent seafood dumpling. They are qualities that also go far beyond his restaurant’s kitchen. He is one of the very last of that generation of Chinese restaurateurs to have arrived in London in the 1970s who is still in the business. In that time, he has become a leader and a source of advice to fellow members of Britain’s Chinese community, at first informally and for the last 13 years as chair of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce UK.

He was nominated for this award by the chef Andrew Wong of the two Michelin-starred A Wong in London’s Victoria. Wong had first got to know him when Lee was friends with his grandfather, also from Hong Kong. “Mr Lee is the person who creates community,” Wong says. “He provides continuity for that community because he’s been here, working in the restaurant world for so long. He understands our business and the challenges we face. He’s a realist. He knows who to send us to talk to for advice on legal or financial issues or things like fire regulations. When people in the Chinese hospitality business need advice and support, Mr Lee is the one they go to.”

Meet a ‘dim sum legend’ from London’s Chinatown – videoMeet a ‘dim sum legend’ from London’s Chinatown – video

Over a dim sum lunch of garlicky duck tongues and char sui buns, of tightly wrapped sui mai and glossy har gau, Mr Lee reflects modestly on a life working in and supporting Britain’s Chinese restaurant sector. “Because I’ve been here for 47 years,” he says, “I do have that history. I want to encourage and to help the next generation.”

Although he came from a family of chefs and restaurateurs, he had hoped to go to university, but the premature death of his father meant he had to find a way to earn a living. He trained in the intricacies of dim sum, a cornerstone of the Hong Kong Chinese culinary repertoire, before coming to London in 1975 aged 23 with just £300 in his pocket. Here he combined a business correspondence course with working in restaurants around Soho, particularly a vast place on the site of what is now the Trocadero.

Shun-Bun Lee making dim sum at New Loon Fung. Photograph: Courtesy of Sunny Lee

“Chinatown was a very different place back then,” he says. There were only around 25 restaurants compared to the many multiples of that today. “After work, we would all meet at the same local Chinese bakery.” Today, his restaurant can serve more than 100 different kinds of dim sum. “Back then, it was maybe 40 or 50 at best because we simply didn’t have the ingredients.” When it came to vegetables, they mostly had to make do with broccoli rather than bok choy or choy sum. They couldn’t get their hands on the right type of flour for their cloud-like char sui buns. “We had to learn to use what was available.”

After a period running a cafe in north London, he returned to Chinatown and became a partner in a number of restaurants before, in 1990, opening the much-loved Harbour City at the eastern end of Gerrard Street. For the first five years he was in the kitchen cooking the restaurant’s famed dim sum before moving to front of house. So much has changed over the years, he says, not least the costs. “The rent and rates on the Harbour City site have gone up fivefold.” Back then, waste food was taken away by pig farmers to repurpose as feed, and each Christmas they would be given a whole pig as a thank you. “Now we must pay £400 a month for waste to be taken away,” he says wryly.

There are other challenges, too. “There are many staff shortages so we need to invest in training,” Mr Lee says. He fully understands why the problem exists. While there is often an emphasis in Anglo-Chinese families on passing on culture, partly through the Chinese school in Soho, run by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce that he leads, a lot of first-generation Hong Kong Chinese restaurateurs don’t want their kids to follow them into the business. In the classic way of immigrant communities, they want them to move into professions. For a long while, Mr Lee even tried to dissuade Sunny, who had studied surveying at university, from going into hospitality. “I think he wanted me to be a doctor,” Sunny says, with a grin. “Now I run the Reindeer Cafe up at the Wing Yip centre in Cricklewood.”

Intriguingly, the greatest challenge to the original 1970s generation of Hong Kong chefs and restaurateurs is now coming from mainland China, whose entrepreneurs are responding vigorously to a demand for more regional food offerings from the likes of Sichuan province, Beijing and Shanghai. Mr Lee believes they now have about half the businesses in Chinatown. “They also have businesses back in China, so they are well financed.” He has experienced this change in Chinatown first-hand. In 2013, he took over the site where we are now having lunch, which is above and owned by the Loon Fung supermarket on Gerrard Street. Originally, he ran it alongside Harbour City. Eventually, after 25 years, he decided to let Harbour City go and concentrate on the new space. The old Harbour City has become Food House and specialises in Sichuan food and is very popular. “But there is still an appetite for the kind of dim sum we do,” Sunny says. “Especially among the older generation.”

Shun-Bun Lee owner of the New Loon Fung restaurant in London’s Chinatown photographed in Gerrard Street Mr Lee Observer Food Monthly OFM October 2022Mr Lee in London’s Chinatown: ‘I have been here for 47 years, I have that history.’ Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

What does getting this lifetime achievement award mean to Mr Lee? He smiles. “Over the 47 years I’ve been here, I’ve worked very hard,” he says. “I did it because I want to help the community. I want to help people become their own bosses. But I didn’t ever expect to get an award for it. This award gives me the strength to go on.” Although he is now into his eighth decade, he says he is “not planning to retire at the moment. I’ve still got my energy.”

For a while we sip our jasmine tea and discuss the intricacies of good dim sum. He talks about the bite the prawns in good har gau must have. He tears open a char sui bun, to show me how deep and rich the filling must be. Eventually he leads me out through the full dining room, now occupied almost entirely by more senior members of London’s Chinese community, catching up with each other over a few plates of dumplings. Unsurprisingly, we do not get a clear run. Mr Lee stops at various tables to say hello to his many regulars, to be what he has always been: a fixed and reliable point in an ever-changing Chinatown.


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