Howard Wong's story
CLOSE

( HOWARD WONG )

Howard and his sister Vivien are the children of Chinese-Malaysian immigrants who opened a Chinese bakery in London. They have just begun a gourmet Asian desert line called Little Moons, using their Western education to build on their parents’ more traditional business.

EXTRA IMAGES

  • Howard Wong family 2
  • Howard Wong family 4
  • Howard Wong family 6
  • Howard Wong family 1
  • Howard Wong family 3
  • Howard Wong family 5
  • Howard Wong family 7

INTERVIEW AUDIO EXCERPTS

THE ABRIDGED INTERVIEW ( Full Interview )

THE FULL INTERVIEW ( Abridged Interview )

My name’s Howard Wong and I’m 26 years old. I was born and bred in London and my parents are both from Malaysia.

Howard, could you tell us about what you know about your parents’ heritage?

My dad’s parents are originally from Fujian province. They moved to Malaysia to do business, where they owned a rubber plantation. On my mum’s side, both of her parents are from Guangdong and they sent her to Malaysia to study English at the time. My dad himself came to London in 1977 to study electrical engineering; my mum knew him from before that and came with him. Both of my parents have ten brothers and sisters, so it’s an incredibly huge family. They have lived in England for the last thirty years.

"You don’t often meet other British Born Chinese people because there’s no forum where you would, say in a temple or mosque. We don’t share a common religion and religion isn’t even a very strong part of Chinese culture."

What do you think life was like back for them in their countries?

I know the standard of living was fairly high in Malaysia for them. At the same time, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have ten brothers and sisters! I spoke to my mum recently and she said life was a lot more simple back then; their priorities were first family then getting married, whereas now we have a lot of opportunities so we want to do a lot of different things. I don’t think they had as much conflict in terms of what their identity was or who they were, whereas in this modern age it is more of an issue.

What do you think it was like for them when they arrived in the UK?

It was initially quite hard to fit in, a bit of a culture shock. From snippets I hear, I know that even now my dad experiences mild bits of racism every now and again, much more than I encounter. But generally I think it was probably quite exciting – they were in a new country, as a young couple. I think they have enjoyed it, which is why they chose to stay here.

They’ve built a very successful business, so when their relatives from Malaysia come round they are all very impressed with what they have achieved. They find the standard of living very good, and they like the mild weather compared to the hot and humid weather of Malaysia. They have a good, solid group of friends here, so I feel proud they have integrated quite well into British society.

What was your childhood like, growing up in the UK?

I remember when I was young I always knew I looked different from the average kid at school, and I think I tried to reject that, because when you’re young your main priority is to blend in and not be seen as different. At one point I remember really rejecting my Chineseness and having arguments with my uncle about whether I was Chinese or not - I was adamant that I was not Chinese because I was born in England. It was only when I joined secondary school and saw so many different kids of all different ethnic backgrounds that I had a sense of “I am Chinese but I can be British as well”.

"I went from a situation in high school where I pretty much had no Chinese friends, to a situation in university where I had my college friends who were predominantly British Born Chinese. I guess it was a complicit understanding of having parents who are Chinese."

From the ages of 11 to 14 race wasn’t really an issue at all, but I think as you grow up you become more conscious of it, because the racial groups tend to start to congregate among each other. For example, when I was 13 I got invited to a lot of Bar Mitzvahs, and I began to see that my Jewish friends had a large community outside of school, which at that time I didn’t have. And then as we grew older, I think I found more in common with my Asian friends or my Indian friends because we had similar values and experiences - our parents were immigrants.

Did your identity change as you grew older?

I think I was quite lucky, actually, because I had the opportunity to go on a Chinese language course in Shanghai when I was 16, where I met British Born Chinese people from all over the country and over the course of two weeks found we had a lot in common. It was a really rare opportunity; you don’t often find yourself being able to meet other British Born Chinese people because there’s no forum where you would. For example, Jewish people would meet in the synagogue and a lot of British Indian would meet in say a temple or mosque. We don’t share a common religion and religion isn’t even a very strong part of Chinese culture.

I would say it was quite a pivotal moment in my life because from then, when I was back in London, I would meet up with these friends outside of school and meet their friends. I went from a situation in high school where I pretty much had no Chinese friends, to a situation in university where I had my college friends who were predominantly British Born Chinese and of a similar background to me. I guess it was a complicit understanding of having parents who are Chinese.

Howard, can you tell us a bit more about your family business?

Our business is a Chinese bakery that supplies Asian deserts and confectionaries to supermarkets and restaurants. My parents started the business over 20 years ago – it literally started from the family kitchen. So whilst my dad worked as an engineer for BT, my mum - she’s quite entrepreneurial - tried numerous business ventures; from importing fish to mail order clothing from Thailand and finally struck upon this - an opportunity to start selling biscuits that they make in Hong Kong to shops in Chinatown.

"My parents like to save up very slowly; they don’t really trust external managers to do the job, they like to keep everything within the family. My sister and I have a much more western or modern way of doing business – that’s where the conflict lies."

My part of the business at the moment is called Little Moons. It supplies a product called ‘mochi’, which is a Japanese dessert, to chains such as Yo Sushi and Itsu, among others. When I joined the business I wanted to move away from the area of supplying just the Asian community. I’m more comfortable doing business with the broader British business community. In fact, I feel a bit uncomfortable doing business with the old community. For example, they all speak Cantonese and my Cantonese is quite poor, so when they call up and place an order or want to discuss something, I would rather leave that to my parents.

I also think there’s a bigger opportunity in approaching the general public, rather than narrowing yourself to the Asian community. My parents’ generation couldn’t speak English very well; they were new to the country, so they might not have felt so confident pitching to large companies, whereas I’m pretty confident that I can talk professionally to everyone.

How did you parents feel about your moving away from the traditional family business?

They’re really happy about it. They want the business to grow as much as I do, and they know that the Chinese market is quite limited. I think they are quite proud of us as well, in that they see us approaching companies that they’ve probably been too intimidated by to approach. There are some conflicts between their traditional way of thinking; I’m in business with my sister and we believe in quite aggressively chasing business, maybe borrowing money to expand, whereas they’ve been very cautious. They like to save up very, very slowly; they don’t really trust external managers to do the job, they like to keep everything within the family. My sister and I have a much more western or modern way of doing business - we realise that it’s important to delegate if you’re going to grow, rather than just doing everything yourself.

How do you see the British-Chinese community in the future?

My hope is for the media to acknowledge that the British Chinese community exists. If you see an oriental face on the TV they’re likely to have an accent or to be a tourist, and you’ll very rarely find someone who speaks perfect English on TV with an Asian face. If there is a British Born Chinese person growing up in a very white English town in England, I hope they don’t feel too isolated and reject their Chineseness because they feel alone. Hopefully there would be some way of making them know that they are part of a wider subsection of the British community. That’s what I hope.

My name’s Howard Wong and I’m 26 years old. I was born and bred in London and my parents are both from Malaysia.

Howard, could you tell us about what you know about your parents’ heritage?

My dad’s parents are originally from Fujian province. They moved to Malaysia to do business, where they owned a rubber plantation. On my mum’s side, both of her parents are from Guangdong and they sent her to Malaysia to study English at the time. My dad himself came to London in 1977 to study electrical engineering; my mum knew him from before that and came with him. Both of my parents have ten brothers and sisters, so it’s an incredibly huge family. They have lived in England for the last thirty years.

"You don’t often meet other British Born Chinese people because there’s no forum where you would, say in a temple or mosque. We don’t share a common religion and religion isn’t even a very strong part of Chinese culture."

What do you think life was like back for them in their countries?

I know the standard of living was fairly high in Malaysia for them. At the same time, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have ten brothers and sisters! Malaysia was under the influence of a British colony at the time: my dad went to a British school, so he speaks English fairly well. I spoke to my mum recently and she said life was a lot more simple back then; their priorities were first family then getting married, whereas now we have a lot of opportunities so we want to do a lot of different things. I don’t think they had as much conflict in terms of what their identity was or who they were, whereas in this modern age it is more of an issue.

What do you think it was like for them when they arrived in the UK?

It was initially quite hard to fit in, a bit of a culture shock. From snippets I hear, I know that even now my dad experiences mild bits of racism every now and again, much more than I encounter. But generally I think it was probably quite exciting – they were in a new country, as a young couple. I think they have enjoyed it, which is why they chose to stay here.

They’ve built a very successful business, so when their relatives from Malaysia come round they are all very impressed with what they have achieved. They find the standard of living very good, and they like the mild weather compared to the hot and humid weather of Malaysia. They have a good, solid group of friends here, so I feel proud they have integrated quite well into British society.

What was your childhood like, growing up in the UK?

I was born in Wembley, which is quite a multicultural part of London with a very large Asian community, and by that I mean an Indian and Pakistani community. I went to a local primary school, and I think at that age you’re almost colour-blind, although I do distinctly remember there being a lot of Japanese kids at that time. I lived on a commuter belt and in the ‘80s there were a lot of Japanese families as Japan was doing very well, so a lot of families were working for companies in London. One thing I remember is looking at other Japanese kids and thinking, “Oh, I might have some sort of connection to you because you look like me”.

I remember when I was young I always knew I looked different from the average kid at school, and I think I tried to reject that, because when you’re young your main priority is to blend in and not be seen as different. At one point I remember really rejecting my Chineseness and having arguments with my uncle about whether I was Chinese or not - I was adamant that I was not Chinese because I was born in England. It was only when I joined secondary school and saw so many different kids of all different ethnic backgrounds that I had a sense of “I am Chinese but I can be British as well”.

"I went from a situation in high school where I pretty much had no Chinese friends, to a situation in university where I had my college friends who were predominantly British Born Chinese. I guess it was a complicit understanding of having parents who are Chinese."

From the ages of 11 to 14 race wasn’t really an issue at all, but I think as you grow up you become more conscious of it, because the racial groups tend to start to congregate among each other. For example, when I was 13 I got invited to a lot of Bar Mitzvahs, and I began to see that my Jewish friends had a large community outside of school, which at that time I didn’t have. And then as we grew older, I think I found more in common with my Asian friends or my Indian friends because we had similar values and experiences - our parents were immigrants.

Did your identity change as you grew older?

I think I was quite lucky, actually, because I had the opportunity to go on a Chinese language course in Shanghai when I was 16, where I met British Born Chinese people from all over the country and over the course of two weeks found we had a lot in common. One thing I remember was when I met a British Born Chinese girl from Nottingham: she said, “Oh, you’re the first group of Chinese guys I’ve met who are normal.” Because Nottingham is even less multicultural than London, and for her she hadn’t met Chinese people who weren’t immigrants who’d just moved over to England.

Going to China with a group of British Born Chinese people was fascinating because although we looked Chinese, we weren’t in the sense that we weren’t born in China. But together we did feel unified and we had a lot in common. It was a really rare opportunity; you don’t often find yourself being able to meet other British Born Chinese people because there’s no forum where you would. For example, Jewish people would meet in the synagogue and a lot of British Indian would meet in say a temple or mosque. We don’t share a common religion and religion isn’t even a very strong part of Chinese culture.

I would say it was quite a pivotal moment in my life because from then, when I was back in London, I would meet up with these friends outside of school and meet their friends. I went from a situation in high school where I pretty much had no Chinese friends, to a situation in university where I had my college friends who were predominantly British Born Chinese and of a similar background to me. I guess it was a complicit understanding of having parents who are Chinese.

Howard, can you tell us a bit more about your family business?

Our business is a Chinese bakery that supplies Asian deserts and confectionaries to supermarkets and restaurants. My parents started the business over 20 years ago – it literally started from the family kitchen. So whilst my dad worked as an engineer for BT, my mum - she’s quite entrepreneurial - tried numerous business ventures; from importing fish to mail order clothing from Thailand and finally struck upon this - an opportunity to start selling biscuits that they make in Hong Kong to shops in Chinatown. It slowly grew and grew until they bought a factory, expanded and started selling to more and more shops. And now I’m involved in it, we’re just trying to grow even bigger. I used to do finance and saw it was an opportunity to go into something where I had control of my destiny and my future. I think it’s probably being a child of entrepreneurs; you probably have it in your blood.

"My parents like to save up very slowly; they don’t really trust external managers to do the job, they like to keep everything within the family. My sister and I have a much more western or modern way of doing business – that’s where the conflict lies."

My part of the business at the moment is called Little Moons. It supplies a product called ‘mochi’, which is a Japanese dessert, to chains such as Yo Sushi and Itsu, among others. When I joined the business I wanted to move away from the area of supplying just the Asian community. In terms of my talents and background, I’m more comfortable doing business with the broader British business community than the Chinese community. In fact, I feel a bit uncomfortable doing business with the old community. For example, they all speak Cantonese and my Cantonese is quite poor, so when they call up and place an order or want to discuss something, I don’t quite feel at home. I would rather leave that to my parents or my cousin who’s fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese.

I also think there’s a bigger opportunity in approaching the general public, rather than narrowing yourself to the Asian community. My parents’ generation couldn’t speak English very well; they were new to the country, so they might not have felt so confident pitching to large companies, whereas I’m pretty confident that I can talk professionally to everyone.

How did you parents feel about your moving away from the traditional family business?

They’re really happy about it. They want the business to grow as much as I do, and they know that the Chinese market is quite limited. I think they are quite proud of us as well, in that they see us approaching companies that they’ve probably been too intimidated by to approach. There are some conflicts between their traditional way of thinking; I’m in business with my sister and we believe in quite aggressively chasing business, maybe borrowing money to expand, whereas they’ve been very cautious. They like to save up very, very slowly; they don’t really trust external managers to do the job, they like to keep everything within the family. My sister and I have a much more western or modern way of doing business - we realise that it’s important to delegate if you’re going to grow, rather than just doing everything yourself.

Do you remember any conversations with your parents where you’ve discussed your differences in thinking?

I think there is just general conflict. For example, we’ve hired a PR company and a branding company and spent a fair amount of money branding our product; traditionally they’ve spent minimal amounts using external people, they’ve tried to do it themselves, or found a relative in Malaysia who can do it extremely cheaply. Whilst I admire their philosophy - I mean, they’ve done really well on a shoestring budget without borrowing any money - I do see that there are benefits to using external people and spending a bit of money to get extra reward in the future. I mean it’s a risk and that’s where the conflict lies; they think, why can’t you do it yourself, or, why do you need to hire this person to do it.

How do you see the British-Chinese community in the future?

My hope is for the media to acknowledge that the British Chinese community exists. If you see an oriental face on the TV they’re likely to have an accent or to be a tourist, and you’ll very rarely find someone who speaks perfect English on TV with an Asian face. If there is a British Born Chinese person growing up in a very white English town in England, I hope they don’t feel too isolated and reject their Chineseness because they feel alone. Hopefully there would be some way of making them know that they are part of a wider subsection of the British community. That’s what I hope.