When you think of Perth’s glorious institutions, the businesses, shops and restaurants that we love so much and that have been here so long they feel as natural as the River Tay and the grassy North Inch, you will inevitably arrive at the double doors of 14 Scott Street. Celebrating its fortieth birthday in summer this year, The Jade Garden is where many of us experienced our first proper Chinese sit-down meal, where we first fiddled with chopsticks and where we were welcomed in by the irrepressible character that was Mrs Chan.
This week’s Big Personality was all but a toddler when the doors first opened; Linda Chan was the first generation of Scottish-Chinese in her family and the third generation to call Perth her home. She’s now leading the charge in the family business, trying to strike that elusive/damn-near-impossible balance between work and motherhood as she raises her own family in our small city.
Linda’s Dad and Grandad came over to Scotland from Hong Kong in 1967; John was only sixteen years old and had a big vision of a life in a new country. Once he was settled his young Chinese girlfriend joined him and they were married in a celebration hosted by Perth’s newly formed Chinese Community.
Linda came along in 1973 and was the eldest of three kids that include younger brothers Tommy and Angus. She was the first person in her immediate family to be born in Scotland and for the first three years of her life she spoke only Cantonese; hilariously referring to it as her first language in her distinct, Perth accent.
“My dad tells me the story of my first day at nursery. I was three years old and couldn’t speak any English. I spent the day pointing at things like the tap when I wanted a drink of water. But because I was so young I picked up English really quickly and I grew up to be bilingual. When my dad’s at home you’ll sometimes hear us chattering in Cantonese and then I’ll turn round to talk to a customer or one of the team and I’m all Scottish again. I can chop and change without even thinking about it. It’s never left me.”
For those of you old enough to remember, you’ll know that the restaurant at 14 Scott Street was originally owned by various shareholders from the Chinese Community and simply called Perth Chinese Restaurant. I can only imagine how cosmopolitan us Perthites thought we were back then! In 1975 John Chan, Linda’s dad, bought everyone out and changed the name to The Jade Garden.
“I remember it being incredibly busy and really happy. We were there all the time because mum and dad both worked constantly. All of my uncles and aunts worked with us, so it was literally, one big happy family. There were seven chefs – seven! – and about ten waitresses. It was this buzzing throng of chatter and noise.
I used to get put to sleep on the shelf under the kitchen sink! I know that sounds awful but it wasn't at all; it was just our life. Everyone was working so I couldn’t be at home – although my mum once told me she would sometimes leave me sleeping in the Scott Street flat and go back to do a shift. Imagine doing that now? But, you know, no harm ever came to me! In fact I loved it all; I’d be in the kitchen, at my uncle’s feet, looking up and asking for a duck leg. He’d just chop it off, wrap it up in tissues and I’d wander round eating it like a lollipop! How could you not love that?”
All of Linda’s chat about this stage of her life revolves around the big extended family. She recalls that everyone would come through the Jade Garden to get their training before heading out to open their own restaurant or takeaway; safe in the knowledge they had learned all they needed to know from her Mum, the woman who was steering the ship.
“Family is a hugely important part of Chinese culture and my mum welcomed in everyone. To be surrounded day and night by the people who loved you was just brilliant. Every Sunday we’d all sit down in the restaurant, around one big table and all my uncles would bring out plates and plates of food for a family lunch. It was always Roast Duck, my favourite, and pork, fish and veggies. Every single week until I was about fifteen we did that.”
Growing up in Perth in the seventies, there were but a handful of ethnic faces to be seen and as one of the first Small City children to be born Scottish to Chinese parents, she started school as a beautiful, oriental face in a sea of white. Over the years, as the melting pot melted, it became easier but at Craigie Primary in 1978 she was very aware of the fact that she looked different.
“I was pointed at a bit, there were no other Chinese kids in my class; in fact there were no other kids of any ethnic origin in my class! I had great pals and I mixed well but I was sometimes on the receiving end of racist comments. Kids didn’t know any better then, and there wasn’t a culture of inclusion like there is now. But by the time I was at secondary that had all gone and the novelty factor had worn off!
Apart from the obvious differences, we didn’t do things that other kids did. We didn’t go on holidays or away for days, or have weeks at our Granny’s because everyone was tied to the restaurant. I’m not doing any woe is me bit, we had the money to go but there was no free time. My mum and dad just worked and worked.”
We talk for some time about the innate work ethic that comes both with her Chinese heritage and also from being part of a family who own a small business. It was almost inevitable that this would play a part in her story.
“I suppose it was, but when you’re living in amongst it all its just part of life. We went to Tenerife when I was twelve but it was very much a one-off. I remember thinking it was the most exciting, most frivolous thing we had ever done. It was a real treat and I think we got that reward from working hard.
I started on the dishes when I was ten; there were two stations and I was on saucers, cups and pudding plates. That was the easy road into it all – everyone started there, there was no special treatment for being the boss’s daughter! My Uncle Ian was the head chef and he used to shout at everyone. He was so strict and his standards were so high but when you looked at him he was always working really hard and so you listened and got on with his orders. He even shouted at my Mum. My MUM!”
For those who remember her, the idea of anyone shouting at Mrs Chan seems incredulous. She was a dynamo, remembered everyone and was loved by all. She was to become the backbone of The Jade Garden and although many women of that era stood a step behind their husbands, second fiddle in a family business such as their’s, this wouldn’t be how any of us would describe her.
“Oh, she was every bit as involved as my Dad and later, when he travelled more to Hong Kong, Mum ran everything. Don’t get me wrong, my Dad was very much of his time and he would go out with his pals and expect to be waited on hand and foot. He was a man’s man but I think that was as much Scottish culture in the seventies as it was Chinese. We usually ate at the restaurant so it was very rarely my Mum cooked at home but when she did it was traditional Chinese with steamed fish and chicken and lots of veggies and rice. I hardly ever eat rice now because its all I remember as a child!”
Linda was soon promoted out of the kitchen into the front of house and her Mum taught her how to run a section and hold her own on a busy night. She did this off and on during her teenage years, as she often boarded at Kilgraston where she was a secondary school pupil.
“Some years I boarded and others I stayed at home. Kilgraston at the time was still quite small, there were only 300 girls in the whole school and boarding was fun. I enjoyed it. But if I was homesick I’d stay in Perth at our Scott Street flat and help out in the restaurant at weekends. My parents let me decide which one I wanted to do; there was never any expectation or pressure on me.
I suppose in some ways Kilgraston made me independent because for the first time I was away from all of these family members. So, when I announced I was going to London to study art, I don’t think anyone was surprised. But it was such a big deal for me because at that age I was desperate to be my own person. To be Linda. I was always Linda Chan, John’s Daughter, Linda from The Jade Garden. Now, I find great pride and comfort in that but when you’re eighteen it’s hellish. And although I was never made to work, I had that inbuilt sense of obligation where I wanted to help. If I’d been near enough to go home at weekends I would have felt drawn into it.”
So off to London she went, living the dream and studying art and design. She didn’t know anyone and no-one knew her. It was perfect. She recalls her dad passing her the numbers of his friends so that she could catch up and be part of the community but she’d chuck the number into the bin as soon as his back was turned, determined to make it on her own!
“I was one of the first of my generation from The Chinese Community to go out and do it. I spent three years in London and I was every bit the student. Going to gigs, seeing movies, heading into the city shopping. It was my own time and I didn’t feel guilty for spending it doing as I pleased. I’d been such a good girl at school, trouble-free and unaffected by the usual teenage angst. I didn’t even have my first drink until I was eighteen and to be honest, I think that’s why my Mum was okay about me being there. I enjoyed it all but I was never going to be wild. It’s just not me!”
She returned home, stayed a wee while and then decided to head for Chicago to work as an au-pair for a year. “I hated it. I lasted four months and came home. I didn’t like the way they treated me, it never once felt like a family.” So there she was back in Perth, working at the restaurant and unsure about what she would do with her life.
Was there not an expectation for her to join the family business full time?
“Mmmm. Yes and no. Mum and Dad wanted me to join, there’s no doubt. But they wanted me to want it, so it was never forced. The art thing had been great but by this time I knew I needed more than that and I suppose there was always this idea at the back of my head that I might go into the restaurant eventually. So I applied for a Business Management post grad at Napier and gave myself a broader understanding of how the business world worked.”
Now, you know I love a bit of romance in a Big Personality tale and I was amazed to find out that it was around this same time she met up with a Darren, a young guy her age from Perth.
“I bumped into someone I knew in the street one day and Darren was with him. We started talking but if I’m completely honest, he wasn’t really my type!”
Really…? Because he is still by her side today, married to her and the father of her two children!
“Ha Ha! Well, it’s funny how life turns out! We’ve been together more than twenty years and married for thirteen of them. We were a couple for a long time before we were married; it just wasn’t something either of us was in a rush to do. We knew it would happen one day but we were young and we were happy. And then when my Mum fell ill we brought it all forward.”
Linda had gone back to work in the restaurant when she returned from Uni, her Dad now living between Perth and Hong Kong where he had other business interests. Mrs Chan was very much the driving force behind The Jade Garden by this time and Linda enjoyed the time they spent together, running the show with her brother and serving the customers who had watched her grow from a wee girl with her duck lollipop.
“We have always had regulars in The Jade Garden, people who loved the restaurant and loved my family. My dad had been this well-known businessman that everyone liked and respected, but with my mum they simply loved her. She was diagnosed with nasal cancer when I was twenty-eight and everything just fell apart.
I’d been back in the business for about four or five years, but I’d made a decision to go into the Police Force; I’d done all the training and was about to leave. Anyway, I just couldn’t go and leave everything she’d worked so hard for. So, while she was going through treatment I ran the Jade and when she went into remission after six months we decided to get married. I think I knew she didn’t have long and I needed her there.”
Linda and Darren headed to Edinburgh to marry in the May; with only two friends and a registrar’s office it was low key and intimate. The calm before the madness that came with a full-on, big fat Chinese wedding that July!
“I wanted to do it quietly for us and then give my Mum her big day. We had to go to the Station Hotel because it was the only place big enough to hold us all. There was about seven hundred of us all in, and all my uncles and any other family friends that could cook were drafted in to prep the meal at The Jade. Then all the food was taken to The Station to be finished off and served. It was amazing, this huge Chinese Banquet and an entire day of eating. We both went traditional, Darren was in a kilt and I was in a red Chinese wedding dress.”
The wedding was a huge relief, and gave everyone something else to think about but Linda’s Mum was struggling and her health was deteriorating. Years of working in a restaurant, passive smoking had taken its toll and the disease that strikes fear into all of us had her gripped. The following New Year John took his wife back to Hong Kong to look at alternative Chinese Medicines but they weren't to work. By February the airlines had refused to let her home, citing her as too sick to travel.
“It was heart-breaking because everyone thinks my mum went home to Hong Kong for her final few months but the truth is she wanted back to Perth. She considered this her home and was devastated when they said she couldn’t fly. We all flew over to Hong Kong and she died in early March. We brought her home to be buried here and gave her life the huge celebration it deserved. I remember everyone coming out for the procession and all of our friends and customers joining the huge cortege. Perth came to a standstill as my Mum was laid to rest - it felt fitting. I knew then how much she had been respected and loved by all of us. It was a relief at the end when she went, out of pain. And the memories everyone has of her have helped me enormously.”
As Linda explains all of this to me I have a sense that her mum’s life and death is an integral part of what makes her the woman she is. That may seem obvious, we are all moulded by our mothers and when you lose a parent at a young age it makes you different. But with Linda, there is a deep and unwavering respect and admiration; she understands that she had to share this amazing woman with each and every person who walked through the doors of their restaurant and it this simple truth has made her proud to be known as Mrs Chan's daughter.
As we chat, we are both in agreement that had she been around, Mrs Chan would have been the one in hot seat. I'd have sat chattering and unravelling her story from Hong Kong to Perth and her Big Personality badge would have been suited her perfectly.
“Mum’s life was always here and after she died I couldn’t just throw it all away. She had worked so hard for this, for all of us, and it filled me with a sense of purpose to keep it all going. But you know how life is, that June I fell pregnant and exactly a year to the day that we buried mum, Charlotte was born and my life changed again. I took a wee bit time off but we decided it made more sense for me to come back to work and for Darren to stay at home. He was probably the first of our mates to be a househusband but it wasn’t meant as any big statement, it was just what suited us.
He loved it; he was wrapped round Charlotte’s tiny finger! But when Hamish came along seventeen months later, that was me. I was desperate to spend time with my children and I stopped work for about four years and let my brother Angus run the business. I was conscious that it was precious time I was losing and that I wouldn’t get those young years back. I became a housewife and full time mum and I loved every minute of it. I only came back when Hamish started school, so that was four years ago. Now, Darren and I juggle life and kids and work just like every other family I know.”
We’re sitting in The Jade Garden for our chat; RG and I had been in the week before for dinner, as is our want when we fancy Chinese. I have had many a great night out in here, eating, drinking, dancing and on more than one occasion, singing into the Karoke in the upstairs function room. I love the formality of the proper, white-linen table cloths, and the never-ending novelty of the tabletop plate warmers. It is comforting to step into The Jade Garden. Red walls, lucky gold cats and a big warm welcome from whoever is on the door. John was home when we walked in, perched at the bar staying out of his daughter's way. He insisted on buying us drinks, shaking RG’s hand furiously as they recalled stories that involved late nights and large brandies. Linda has grown up with this, it is part of her life. The only difference is, that these days she’s allowed to call the shots while he sits patiently waiting for her to finish her shift or pull up a seat for a chat.
“I’ve spent my life inside these four walls and the changes have been vast. Back in the seventies there was only a handful of other restaurants in Perth. Even in the nineties you only had us, Pacos and The Italian Corner. Pubs didn’t do pub food and we were the exotic end of the market! Now people want sushi and Mexican and different flavours. There's more choice and less money.
My dad sometimes gets stressed out because it’s not as busy as it once was and I have to remind him of all of these other things that are going on outside our door, influencing trade outwith our control. It’s a different world. And that’s before you even get to the laws on environmental health and pat testing. Seriously, my Uncle Ian would have been sacked a hundred times if today’s HR laws had been in place. And as much as I loved it, my kids have never gone to sleep under the sink!”
Some things remain the same though; forty years ago Linda’s Grandad bought his meat from Beaton’s Grandad at DG Lindsays and today that same relationship exists. They buy fish from Mara who source Scottish and sustainable and their veggies come from Martin’s. Apart from the ingredients that have to come from the Chinese warehouse in Dundee, they are flying a flag for the #PerthLoveFest.
“You do things in your community where you can because in turn, that feeds all of us. I’m not as involved in business circles as my Dad was and I leave running the Chinese Community to my cousin Andy! I don’t have time. I take the kids to school, I do the lunch shift, I pick them up and when Darren gets home I come back in and do the evening shift. Whenever I’m not in here I’m with my family. I know you’re going ask me about hobbies and other interests but the truth is me and Darren’s lives revolve around Charlotte and Hamish and that’s exactly as I like it. A perfect day for me is all of us in the house, in our jammies and on the couch together by half past six. I know it sounds boring but I love it!”
I tell her there are a million other working parents reading this and breathing a sigh of relief that there is someone else just like them. Who isn’t saving the planet or knitting jumpers for homeless cats. And this is why she is so likeable, so girl-next-door normal. She says the things we all think, she is smiling and funny, she mockingly rolls her eyes at her husband’s inability to be a strict parent, she loves her kids and appreciates this life her parents’ hard work has made possible.
“I completely understand the important place that The Jade Garden holds in the hearts of the people of Perth. I still get customers in who love to tell the story of me sitting on their knee and chatting when I was a wee girl. Their children and grandchildren come. People have spent their big celebrations and parties with us, and some of their happiest memories have been in my family’s business. I’m proud and humbled by that and I love that I’ve been able to keep my mum’s memory going.
But I also love that I’ve taken the chance to walk away for a wee while, that I stop for days off to take Charlotte dancing and spend time talking nonsense with Hamish. They’re fourth generation now; we woke up last week and they got their lucky money for Chinese New Year. Charlotte said ‘Kung Hei Fat Choy’ and Hamish said ‘Happy Chinese New Year Mummy’. There are lots of things that make you who you are; I’m just lucky that mine have all been family.”
And with that, Linda Chan-Malcolm smiles, insists on ordering me a steaming hot plate of king prawns and ginger and swings into action as her busy Friday lunch service kicks off.
It looks as though Mrs Chan’s delicate Chinese shoes may just have found themselves suitably filled.
If you’ve not been in for a while then can I recommend you head to The Jade Garden where you will find freshly cooked, traditional Chinese food and great service? Like I said, Linda fed me before I left (of course she did!) and it was an amazing king prawn and ginger dish with rice and chinese tea.
They also do takeaway (it went like a fair the night we were in) and deliveries within the Perth area. Open seven days!
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