22 August 2023

A pagoda and a former
synagogue at the heart of
China Town in Birmingham

The Chinese Pagoda in the centre of the Holloway Circus roundabout is now a landmark in Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Birmingham last week, on my own self-guided walking tour of the former Jewish Quarter and in search of the synagogues of the city. To my surprise, I found myself in Birmingham’s China Town, face-to-face with the Chinese Pagoda, which is one of the city’s landmarks, and visiting the city’s first Chinese restaurant in a former synagogue.

The most prominent landmark in China Town in Birmingham is the seven-storey granite Chinese Pagoda surrounded by Chinese style gardens and sculpture. It was erected in 1998 and is situated on the outskirts of the Chinese Quarter in Holloway Circus also commonly referred to as ‘Pagoda Island.’

The Chinese Pagoda is a 40-ft (12 metre) granite carving in the centre of the Holloway Circus roundabout on the Inner Ring Road. It is said more than 60,000 motorists see the Pagoda every day. It was carved in Fujian in China, and was donated to the city 25 years ago by the Wing Yip brothers, the founders of a local Chinese supermarket chain.

The small area surrounding pagoda and in the middle of the roundabout has been turned into a Feng Shui garden, with a large Taijitu, a traditional Chinese symbol, embedded in the pavement. The Wing Yip brothers said it was their way of saying thanks to the city and its people for providing a home for them and their families and for the city’s support over the years.

China Town is just five minutes’ walk from New Street Station, close to the Bullring. The neighbouring areas include the Irish Quarter in Digbeth, the Arcadian Centre, the Gay Village and the Theatre District to the west.

The Chinese Quarter first emerged as an informal cluster of Chinese community organisations, social clubs, and businesses in the 1960s centred on Hurst Street. The area developed as Chinese-owned businesses, organisations and social clubs began to cluster in the area. The area developed with the arrival in Birmingham of migrants of Chinese heritage from Hong Kong after the end of World War II.

The Chung Ying Cantonese Restaurant opened in a former synagogue on the corner of Wrottesley Street in 1981. It was the first Chinese restaurant in the area now known as China Town.

The Chinese Quarter was officially recognised in the 1980s. China Town now includes Hurst Street, Ladywell Walk and Pershore Street. Many buildings have Chinese architectural features and art, including Chinese style roofs and murals. A large event there each year celebrates Chinese New Year.

The Wing Yip Chinese supermarket chain was founded by Woon Wing Yip in England in 1970. The company expanded into wholesale and export international trade and real estate development and management, with shops in large commercial centres.

The original shop in Birmingham now serves as the headquarters of the chain, handling international trading, property investments, and online shopping, as well as serving as a warehouse and national distribution centre. The chain now has superstore branches in Manchester, Croydon and Cricklewood.

The founder of the chain, Woon Wing Yip, was a Hakka born in Dongguan County, Guangdong, China, in 1937. He arrived in Britain from Hong Kong in 1959 with £10 in his pocket, but in time became the first Chinese tycoon in Britain.

Wing Yip was made an OBE in 2010 for his services to the Oriental food industry. At the time, Wing Yip said ‘I was so surprised and feel very honoured, especially after coming here as an immigrant. I knew when I arrived in the UK that I wanted to be more than a waiter and quickly became head waiter, then opened my first restaurant with my business partners in Clacton in 1962. I would like to thank all my staff who have provided me with their support and dedication and made the success of Wing Yip possible.’

The Chung Ying Cantonese Restaurant opened in 1981 and was the first Chinese restaurant in China Town in Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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