Why we must al­ways main­tain a warm Wel­come in Belfast for com­mu­ni­ties who have made the city so much bet­ter

Belfast Telegraph - - LIFE -

The hos­pi­tal­ity busi­ness is a tough world even in the best of times and the best of places. It’s a bit of an un­der­state­ment to note that Belfast in the early Eight­ies was nei­ther of those things. So for a res­tau­rant es­tab­lished in the dark­est of our days to be cel­e­brat­ing, this month, its 35th an­niver­sary is re­mark­able enough in it­self.

But the iconic Wel­come Res­tau­rant on the Stran­mil­lis Road rep­re­sents some­thing much more than just the vic­tory of com­mer­cial en­durance through dif­fi­cult days.

Founded by the Wong fam­ily, who still own and run it, the Wel­come is also North­ern Ire­land’s old­est fam­ily-run Chi­nese res­tau­rant.

As such it’s as much a sym­bol too of that hon­ourable and hard­work­ing eth­nic com­mu­nity with such long and pow­er­ful ties to this place who have brought so much to the cul­tural and busi­ness life of North­ern Ire­land.

(Those post­ing vile, hate­filled com­ments about var­i­ous mi­grant groups re­ally do need to learn a bit about the con­tri­bu­tion so many of these peo­ple have made to our coun­try.)

Chi­nese peo­ple, mostly from Hong Kong, first be­gan to ar­rive here in size­able num­bers back in the Six­ties.

At one point it was claimed that Can­tonese was North­ern Ire­land’s “sec­ond lan­guage” al­though, through de­mo­graphic change, that’s now more likely to be Pol­ish.

Most of these new­com­ers, al­most in­evitably, were em­ployed in the res­tau­rant trade. There are few towns and vil­lages in North­ern Ire­land which now don’t have a much-loved Chi­nese take­away.

The Wongs opened their first res­tau­rant in 1973 and the el­e­gant Stran­mil­lis Wel­come launched in 1982.

This dur­ing what was an­other par­tic­u­larly dire year in North­ern Ire­land’s his­tory. A grim year of vi­o­lence and ris­ing un­em­ploy­ment.

On the plus side (I don’t want to sound in­sen­si­tive here) the North­ern Ire­land foot­ball team did, fa­mously, make it through to the World Cup that year.

To a gen­er­a­tion who have grown up with an end­less range of cof­fee shops where they can take their lap­top for a latte, and a vast choice of other cafes, bars, eater­ies and nightlife venues, it’s dif­fi­cult to de­scribe the ut­ter bleak­ery of Belfast back then.

It wasn’t that peo­ple didn’t go out be­cause they couldn’t be both­ered. They of­ten didn’t go out be­cause they were afraid to. ‘Nightlife’ used to have other con­no­ta­tions.

There were only a few places to go to any­way. So the open­ing of the Wel­come was a burst of light and op­ti­mism amid the gloom. Even the decor re­flected that. On the ceil­ing two great blue domes speck­led with ‘stars’ added a ce­les­tial touch to the din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Al­though the res­tau­rant has been up­dated over the years, the Wongs have had the good sense not to ditch its domes.

San, who was awarded an MBE for ser­vices to the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try in the late Nineties, is now sup­pos­edly re­tired but still dons an apron oc­ca­sion­ally.

Down the years the Wel­come has won nu­mer­ous plau­dits — sev­eral times Best Res­tau­rant, and an Egon Ronay ci­ta­tion.

It’s now in the hands of a new gen­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing owner and brilliant chef Char­lie and the ge­nial Michael out front.

And it’s still win­ning ac­co­lades. Most re­cently the Wel- come has been voted Belfast’s No 1 res­tau­rant on TripAd­vi­sor.

I’ve no qualms about say­ing I’m a big fan of the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try in North­ern Ire­land in gen­eral.

I of­ten won­der why the likes of, say, Wil­lie Jack, the man who more than any other has been re­spon­si­ble for the phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess of Belfast’s Cathe­dral Quar­ter and with it much of this city’s tourist trade, aren’t recog­nised with the gongs they fully de­serve.

Look around Belfast these days and you see a city as spec­tac­u­larly resur­gent as the new Grand Cen­tral Ho­tel now be­ing kit­ted out in all its glass-fronted mag­nif­i­cence.

And it’s those busi­nesses which have been with us in bad times as well as good that de­serve par­tic­u­lar credit for their role in this re­gen­er­a­tion.

The Wel­come res­tau­rant, and the Wong fam­ily, have earned a special place in the his­tory of this city.

Here’s to their next 35 years.

Belfast vet­eran: the Wel­come in Stran­mil­lis and (be­low) res­tau­rant owner San Wong and wife Linda

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