The Chinese takeaway syndrome

The Chinese takeaway syndrome

In a world dominated by ‘search’ versus ‘catalogues’, people will find you based on what you can deliver. 

The Chinese must be arguably the world’s largest diaspora with roughly 100 million ‘Chinese’ who are mostly through national assimilation, Malaysians, Singaporeans, and so on. I’ve even met Spanish-speaking Chinese restaurant owners in Mendoza, a 2nd tier Argentinian city.

If there’s one thing such people bring to any nation, it is their food. For many years as a student and then a working professional, I lived in England. You could not go very far in any central or suburban area without chancing upon a Chinese takeaway. Open almost all days and working all hours, these family-run operations would have the cheapest and most stereotypical names and branding. More pertinently, when it came to the food, that was often Anglicised, or modified for British tastes, you had the menu. Yes, the dreaded menu.

The menu was often a single A4 sheet with maybe as many as 100 items on it. But on closer inspection, you’d notice that there were usually at most four to five different sauces – so your choice could be “Chicken in Brown Sauce”, (whatever that was!), “Chicken in Sweet-Sour Sauce”, “Chicken in Soy Sauce” and so on. You’d then find it repeated for pork and often fish.

You’d slouch home with your brown bags of food after ordering and have an often filling if mediocre meal. Now, compare this experience with dining at a Chinese eatery that took pride in what it stood for. Even now, when most people from a developed nation think of Chinese food, what they are really thinking of is what I term ‘High Cantonese’, so think classics like crispy duck skin and pancakes, “dim sum”, essentially, delicate, beautifully prepared and flavourful morsels whose recipes originated from south China, and Canton. Now while there are some great places that promote or serve largely Sichuan, Hunan or food from the other provinces, when you go into any of these places more than once or twice, you’re likely to order the same combination of dishes. When you bring a guest to your favourite place, you’ll sing praises and recommend things like their wasabi prawns, the crispy belly pork or maybe their steamed fish and so on. You’ll zoom into the items that best represent that eatery’s offerings and the rest simply fade into the background.

Now if you look at India, many Indian restaurants are labeled as “international cuisine”; offer everything from a standard pakora or Vindaloo, or a spaghetti bolognaise. I have eaten at such places, and believe me, the non-Indian offerings are often so poorly done, you’d feel like getting the Cuisine Police, if they existed, to close them down. It’s not that they don’t make a decent return. It’s more that sometimes, they could be so much more.

Where I see the problem in many businesses or even with waged professionals is that they try hard to be too many things for too many people. After all, more is better, right? Wrong.

You want to get out of the Chinese takeaway syndrome. Instead of showing prospective bosses all the myriad things you can do, most at an OK but not brilliant level, how about showing them just one-two thing you can do better than almost anyone else they can find? Such people or organisations are gems. They have superb clarity in not just who or what they are, but also what they are not.

In a world now dominated by ‘search’ versus ‘catalogues’, people will find you, while looking for what you can deliver. They don’t search for a “plastic surgeon in New Delhi”; they’ll be searching for “best nose job in New Delhi” or something along those lines. In an age of sameness, to truly stand out, you’ll need to be focusing on doing just a few things really, really well. So sit back and do a personal audit – what do you bring to the game that truly makes you stand out as a practitioner of your craft or industry?

A good place to start your own transformation is to look at your Linkedin profile. Linkedin is becoming one of the most used search engines for people looking for people. When people find you, what search term would you want them to have used to find you? That term should be peppered all over your recommendations, comments, and performance descriptions. Do you merely put your job title in the field offered by Linkedin, or do you creatively add words like “..contributing X millions to the bottomline through financial strategies”. There are many resources out there to help you stand out. Similarly, you can delete many many “endorsement” categories accorded to you by others on your profile so only the top 2 or 4 really stand out.

Look at your organisation and check in what way it’s diluting its core focus. And then make changes there. Each year, I read of companies divesting billions of dollars in assets and companies they bought years previously to “focus on their core competencies” – it’s just never-ending, isn’t it? The more successful and cash-flush you become, the more you think you can succeed in everything and look to everyone as your customer. Usually, these divestments are either at a loss; or, represent a short-term upward blip to the bottom line in the annual company report. Stop doing that.

Just like those entering an eatery of any repute, as the owner, you’ll want your customer or client to feel they came to the right place. And you can’t do that by being a Chinese takeaway.

Meet the author:

David Lim is Asia’s Motivational Mentor and is best known for leading the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition. Since 1999, he has helped organizations motivate teams and grow leaders. Engage him with questions at