Emma Chen ‘rules’ her 30-year-old Johannesburg restaurant with a unique love for food that she shares with her patrons. She is the empress of Jozi’s restaurant scene, where quality is rewarded with loyalty and turning tables. In the most trying economic times Emma’s flagship restaurant and its more footloose sister eatery in Linden, PRON, surpass all their rivals, especially when it comes to taste.




Emma Chen ‘rules’ her 30-year-old Johannesburg restaurant with a unique love for food that she shares with her patrons. She is the empress of Jozi’s restaurant scene, where quality is rewarded with loyalty and turning tables. In the most trying economic times Emma’s flagship restaurant and its more footloose sister eatery in Linden, PRON, surpass all their rivals, especially when it comes to taste.


Food is love…

Visitors, who are treated as guests, come and stay for the dim sum… steamed and fried parcelled perfection; the cold seaweed, garlic and chilli dish Emma loves so much; her famous duck evenings; the morsels of seafood on sesame toast; braised snowy tofu and silky mushrooms; crispy chicken on the bone; pink plump prawns; fluffy egg-fried rice; thick, juicy noodles; ginger fish; beautifully bright vegetables; spoonfuls of soup, spicy and sweet; fortune cookie snaps…

The Red Chamber is famous for its food, but perhaps more so for the gentle woman who has owned and run one of Joburg’s greatest culinary gems for 30 years. Emma Chen is an empress of food, good and great food, the love of food that goes into preparing and savouring it. For years, patrons have come for her company too – when invited, she joins diners at their tables, and shares her wisdom and intelligence, talent and humour, curiosity and taste.

Emma grew up in Taiwan, in a military camp, where food was the only currency not in short supply. Food represented love and friendship in a community that lacked economic wealth.

“Food is love,” says Emma.

Teacher Jiang’s daughter

“My mom was the local schoolteacher, and in the camp where I grew up everybody knew I was Teacher Jiang’s daughter. There was little material wealth, but there was a strong sense of cohesion in the tight community. I could walk in and out of any house, no doors were locked. At mealtimes I would often be invited to join family tables.”

Emma runs her two restaurants with a keen awareness of others, especially her female staff, of whom she employs close to 40 in total.

She is aware of their circumstances, understanding that their domestic lives are often not ideal, and she tries to guide them and make them aware that life’s obstacles can be overcome or bettered during their own lifetime.

She knows there are resentments and challenges, and she tries to tell others to be aware of this – a lesson she learnt through food.

“On Sundays, I would go to the market with my mother to help her carry the baskets. Bargaining was the normal practice, but I always felt shy when I saw Mom doing it. One day, I saw a neighbour ‘mama’ (that’s how we referred to all adult women) crouching on the floor, bargaining with the vegetable vendor.

“After she had paid, the neighbour grabbed a handful of mushrooms, threw them into her own basket, stood up and quickly walked away. I stared at the vendor in shock.

“When he turned to deal with Mom, he smiled and greeted her in a friendly manner, but I noticed his clenched jaw and his unsmiling eyes. My mom was oblivious to what had just happened and started to bargain as usual. 

“I learnt that morning that life can be complicated.

“Throughout the years, I came to realise that our background plays a significant role in shaping who we are, and I remember that when dealing with my staff and my customers.”

A person without a past

Almost 40 years ago, when Emma was a young woman, serendipity extended a hand when she was on her way to America to continue her studies in English. After she had graduated from the University of Taichung in Taipei, Emma’s uncle told her about the beauty of South Africa.

“This triggered my curiosity. I approached the South African Embassy in Taipei and found a post-graduate course at what was then the Rand Afrikaans University, and enrolled.”

Emma was going to Africa.

“It was the first time I was away from home, and being so far away I was extremely homesick and missed my mom terribly. Yet at the same time, I enjoyed the freedom of being a person without a past. I could be whatever I wanted to be. I told myself I would experience every new thing that came my way and I never declined an invitation.

“While I was studying I waited tables. I would stay up late reading and woke up late. My life was my own.

“I did not decide to stay in South Africa. It just happened.”

It was eight years before Emma returned to Taiwan for her first visit since leaving.

In celebration of food

In 1989, Emma opened the Red Chamber restaurant in Rosebank. “Back then, the Chinese restaurant scene was very limited. Most Chinese restaurants and takeaways were based on Cantonese cuisine,” she explains.

Emma’s decision to open her own restaurant was based on her childhood, where food was made with care and fresh ingredients, savoured and shared.  

“Most families lived from one pay cheque to the next. Borrowing cooking oil, spring onions and even salt was commonplace. My mom regularly asked me to take pastries that she’d made to our neighbours and I always returned with a dish that they’d made in return. 

“Ever since I was little, I learnt that giving and sharing food was a display of caring. All the celebrations were around food too.”

Crushing on nature

Emma and her mathematician husband Colin often travel in Africa and South Africa. Both share a love of nature and the bush.

Emma speaks fondly of their travels to Thendele in the Drakensberg, and of Tankwa in the Karoo “where the openness, rugged terrain and extreme weather conditions make you realise how vulnerable humans are”, as well as to Pafuri camp in the northernmost Kruger National Park “where the magnificent baobab and fever tree forest enchant me”.

Her trip to the Impenetrable Forest in Uganda several years ago is a highlight, when she and a group of travellers spent a whole day tracking an elusive family of gorillas. By the time they finally reached the family, they all fell silent in awe at the sight of the magnificent silverback. They soon broke into soft laughter when a few juvenile gorillas deliberately came towards them and stared at them curiously, like children. “It was a pity I could not produce one good picture,” she sighs, “but I was shaken so much from joy and exhaustion.

“I thought I knew the African bush, but the first morning I was there I was overcome with the calls and the smells of the dense misty forest. I felt alien and at home at the same time.”

Crushing on Colin… and Keanu

Despite “crushing” on actor Keanu Reeves, and the dashing Mr Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emma describes knowing and marrying Colin as one of the luckiest events in her life.

“There is absolute trust between us. I trust him for his integrity and honesty. And there is something so sexy about a man who is super intelligent and talks like an encyclopaedia,” she laughs.

After years of popping in at Emma’s for quick conversations that become hours of gastronomic delight while we solve the world’s problems and reconstruct society, chopsticks in hands and dipping sauce at the ready, I know Emma has immense joy, humility and wisdom within her.

She balances her inquisitive, philosophical and sometimes serious nature with wit and humour. She has an abundant laugh, capturing life in an instant as it ripples to the surface quickly, like crystal.

“Do not take yourself too seriously,” she always says.

That is her motto in life.

The soul of caring

Emma loves animals and calls her two Rottweilers “my boys, my children”.

“I cannot see myself loving two-legged children more than I love my dogs. I grew up with dogs and cats, often quite a few at a time. When a stray dog or cat followed us home, my sister and I would make up a sad story to persuade Mom to keep the animal. And once Mom had bathed it, it would be another member of the family.”

On a more serious note, she says, “As a Chinese person, I also feel that I owe the dogs and cats more because of how other Chinese people treat them.”

And that’s the heart of Emma: the soul of caring.

Her fondest food memories are associated with events and time spent with loved ones, like her mother’s dumplings.

“She made them large and flat, without any folds. She said those fancy folds may look pretty, but they were unnecessary ‘dead’ dough.

“Eating a Peruvian ceviche of large crunchy corn, herbs and raw fish in downtown Santiago de Chile… Taiwanese cold salty goose and beer at a service station in Taichung on the first trip Colin and I took to Taiwan… 

“Braised chicken feet are my favourite nibbles when I watch a film,” she adds. “In Taiwan, chargrilled chicken feet are sold outside movie houses. My sister and I would buy four each and take them to the movies with us.”

Author of her own book, the popular Emperor Can Wait, which was published in 2009, she loves reading and counts another Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility, among her favourites.

“I will never get tired of reading her novels. The wit, the characters, the plots and the happy endings make me reach for them again and again.”

When she is homesick, even after 30 years in another country, “I read a few chapters from Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Journey to the West.

“When I turned 50, I celebrated my big day by watching the entire Alien Quadrilogy for nine hours straight. I dream of one day reading about the discovery of another life form on another planet.”

If she could invite fictional characters for dinner, it would be Neo from The Matrix and writer Lee Child’s creation Jack Reacher (not the Tom Cruise version, though, she adds).

“I would sit on Keanu’s lap and feed him one noodle string at a time. Jack and I would walk down a dangerous, dark alley, and after he beats up the baddies, we’ll share burgers, with a black coffee for him and a latte for me.”

She laughs. “Jack doesn’t like Chinese food, but no one is perfect.”

“I can cry whenever I feel like it”

A mother to many, a sister, daughter, wife and mentor, Emma embraces womanhood with brimming humour.

“I enjoy that I can pretend I know nothing about cars; that I can be a mother to all my staff members; that, as a woman, I can cry whenever I feel like it.

“In life, the important things for me are health; quality of life when I think of my sickly parents; freedom from poverty and war when I think of the world, and yet, at the end of the day, perhaps I would say, ‘nothing matters’.

“But from time to time, I like to pause and truly appreciate the happy moments in life.”