AVENUES & ALLEYWAYS: Me old china
London has racked up quite a number of ‘firsts’ over the years – ice rinks, machine guns, television, to name just three – so few will be shocked to learn that the city lays claim to Europe’s first Chinatown. What might come as a surprise is that this early Asian community was located nowhere near the Gerrard Street bricolage of restaurants, paper lanterns, and crispy duck that makes up London’s Chinatown today. Instead, the city’s first neighbourhood populated by Chinese migrants was in rough and ready Limehouse, near the docks on the Isle of Dogs.
The closeness of these docks was important. Britain was introduced to the Far East in the 18th and early 19th centuries through the increased trade that came with imperial expansion. This created a growing demand for products such as porcelain, silk and spices – many of which came from China, and all of which were imported into the UK via the London docks. The arrival of tantalising new flavours and exquisitely-crafted objet d’art left an Orientalist impression of China as exotic and mysterious. The British were particularly fascinated when, in the mid-19th century, Chinese sailors took lodgings in Limehouse as they waited for ships returning to the East. Over time, a small number of sailors settled in the area, bringing family and friends from back home, and marrying local British women.
This initial Chinatown was small in terms of geography and people. The pre-World War II Asian population of Limehouse, for instance, peaked in the early 1930s at around 400, and only ever covered a handful of streets. But the clusters of Chinese restaurants, laundries and boarding houses – all with signs in the then alien Mandarin script – on roads such as Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway, gave Londoners a glimpse into a world beyond the Judeo-Christian culture that dominated the West. This sense of the ‘other’ exerted a powerful pull on the collective British imagination, providing a canvas on which Victorians and Edwardians could project their worst fears. We can see the proof of this in how the UK’s nascent Chinese community was treated in high-brow and low-brow literature, as well as in film and journalism, from the late 1800s through to WWII.
The well-read might remember Chinese characters in critically-acclaimed Victorian novels including Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. But they appear only as drug dealers or other bit parts in East End opium dens visited by British protagonists. The number of opium dens in Limehouse was actually tiny, so while one cannot deny their gritty appeal, concentrating solely on them as locations excluded other features of the Chinese community. Such a myopic focus created what critic John Seed describes as an ‘endlessly-repeated image, a strange fusion of poverty, filth and pleasure’ that framed the British view of the Chinese and their ‘otherness’.
Perhaps the moment Limehouse Chinatown moved from the world of Victorian literary intelligentsia to the meaner streets of pulp fiction was Doctor Watson’s visit to an opium den in the 1891 Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ published, as it was, in the popular Strand Magazine. With this shift, writers began to describe a new Chinatown beyond the narcotic squalor of the opium den, one that claimed to reflect wider aspects of the community’s burgeoning life and culture. While this might sound positive, the authors who took this new approach merely opted for the path of least resistance, exaggerating, embellishing, and even just straight up inventing an alluring and unnerving neighbourhood in order to create stories with a feverish, hyperbolic pitch that could be more easily sold to both publishers and public.
The result was books such as Sax Rohmer’s The Insidious Doctor Fu Manchu, Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, and Edgar Wallace’s The Yellow Snake. Supposedly steeped in authentic autobiographical detail, these were really just sensationalist screeds playing on prejudice, stereotype and cultural difference to produce popular page-turners that were pure fiction. As Burke put it years later: ‘At the time … I had no knowledge of the Chinese people, [or] of Limehouse’.
Their own ignorance didn’t deter writers such as Burke and Rohmer from churning out stories portraying the Chinese as vicious and violent, addicted to drugs and gambling, and possessed by a deviant, animal sexuality that drove them to exploit innocent Western women. These books were often bestsellers, with many made into movies by heavyweight directors such as DW Griffith and starring big box office names of the day including Boris Karloff and Lillian Gish.
These fictions built a Chinatown of the mind, ‘an imaginary cartography’, as John Seed notes, ‘which projects onto the real cityscape its own shadowy ideological antagonisms’. Put simply, a place beyond Limehouse’s actual physical and social boundaries in which polite British society could explore its very worst fears of sin and iniquity. Recognising an easy vein of lurid material when they saw one, the tabloid newspapers piled in with wild abandon. Led by the likes of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Evening News, articles with headlines such as ‘Yellow Peril in London’ and ‘White Girls Hypnotised by Yellow Men’ were common fare in the British papers of the 1920s.
While the Limehouse Chinese did like to gamble, and invented a precursor of the National Lottery called pakapoo, like the novels or Burke and Rohmer there was no truth behind much of the British press’s rhetoric, as evidenced by Liverpool Chief Constable’s description of the Chinese as ‘quiet, inoffensive and industrious’. But this didn’t stop the aforementioned tabloids running stories that hordes of Chinese were invading the UK, stealing jobs and women, engaging in criminal activities, and generally corroding the morals of the decent British populace.
In treating early 20th century Chinese immigrants in this way – most of whom, like today’s migrants, were fleeing political upheaval and economic hardship – the Edwardian papers created a cut and paste formula with which the more frenzied parts of the UK media have treated immigrants ever since. From Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany, to Bangladeshi restaurateurs arriving in the 1960s, to Polish builders taking advantage of EU freedom of movement – the prism of panic and hysteria through which Limehouse Chinatown was viewed helped create the hostile environment of fear and suspicion that still makes up much of the British public debate on immigration.
But apart from short story collections, silent films, and a history of press persecution, what is left of London’s first Chinese community? Well, the laundries and boarding houses are long gone from Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields, blitzed by German bombs and razed by post-war slum clearance programmes. The intoxicating whiff of the opium dens is nowhere to be smelt either. Like anywhere in London, though, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find rich evidence of times past. A glance at a map of the area, for instance, reveals a cluster of street names – Nankin, Canton, Pekin [sic] – testifying to the origins of those who once lived here. And while wandering through these streets won’t bring you face-to-face with Fu Manchu, it might take you to the doorstep of the Chun Yee Society on Birchfield Street where Mandarin text adorns the building, English is taught on Sundays, and a social club for the elderly serves food at evenings and weekends.
Sharp-eyed visitors to the area will also notice a smattering of Chinese restaurants such as Popo on Hind Grove, Noodle Street on the aptly-named Ming Street, and Local Friends at the top of Salmon Lane. This last eatery is particularly interesting as it was once part of a London-wide chain set up by entrepreneur Charlie Cheung that included restaurants such as Old Friends on nearby Mandarin Street and City Friends close to the Old Bailey. Local Friends is thought to be the first Chinese takeaway in the UK, which alongside inventing the National Lottery, is not a bad legacy for Limehouse Chinatown considering the number of such takeaways that now dot Britain’s cities, towns and even villages.
That Limehouse Chinatown was full of ingenious entrepreneurs looking to make money won’t surprise readers of the business pages, who will know despite the recent collapse in relations between Britain and Beijing, that China has returned to East London in the form of a £1.7bn investment in a residential, entertainment and financial hub at nearby Royal Albert Dock.
This mood of return and regeneration is shared in Peter Dunn’s 1997 sculpture ‘Salter Street Dragon’. Standing at the junction of Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields, at the very centre of what was Europe’s first Chinese neighbourhood, this artwork shows a pair of feisty dragons chasing each other’s tails in a never-ending circle. Sited behind a bus-stop, on a non-descript corner, and partially hidden by a tree – this artwork and its installation reflect the obfuscated reality and obscure history of Limehouse Chinatown. But the dragons’ bright, eye-catching scales, and the plaque on the sculpture’s plinth declaring that ‘biting each other’s tails, [they] embody the power of unity and renewal’, speaks of a community that though physically departed is still very much here in spirit and memory, and still somehow able to draw the attention and influence of Asia’s most wildly dynamic and resurgent economy. It’s a fitting epitaph to the plucky sailors, political dissidents and business people who braved the high seas in hope of finding new lives, and in doing so introduced Britain to the intoxicating allure and enterprise of Asia.