A Short History of London’s Chinatown

A Short History of London’s Chinatown

With Chinese New Year just around the corner on the 25th January, some might be wondering why, every year, London puts on the biggest celebrations outside of Asia. A Chinatown has existed in London since the early 18th century, but it didn’t always brush elbows with the seedy glamour of Soho.

What Is Chinatown’s History?

The mid 1880’s saw steady flow of Chinese sailors come to Limehouse in East London, travelling on ships with the British East India Company which were importing popular Chinese commodities such as tea, ceramics and silks. The sailors stayed for periods of time in barracks in the London Docklands, some settling permanently, and the area of Limehouse became the site of the first Chinatown, full of restaurants and hardware shops.

The Chinese migrant population of Limehouse had increased to 337 people by 1921, with around 40% of the inhabitants living in a handful of streets in Limehouse. While Limehouse remained a relatively small community before the First World War, the distinctive ancestral heritage was already firmly established in the area.

Chinatown Limehouse

Men standing outside a business in Chinatown, Limehouse, 20th century

The iconic architecture of Foon’s emporium at 57 Pennyfields, now home to delicious pan-Asian restaurant Noodle Street, Chong Chus’ restaurant in Limehouse Causeway and the Chinese laundry on the corner of Castor Street. The British public had developed a taste for the orient; fine silks and exotic spices equalled class and status. However, the tumultuous 19th century trade disputes between Britain and China known as the Opium Wars, manifested resentment towards the Chinese who had settled in Limehouse.

A young woman leaves a shop in Chinatown, Limehouse

A young woman leaves a shop in Chinatown, Limehouse, 20th century

Sensationalised fears surrounding Limehouse’s Chinatown were so great, known in the tabloids as the ‘Yellow Peril’, that it led many illustrators and writers at the time to use it as inspiration for their fiction, creating a dangerous mystique that still exists today. Writer Arthur Ward, under the pseudonym Sax Rohmer, created the iconic character ‘Fu Machu’.

Fu Manchu is described as an evil supervillain who tortures his victims in peculiar ways, has exotic pets and is involved with secret organisations. Sax Rohmer admitted himself that he created the character without any prior knowledge and understanding of Chinese culture, and it has since been made in to comics, films, and radio productions for the past 90 years. The stereotype still exists today.

Where Is Chinatown in London Now?

The East End was bombed heavily during the Blitz in WWII. It contains some of the city’s most important dockland areas which, at the time were a major hub used to store vital goods for the war effort. If the Luftwaffe could disable the East End, they could cut off major supplies to and from London. A densely populated area full of local families, the Nazi’s were also hoping for high mortality rates, therefore diminishing morale.

The East End was so badly damaged that Chinatown lay in rubble, with little hope of resurrection as the docklands finally shut down leaving many jobless and homeless.

Chinatown almost faced extinction in London were it not for the fact that British people had developed a taste for the intense flavours of Chinese food, having grown bored of pies and jellied eels.

Chinatown, Soho

Chinatown in its current location in Soho

When they made the move to Gerrard Street in the 1950’s, Soho had a large reputation and low rent. British soldiers returning from the Far East had got a serious taste for Chinese food, so upspring Chinese supermarkets and restaurants, as well as more Chinese entrepreneurs.

By the late-60s Chinatown was in full swing, with the population now numbering in the tens of thousands, and a Far Eastern travel agency had been set up to deal with the huge number of restaurant workers arriving from China.

In the 1980’s the area was decorated in true Chinese fashion, red lanterns, elaborate gates built in the traditional Qing dynasty style; the largest in the country, and the pedestrianisation of Gerard Street, parts of Newport Place and Macclesfield Street.

How to Get to Chinatown

London’s Chinatown is close to Central London’s main attractions including Leicester Square, Theatreland, Covent Garden and Soho.

The nearest underground stations to Chinatown are Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus which are on the Piccadilly, Northern and Bakerloo lines.

Various buses link Chinatown to many other areas and taxis are plentiful.

Chinese New Year

The Chinese New Year Celebrations in London are the biggest anywhere outside of Asia. Head down to the stuffed streets for traditional dancing, a colourful parade, delicious food and stage performances. Look out for the cabbages hanging from windows, if the Chinese dragon in the parade chooses to ‘eat’ yours, its good luck for the year!

A Chinese dragon in the New Year Parade

A Chinese dragon in the New Year Parade

So squeeze in to the colourful streets of Chinatown this 26 January 2020, the Sunday after Chinese New Year to celebrate the Year of the Rat!

If you want to see more of London why not try a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour?