Limehouse: In Search of London’s Lost Chinatown

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In Search of Limehouse Chinatown

The limehouse district of East London (E14), served as a place for many ethnically diverse working people to live and work around the docks prevalent in the area (formerly known as the ‘Port of London’). During the 18th and 19th centuries, this port was the biggest and busiest in the world, linking Mainland Britain with its many colonies and numerous trade links around the globe. As Britain had a number of imperialist interests spread throughout China (including Hong Kong as a colony, following the First Opium War in 1842), it was only logical that Chinese people would venture to the UK on the thousands of trade ships that linked the two destinations, every year. Initially, Chinese men, serving as sailors or labourers, arrived in the Limehouse area of London, and began to make parts of the district their home (often temporary in the first instance). Around 1880, however, historical records begin to record a more permanent presence of settled Chinese families in the Limehouse area, the last vestiges of which, lasted until about 1960 (after which a ‘new’ Chinatown was established in the Gerrard Street area of Soho, West London). Initially, Chinese family owned businesses focused upon the needs of Chinese sailors and labourers, including food, clothing and spiritual needs etc, and formed a self-contained, but otherwise ‘distinct’ cultural presence in the area. Only much later would (non-Chinese) British people become interested in eating Chinese food to such an extent, that it became a lucrative business for Chinese people to venture outside of their own cultural community.

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The Dragons’ Gate monument was created in 1996 (by the artist Peter Dunn) in anticipation of the year 2000 (the Year of the Dragon) and stands outside the Westferry DLR Station, on the West India Dock Road, opposite Limehouse Police Station (a fact which is thought to prevent any form of vandalism). Westferry is the preferred place to alight, rather than the Limehouse DLR Station – which is one stop away – unless you want to walk about 15 minutes through the busy streets between the two stops. This monument commemorates the presence of the thousands of Chinese people who once lived in London, and dedicated their lives to working on this small island, thousands of miles away from their native homeland of China. The Limehouse Chinatown nolonger exists, but the Dragon’s Gate – a metal statue comprising of two guarding dragons – is believed to mark a mid-point between the various areas where Chinese people lived. In 1946, around 1,500 Chinese men were forcibly rounded-up by the then Labour British Government from the Limehouse area, and deported back to China following a racist backlash against foreigners that swept the UK, following the British victory at the end of WWII. This sudden depletion of Chinese people effectively finished Limehouse as the first Chinatown London had ever known, and as anti-Chinese racism has been traditionally strong in the UK, there was no rush to ‘remember’ where this Chinatown had been (despite a small Chinese population still being in the area until around 1960). This can be seen from the fact that it is only in recent decades that ordinary British people have started to take an interest in this unique piece of history, and to begin to make amends for past historical errors by researching and documenting this important Chinese presence in the UK. Although I never knew Limehouse Chinatown – my maternal grandfather – Arthur Gibson (who worked on the docks in his youth and used to bare-knuckle box) used to spent his spare-time in Limehouse Chinatown, enjoying the diversity that different people and their culture brought to Britain.

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Obviously the original ‘Limehouse’ (and surrounding area) was extensively bombed by the Nazi German Airforce during WWII, causing so much devastation that the area never recovered. After WWII, the area was cleared and has been subject to a number of ‘rejuvenation’ projects initiated by various national governments over many decades, with each face-lift removing a little more evidence of the old days. Chinatown prior to WWII was spread-out and separated into distinct Chinese communities, settling on streets running off of, or near the main West India Dock Road – and it is around this geographical area that the old Chinatown is recorded to have existed.

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In fact, there was not ‘one’ homogeneous Chinese community in 19th century Limehouse, but rather several separated along linguistic grounds. The Cantonese section lived in Limehouse Causeway, and the Shanghai community (that spoke the Wu dialect) lived in and around Pennyfields and Ming Street. It is logical to assume that that Fujian, Hakka and Teochew speaking Chinese people (amongst others) all probably had their preferred areas of ethnic gathering. This was a cultural habit engrained by the imperial system in China, which saw each geographical area strictly retain its sub-cultural distinctiveness, whilst apply the Confucian model of social conformity and respect for the emperor. When Chinese people migrated abroad, they simply took their Confucian culture with them, and practised it as a means to retain law and order within foreign countries. As a consequence, a number of British people did not understand this Chinese behaviour, and many misconceptions and myths surrounding Chinese culture built-up, false ideas that generally fed into racist attitudes. On the other hand, the Chinese people in London were clean, obeyed the law, and worked very hard usually for a meagre pittance in return.

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