In this piece from The Journal of The London Society 468 (Autumn/Winter 2015) Mark B Prizeman heads east to see what remains of the original Limehouse Chinatown.
The Chinatown we all know in Soho was enthusiastically identified by its bilingual street signs, pagoda-style gateways and even stylised telephone boxes in the 1980s — only a couple of decades after the community moved there en masse from London’s first and more notorious Chinatown in Limehouse. Curiosity over what traces remain of the original London Anglo- Chinese community that flourished by the docks for more than a century, captured only in a handful of photographs, led to this exploration.
Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and dozens of social commentators wrote about this exotic corner within the squalour of the East End, where drugs, gambling and unusual sexual occurrences took place. Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood starts in a Limehouse opium den and, 50 years later, Sax Rohmer’s tales of the evil Dr Fu Manchu continued to fuel readers’ interest about this pit of excitement so close to home.
It was Thomas Burke’s First World War writings in Limehouse Nights that helped fuel journalistic speculation about what went on in this corner of London. Young socialites found dead from cocaine or other drugs inspired fantastic reports of Limehouse orgies. Readers were left with a torrid impression of the place. Was it like the expressionist vision of the ghetto depicted in the 1920s German film Der Golem? Or was it an impenetrable slum, like the rookeries depicted by social reformers as closely packed beehives of habitations where moral degradation went hand in hand with disease and vice?
Actually, it was a relatively small, law-abiding community only identifiable by distinctive shops. Contemporary census figures indicate around 100 Chinese-born residents. Male Chinese sailors, arriving on trade clippers following the Opium wars that gave Britain something to sell to China in exchange for tea, settled in two streets by Westferry station: the Cantonese in Limehouse Causeway; those from Saigon in Pennyfields and King Street, renamed Ming Street in 1937.
After the First World War, the Chinese community was at its peak of around 4,000. Visitors seeking out the “flesh-creeping” places they had read about were disappointed to find streets of typical British two- and three- storey terrace housing stock with the odd sign in Chinese characters to make it different. Thomas Cook organised tours, some run by Thomas Burke, during which staged hatchet fights between pigtailed actors bursting from doorways satisfied sensation seekers.
Standing on the platform of Westferry station today, one can survey what was the centre of Chinatown. A solitary pub, the West Ferry, recognisable from old photographs as the Oporto, is boarded up, and the bottle blonde in the Cherry Blossom tattoo parlour across the road doesn’t look at all Chinese. Ming Street, a tarmac strip, is only mentioned by name in a dead-end road sign where it leaves Pennyfields.
A painted lead horse on a pole is all that remains of the White Horse public house that was demolished in 2003 and replaced by a glass-balconied block of ats. In the other direction, Pennyfields is lined on one side by 1960s social housing and on the other by Pennyfields park and playground. Everything is familiar and in its place; there’s no mystery behind the muslin curtains or threat from public dope smoking.
Noodle Street, a Chinese restaurant on Pennyfields, occupies a foursquare brick building that looks as if it came from a Cold- War barracks, sitting neatly beside a slab block and opposite a park with some strange turf ridges that might be art. Turning up Birchfield Street, a massive police housing block looms over the site of the most photographed shop in vanished Chinatown, used as reference for DW Griffth's 1919 film Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish as the young girl spellbound by a kind-hearted Chinaman.
A 1920s Chinese laundry converted into flats retains no narrative within its urban presence. Up on East India Dock Road, a tiny side entrance clings on as the one true survivor, the Chun Yee Society, which runs a school on Sunday. Round the corner and heading for Limehouse Causeway, the site of the Strangers’ Home, which housed and fed Lascar and Chinese sailors, is filled with a smug London County Council housing block that fulfilled Clement Attlee’s early dreams for a welfare state as MP for Limehouse.
Grenada House started in 1937 in the first slum clearance programme (during which it was noted that the houses lived in by the Anglo-Chinese community were cleaner than others). It obliterates the narrow street of shops and opium dens so written about. Finally, one ends up at Nicholas Hawksmoor’s pyramid, the concealed entrance to the underground lair of Dr Fu Manchu, to consider how important narrative — true or imagined — is to the genius of the city.