In Chinese culture there is a strong emphasis on relationship building and the principle of ‘face’. This means that people will often prioritise doing favours for their friends, family and colleagues. Violating face can be considered a serious social offence.
As a result, Limehouse Chinatown developed a reputation for its sinister associations, with tales of Chinese men visiting prostitutes and smoking opium. This fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment that was a contributing factor in the Page Exclusion Act of 1882.
The Origins of the Chinese Community in London
Until recently, little was known about the Chinese in Britain. They are a diverse group with their own cultural and language differences, but they have been kept on the margins of British society for generations.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s many Chinese lived in the east end around the docks and in the tenement buildings of Nelson Street, Kent Street, Pitt Street and Upper Frederick Street. Many were seamen working on the ships that brought silk and tea to England. Others ran laundries, shops and restaurants.
New migration from mainland China has put the community’s needs back on the agenda and changed perceptions of what is possible for migrants in London. The research, which won the Market Research Society’s first Virginia Valentine Award for Cultural Insight (Lam T, Sales R, D’Angelo A, Lin X, Montagna N) also enabled the Chinese in Britain Forum to re-establish links with the Department for Communities and Local Government and with social entrepreneur Nat Wei, who went on to advise the Coalition government on the ‘Big Society’.
The First Chinese Immigrants to London
From the late 1800s, Chinese seamen travelled to Britain as part of the Empire’s sea trade. They settled in ports including London and Liverpool where Chinatowns developed. They were largely male and the children of mixed marriages faced discrimination. A xenophobic response erupted in 1901 when the first Chinese laundry opened in Pennyfields and was stoned by a hostile crowd. Educated Chinese were also unable to pursue careers in obstetrics and gynaecology because of a taboo against intimate contact between foreign doctors and European women.
By the end of World War I, the Aliens Restriction Act remained in effect, restricting the numbers of Chinese that could live in Britain. Those that arrived were mainly men and the majority of them lived in the East End, particularly the boroughs of Poplar and Stepney where they worked at the docks and the ‘Strangers’ Home’. Small communities also formed in Westminster, Marylebone and Hampstead. This was a time of continuing anti-Chinese sentiment.
The Development of Chinatowns in London
Every city worth its salt has a Chinatown and London’s is centred around Gerrard Street. It packs a lot into a small area and offers a vibrant nightlife, Chinese restaurants, shops and a cultural hub. Its history is linked with rampant racial prejudice that existed from the mid-19th century until well after the Second World War.
The Limehouse Chinatown was sensationally depicted in tabloid newspapers as a place full of opium dens and gambling houses and led to fears that the ‘Yellow Peril’ was on the way to overtake Britain. This was personified in the fictional character Dr Fu Manchu, who was bent on world domination and destroying white civilization.
Today, the Chinatown has expanded with more restaurants and shops opening outside of the Chinatown conservation area. These are partly a result of the weak pound attracting tourists and international students from Asia. The trend is also being fuelled by well-established Asian restaurant brands wishing to tap into the lucrative market of young Chinese consumers.
The Second Chinese Immigrants to London
By the turn of the century social commentators were beginning to talk of London’s own Chinatown. But its number was still negligible and the enigmatic Chinese shops and restaurants along Limehouse Causeway retained an exotic netherworld reputation in which cunning ‘Chinamen’ fraternised with white women and smoked opium. This was helped by the publication of Sax Rohmer’s novels about the evil genius Dr Fu Manchu.
In 1919 the Aliens Restriction Act prevented more Chinese from coming to live in Britain and by 1918 the population of Pennyfields, Poplar was 182, all men and nine with English wives.
Lao She’s novel Mr Ma and Son reflects his experience of living in London from the late 1920s to the early 1930s. In it he voices his resentment of Western imperialism and Christian hypocrisy as well as his anger at China’s corrupt warlords who were blocking the creation of a viable republic. He also reveals his fascination with English culture.