Chinatown London

Tourists & Immigrants.

London, like any other metropolis, has 2 types of visitors: tourists and immigrants. And sometimes they work side-by-side. On my trip, I looked at the main stage and also behind the scenes…

The official Chinatown website explains:

“Chinatown’s colourful history stretches back long before the Chinese community of restaurants and businesses popped up in the 1950s. It was the birthplace of the Post Office, Ronnie Scott’s and the playground of the literary elite.

In fact, London’s original Chinatown was in the East End where Chinese employees first rocked up in the 18th century, settling in Limehouse. By 1914 a Chinese community was burgeoning with new restaurants and shops catering for sailors.

Today’s Chinatown’s story begins with the Great Fire of London. In the panic to rebuild, attention turned to a military training ground on farmland. The area’s owner, Lord Gerrard gave permission for houses to be built. Gerrard Street was completed in 1685, then later a market hall and slaughterhouse. Voila, Soho was born.

Within a century it was one of London’s hotspots – a haunt for artists, authors and politicos who put the world to rights at the Turk’s Head Inn over many-a boozy tipple. Not just popular with London’s intelligentsia, the area was a magnet for immigrant communities like the French Huguenots.

In the late 1800s new waves of immigrants followed; Italians, then Jewish, then Maltese. Irish proprietor Kate Meyrick ran the notorious roaring twenties 43 Club at 43 Gerrard Street and legendary jazz maverick Ronnie Scott set up his first jazz club in the basement of number 39. Soho was well and truly on fire – culturally this time…

Post-war London’s Chinese community were short of income and even shorter of a place to live. When they arrived to the area in the 1950s, it’d gained a reputation for great nightlife and cheap commercial rents. Luckily for them, British soldiers returning from the Far East had fallen hard for Chinese cuisine and so up sprung supermarkets and restaurants. Their success attracted more Chinese entrepreneurs away from the East End to seek their fortunes, and the Chinatown of today was born.

By the late 1960s, Chinatown was truly established as the epicentre of London’s Chinese community – now numbering in the tens of thousands as more and more Chinese workers arrived from the British territory of Hong Kong. By now a Far Eastern travel agency set up shop to cater for the ever-arriving number of restaurant workers.

In the 1980s the area got the full Chinatown treatment; Chinese gates, street furniture and a pavilion were added, plus Gerrard Street, parts of Newport Place and Macclesfield Street became pedestrianised.”


Chinatown, London

15 September 2023

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