A mother and baby in Chinatown, Limehouse in the 1920s

A love letter to London, city of migrants

Incomers have created new cuisine and helped run the finance industry
March 4, 2020

London has never been a place peopled only by the “liberal metropolitan elite.” Yet this term has become commonplace in the debate on immigration: a catch-all way to dismiss anti-racist challenges to arguments against migration.

Panikos Panayi’s Migrant City unsettles that metropolitan stereotype. The London Panayi describes is made up of people from all over the world—coming to play football, creating new kinds of cuisine, opening shops, falling in love and helping run the finance industry. But many have had to face racism and xenophobia.

Panayi shows the complexities of human relationships—the tensions and the joys. He covers the black men and white women who got married in the early 1900s and faced hostility. “The only way to understand the history of interethnic interaction in London,” he explains, “consists of accepting the fact that racists, friends and lovers have always lived side by side.” Contrary to what we’re often told, anti-immigration sentiment is not a natural reaction to “too much” immigration. Rather, perceived differences can be overcome.

The range of subjects covered by Panayi, a professor of European history at De Montfort University, is wide and it challenges many contemporary misconceptions. What might have been usefully added, though, is an interrogation into the meaning of terms like “integration.” Whenever this is raised in the immigration debate we should ask ourselves the question: “integrating” into what?

Migrant City is a love letter to the UK’s capital and its history of immigration. It is filled with facts and tales from the city’s history—some less positive than others: the anti-Catholic 18th-century Gordon riots through to anti-racist resistance of the Universal Race Congress in 1911. Complex yet hopeful, Panayi’s history helps Londoners understand who they are.

Migrant City: A New History of London by Panikos Panayi (Yale University Press, £20)