© Mark Henley/Panos Pictures

The hidden stories of Britain’s Chinatowns

Threatened by the pandemic, Britain’s Chinatowns have a rich, but often forgotten, history
May 5, 2021

On a crisp morning in February, I headed to London’s Chinatown. It was the first day of Chinese New Year, and festive lanterns had been strung up to mark the occasion. Beneath the red and green arched gate at the entrance on Gerrard Street, a red banner announced Kung Hei Fat Choy (a New Year greeting) in golden lettering. I remembered walking here with my mother a few years earlier. The streets were bursting with people and chatter. We went into one heaving restaurant after another looking for a table, before resorting to an upmarket option we thought we’d ruled out. But this morning few pedestrians lined the streets and the odd open restaurants were only selling takeaway. One sign of life was a bakery emitting warm smells of bread and char siu barbecue. “It’s been like this for a long time,” the woman behind the till told me as I paid for my coconut bun. “And this is usually when we’re at our busiest. But what can you do?”

Before the pandemic upended all our lives, it first came for Chinatown. Beverley Lin, manager of the London Chinese Community Centre, which has been standing here for 40 years, noticed that visitor numbers were dropping as early as January last year. This severely undermined their fundraising activities. Normally, she told me, the centre would get additional support from the local restaurants—but they too were struggling. Reservations were suddenly cancelled; businesses began to shut and staff were laid off. Across Britain, more Chinese and east Asian people reported hate crimes; an Ipsos Mori poll found that 14 per cent of Britons would avoid contact with people of Chinese origin. By mid-February, a full month before the prime minister began to strike a serious note on the virus, businesses across Chinatown reported a 20 to 60 per cent drop in trade. 

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Geoff Leong (right) introduces dumpling-making to Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, 2015, © Geoff Leong

Geoff Leong, the founder of Chinatown mainstays Dumplings’ Legend and Leong’s Legend, tells me that before the pandemic Chinatown’s position at the heart of the city—close to its West End theatres, cinemas, offices and vibrant nightlife—made it the “best place in the UK” and “perhaps even in Europe” for restaurants. It was where new immigrants could find work and friends; where visiting Chinese students could taste a reminder of home; where theatre-goers, partygoers and tourists could drop in for a late-night snack. The pandemic, however, has turned Chinatown into a ghost town. Will it survive? And if it doesn’t, will Britain realise what it has lost?

Chinatowns across the world have become the most visible emblems of local Chinese culture—though academics have pointed to a curious paradox. Although Chinatowns are celebrated in the mainstream, that has not come with broad public understanding of the immigrant communities that live in them.

Hong Kong-British novelist Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982, tells the story of Chen, a young man who has been living in the UK with his wife Lily for four years—“long enough to have lost their place in their society from which they had emigrated but not long enough to feel comfortable in the new.” Chen works 72-hour weeks as a waiter in a Ho Ho restaurant just off Gerrard Street, amid a “complex of travel agencies, supermarkets, fortune tellers, quack acupuncturists and Chinese cinema clubs.” Struggling with his low wages, he becomes involved with local gangsters but then relocates Lily, baby son Man Kee, and Lily’s sister Mui to suburban south London, where they set up a takeaway. Sour Sweet became an instant bestseller, with critics and readers appreciating its tender depiction of a community, mapping out the rarely seen slices of British Chinese life across gambling dens, restaurant kitchens and martial arts training grounds. (The novel is also full of treats for insiders; Mui tells Chen and Lily they should open a takeaway since there are plenty of other “little shops selling lapsap to westerners.” Lapsap is Cantonese for rubbish.) Yet despite being made into a Mike Newell film in 1988, today the book is almost forgotten, and it is striking how little mainstream representation of British Chinese people there has been over the decades since.

The 2011 census found that there were 433,150 Chinese people living in Britain that year. (Ethnic categories can often be difficult to define; we will refer to people of Chinese ethnic descent, while noting that many of them come from countries other than mainland China.) This number has no doubt increased over the past decade and will continue to do so, particularly with the government’s new visa route for Hong Kong locals following the National Security Law; official estimates suggest 300,000 could arrive from the territory. Yet the mainstream understanding of these communities, sociologist Diana Yeh tells me, is “very poor.” Britain’s first Chinese—and also first east Asian—MP, and new Minister in the Whips’ Office, the Conservative Alan Mak, was only elected in 2015. (Though by no means without struggles themselves, other ethnic minorities have fared better in this particular respect—the first south Asian MP was elected in 1892.)

The Chinese in Britain have a story going back centuries, Yeh continues, yet “we’re always seen as newcomers” and rendered “invisible.” For Yeh, who lectures in sociology at City University, such invisibility has its roots in the history of colonialism—or its relative absence—between Britain and China. “The colonial relationship wasn’t as strong as with south Asia and with the Caribbean,” she explains. “China has always been seen as more exotic and more mysterious”; aloof, unknowable and hovering on the periphery.

Historians Gregor Benton and Edgar Gomez note that Chinese seafarers were spotted in east London as early as 1782. They often gathered in the crowded tenements of Poplar and Stepney. Many had been employed by the East India Company, which had a monopoly over trade with China as well as India. Others arrived from America, where anti-Chinese movements were on the rise. An early Chinatown first emerged in Shadwell, home to a community of these itinerant seafarers. By the mid 1880s, Limehouse became the centre of Chinese British life as its members were increasingly staying on land—if they managed to escape deportation orders. Many entered the catering industry: unlike other groups of workers from the Empire, Hong Kong Chinese were never recruited by the British government to work in specific industries, and the broader labour market often made them feel unwelcome. Commercial catering—with its long hours, insecurity and low earnings—was not an attractive profession for locals, and thus Chinese immigrants could take it up without generating much resentment.

The early Chinese settlers were often featured in contemporary cartoons depicting “low life” in the capital; local Chinatowns were regarded as havens for opium smoking and gambling, at once dangerous and alluring. British fears about the Chinese were typified in Sax Rohmer’s wildly successful early 20th-century series of novels featuring the master criminal Fu Manchu. The historian Julia Lovell has deemed Rohmer “the propagator-in-chief of Yellow Peril lore”: the myths that sustained the paranoid belief that the west is existentially threatened by east Asian “hordes.” Fu—as well known as Dracula or Sherlock Holmes in his day—is a shadowy supervillain who controls gangsters and exotic animals, demanding his followers to “kill the white man and take his woman.”

Like many such caricatures, Fu was less a reflection of the culture at hand—Rohmer admitted he knew nothing about the Chinese—and more about the sublimated anxieties of its originators. In The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu and the Rise of Sinophobia, Christopher Frayling traces the popularity of Fu Manchu to residual British attitudes from the Opium Wars, waged between the 1830s and 1860s. Though at the time China was wracked by civil conflict and collapsing governments, the UK nonetheless cast the creaking state as a dangerous expansionist enemy. Historian Barry Milligan has observed that the British felt a “vague anticipation of retribution” for “the Empire’s controversial opium-trading practices,” creating a fear of “reverse colonisation” by the “vindictive orient.”

This anxiety is perhaps best captured by the novelist Lao She, one of China’s most famous writers who taught at London’s then recently established School of Oriental Studies (today SOAS) in the 1920s. In his 1929 novel Mr Ma and Son, a satire now out of print in English, he wrote: “If there were no more than twenty Chinese people dwelling in Chinatown, the accounts of the sensation-seekers would without fail magnify their number to five thousand.” And, Lao continues, “every one of those five thousand yellow-faced demons will smoke opium, smuggle arms, commit murder… and commit an endless amount of crimes.”

Despite the perception of the Chinese as a peripheral in the story of Britain and its globe-straddling engagements, the two were intertwined. After the disruptions of the Boer War, London gave the green light to South African mine-owners to import indentured Chinese labourers to get their industry going again, and popular panic about “coolies” and “Chinese slavery”—which had both compassionate and xenophobic elements—helped the Liberal opposition achieve a landslide win in 1906. During the First World War, tens of thousands of Chinese labourers were employed by the British, French and Russians to assist on the western front: an estimated 100,000 men were brought in from the eastern province of Shandong, with around 2,000 dying while working for the British. Though most survivors of the Chinese Labour Corps returned to China after the war, a few hundred made it to Britain. They were a forgotten army—as the Guardian noted in 2014, “literally painted out of a canvas recording all the nations who joined the war effort.” More recently, a campaign to establish a memorial to the Corps has been ongoing for seven years, resulting in a 30-tonne marble column costing £250,000. It has been stuck in China, where it was made, since 2019, with no agreement about where in London the gargantuan structure should go.

During the Second World War, 20,000 Chinese seafarers—the Chinese Merchant Seamen’s Pool—were recruited to work out of London and Liverpool, leading to a reinvigorated Chinatown in the port city in particular. Around 300 men in Liverpool married local women (described in government documents as “prostitutes”) and started families, only to be suddenly deported in a 48-hour repatriation effort in 1946. Wives and children were not informed of the details of what had happened. Today, many elderly children of these families have launched campaigns in the hope of identifying their fathers and receiving an apology from the government. Peter Foo, who set up a petition for the Home Office to recognise the deportation in 2015, told the BBC: “My mother went to her grave thinking my father had abandoned her.”

The Second World War had another profound effect on British-Chinese life: Limehouse, damaged by the Blitz, became a shell of its former self, and the Chinese community began building a new home in the city’s (then) cheap West End. The area’s established nightlife found a happy partner in the late-night takeaways and restaurants. Chinese arrivals picked up from the 1960s to the 1980s, but various immigration rules were being tightened, and employer vouchers were sometimes required. With limited options, many of the new Chinese were funnelled into restaurant work: more than half of those 6,700 who entered the UK from Hong Kong during the mid-1960s went into catering.

A number became entrepreneurs, hence all those new takeaways (during the 1970s they opened at a rate of three a week). But that trade also made the Chinese British one of the most dispersed ethnic groups in the country—it made sense to set up shop far away from the competition. Diana Yeh tells me that being “dotted all across the country,” stuck in small family businesses rather than communal workplaces, “disadvantages the Chinese in being able to come together and create political community.”

Restaurateur Christine Yau arrived from Hong Kong in 1985. “A lot of the restaurant owners were from the same village,” she tells me. She was considered an outsider in more than one way—“it was very much a man’s world.” Like many others in her position, she went into the catering trade with little experience, setting up Yming restaurant on Soho’s Greek Street with two partners in 1986. Though Chinese immigrants are often seen as apolitical—the “keep our heads down” mentality, as many people I spoke to put it—Yau remembers her staff often organising for higher wages. The restaurant was hard work. Yau’s two partners left, but she stayed on. Yming still stands today, while Yau has become increasingly involved with Chinatown, setting up London’s first celebration of Chinese New Year in Trafalgar Square in 2002, and working with the council and Chinatown’s major landlord, Shaftesbury PLC, to curb the growth of betting shops and generic fast-food outlets: “Please do not allow any McDonald’s.”

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Christine Yau in front of Ming Restaurant with friend Tony Yip, who started his own restaurant in Lewisham, 1986. © Christine Yau

When I ask Yau what has changed most about the area since she arrived, she notes that Chinatown now hosts cuisines from a range of regions. Geoff Leong adds there has been a change in the clientele. It is no longer just Londoners and European tourists who go there, but also the Chinese themselves, whether they are tourists, immigrants, or students. But the sociologist Caroline Knowles, who produced a report on young Chinese migrants for the Runnymede Trust in 2015, has speculated that new migration trends may end Chinatown’s place as the heart of London’s Chinese community. The new migrants Knowles studied—predominantly well-off students—have more “cosmopolitan” outlooks, she tells me, preferring to eat at upscale places all over the city and sceptical of the old-style “red lantern” presentation of Chinatown. It is a useful reminder that under the umbrella term “Chinese” lie very different groups from varied nations and classes, with diverse histories and political outlooks.

Though much discussion of Chinese immigration focuses on affluent new arrivals—and China itself through the lens of the threat of the mainland’s rising power and economic clout—there are families with much longer histories in Britain and far less wealth. In Sour Sweet, the Chens’ cramped apartment and meagre earnings do not dampen Lily’s belief that their son, Man Kee, will grow up to accomplish great white-collar things. When the young Man Kee develops an interest in becoming a gardener when he grows up, Lily is horrified. For many first-generation immigrants, the hope is that their children will move onto better paid and less gruelling professions.

Today, though, plenty of second-generation Britons are carrying the culinary torch—with their own twists. Chef Jeremy Pang’s family migrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s; his father grew up in a family-run takeaway in north London’s Finsbury Park, while his mother’s father owned Kowloon’s Bakery in Chinatown. The family did not want him to enter the restaurant trade: “they knew how hard work it was, and how antisocial,” he says. Pang came back to the food business after the death of his father and after losing his marketing job during the financial crash. He took a course at the upmarket Le Cordon Bleu cookery school and started a “mobile kitchen” business, teaching people how to cook Chinese food. “I was showing up at people’s homes with a wok and a bag of knives hoping to be let in,” he says with a laugh; “then I would teach them how to cook three dishes.” Eleven years later, he runs the School of Wok, near Chinatown, that has taught over 60,000 aspiring cooks.

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Jeremy Pang's family celebrating in Kowloon Bakery, 1960’s © Jeremy Pang

Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong spent his childhood in London “trying to be anywhere else than helping out at his parents’ Cantonese restaurant.” But after the death of his father, Wong went back to help his mother run the family restaurant in Pimlico in 2003. That led to a year-long trip across China to learn more about its culinary history; he took over the family restaurant, and has since opened up some new ones of his own.

For Pang and Wong, along with the hard graft, there is a lot of pleasure in the restaurant business. Growing up, Pang tells me, “I had the best of both worlds: we were born in the UK but we had the Chinese fascination around food; the excitement around dinnertime was the biggest thing.” As second-generation chefs, there is also the delight of finding new ways of engaging with tradition. Wong works closely with SOAS anthropologist Mukta Das, a historian of Chinese cuisine, to develop new dishes. “If Andrew had a question about a specific ingredient or a dish,” Das tells me, “we would just meet up and discuss it”—Wong would then go off to put what he had learned into practice. Their collaborations have resulted in dishes such as “Plum in a Golden Vase,” a Ming dynasty-inspired deep-fried dish that uses a little-known cheese from southern China. Deep-fried cheese does not immediately come to mind when we think of Chinese food, but Das points out there has been a long-running water buffalo cheese industry in the south, and deep frying dishes likely became popular during the Ming era.

Das and Wong have predicted that Chinese cuisine is on the precipice of becoming a “supercuisine”—a food accorded global gastronomical respect. This march into the future, they tell me, does not have to come at the expense of the past; Das’s rich knowledge of the history, Wong says, gives him an “internalised justification for myself that it’s OK that you can do things differently” without being “inauthentic.”

One irony about what the British have historically understood as Chinese food—takeaway staples like sweet and sour meats, chop suey and fortune cookies—is that these dishes did not come from China (though their origins are disputed, it is generally agreed that many of these dishes were created in Britain and America, the result of experiments with western ingredients.)  At one moment in Timothy Mo’s novel, Lily tries out the food they have been selling and recoils from how sweet it is. The British palate has evolved over time, reflecting rising familiarity with Chinese cuisine beyond the takeaway norm: “when I first started the business,” Pang tells me of his cooking school, “everyone wanted to learn how to make a crispy chilli beef, a sweet and sour pork, and an egg fried rice”—nowadays, he’s also seeing requests for mouthwatering Sichuanese chicken and handmade pulled noodles.

Chinatown reflects the story of London itself. It has evolved from a Georgian dockland hangout to an integral feature at the very heart of a global metropolis—with sky-high rents to match. Now, inequality threatens its future. More family-run businesses are packing up and leaving. Restaurateurs I spoke to have noticed a surge in takeaway and dessert shops that are more cost-effective, but do not offer the slower, sit-down experience that brings families and friends at a table together to converse and bond—one of the things that made Chinatown special in the first place. Even in 2015, the owner of the now-closed HK Diner, Jon Man, was warning that “I can’t see how Chinatown will be here in five years’ time. Not as I know it.” And that was before coronavirus.

Business owners and workers in Chinatown, speaking to me this spring, have expressed a shared hope that life there may soon revert to relative normality—that Londoners and travellers will return, and that communities will at last reunite over dinner tables, and at art classes and youth centres. Reports this April show reinvigorated signs of life in the city centre, but whether this will be enough to make up for the tourists and office workers who used to frequent Chinatown remains to be seen.

When researching this piece, I was struck by how often the word “forgotten” cropped up: the forgotten army during the Second World War; the forgotten (by the west) writer Lao She, and his out-of-print masterpiece Mr Ma and Son; the forgotten deportation scandal and the missing fathers; even Timothy Mo has been forgotten by the literary world. Saving Chinatown, then, is not just about reviving restaurants; it’s also about broadening Britain’s self-understanding about who lives here and how their lives have been shaped by—and have shaped—the country. “I hate to say it,” Beverley Lin of London’s Chinese Community Centre tells me, “but I think this pandemic will actually magnify the issue of British Chinese being underrepresented in the UK.” She holds out hope; she’s looking forward to opening the centre’s doors in the spring: “We welcome everyone.”