Brilliant Chang in Limehouse

The trial of Limehouse restauranteur Brilliant Chang in 1924 was greeted by the press as a battle won in the war against the London drugs trade. But the jailing and deportation of the man known to his mother as Chan Nan said as much about hysteria and xenophobia in twenties London.

Chan Nan had been born in Canton in 1887, scion of an affluent merchant family. In the early years of the twentieth century, Chan boarded a ship for London, pursuing his trade as a marine contractor from the East End then the capital’s Chinatown.

There were various Chinese communities spread around the dock area, founded by ‘Lascar’ seamen who had crewed boats from China – often carrying tea to Britain – and then been stranded with no return passage. From 1854 many lived at the ‘Oriental Quarters’ by the river in Shadwell, near the present day Wapping tube station.

By 1890, there were two settled communities in the East End. Shanghai Chinese were settled round Pennyfields, Amony Place and Ming Street (between the present Westferry and Poplar DLR stations). And Chinese from southern China and Canton lived around Gill Street and Limehouse Causeway. By 1911, the whole are had been dubbed Chinatown.

The communities were settled, integrated and rather small. Chinese sailors were now serving in the Royal and Merchant Navies and (because the immigrants were almost exclusively male) there was much intermarriage with English women. At Pennyfields there was a Christian Mission for Chinese and a Confucian temple. In 1891, historian Walter Besant estimated the community at less than 100 people, but the London press seemed determined to whip up hysteria against ‘the yellow peril’.

There were measured voices, such as novelist Arnold Bennet, who visited Limehouse Chinatown in April 1925 and observed: ‘On the whole a rather flat night. Still we saw the facts. We saw no vice whatever. The Inspector of Police gave the Chinese an exceedingly good character.’ But for every Bennett there were a handful of writers such as Thomas Burke and Arthur Henry Ward, who wrote lurid tales of the Chinese community, with the emphasis placed on opium dens, gambling and ‘unholy things’ in the shadows.

Arthur Ward, under this pen name Sax Rohmer, probably did more damage than most, with his fictional character, the evil genius Fu Manchu.

“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government—which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

Arthur Ward’s creation managed to incarnate all the vague fears that Londoners had of crime, foreigners, drugs and a mysterious ‘Mr Big’. Interestingly, in his work as a reporter for the Daily Sketch in 1911, Ward had been set the task to find one ‘Mr King’, supposedly the kingpin for all East End crime. He never did, and the likelihood is that Mr King never existed.

Arthur Conan Doyle had done his share too, with Sherlock Holmes delving into the abyss of the East End docks and finding young toffs slumming it in the opium dens of Limehouse. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray’s dissolution was shown by his frequenting of Limehouse drug houses, and even Hollywood got in on the act, with epic director DW Griffith visting to research his movie Broken Blossoms.

Much was made of the Chinese fondness for gambling and opium, and certainly a (largely male) community had to find some ways to pass the time after a long day’s work. Sitting uncomfortably with the moralistic disapproval was the fact that it was the British who had introduced opium to China, as an export good, even going to war with China to maintain their deadly trade with the infamous opium wars.

The English sailors and dockers, meanwhile, were more likely to be swilling booze in the hundreds of pubs that were open for business 24 hours a day around the docks – yet though drinking met disapproval, nobody suggested deporting the drunks or smashing their communities. That’s exactly what was to happen to the Limehouse Chinese – and the trial of Brilliant Chang would give the authorities focus and ammunition.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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