The end of Chinatown in Limehouse

The Chinese community in Limehouse reached its peak just after the First World War. Though previous estimates put the numbers at around 3,000, they are now thought to have numbered no more than 300.

But the London newspapers were working overtime with scare stories about what was (by more reasoned accounts) a peaceable community. In 1922 the Empire News warned that ‘mothers would be well advised to keep their daughters as far away as they can from Chinese laundries and other places where the yellow men congregate.’

And it was with the supposed seduction of innocent white girls that the papers got most excited. The fiction of Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde and especially Sax Rohmer had been rich with young upper class girls in Limehouse opium dens, sunken-eyed and with a ghostly pallor, their healthy glow sucked from them by dissipation and opium.
Drugs and the East End docks

In First World War London there was a new threat. Nightclubs had first opened in London just before the War, but with the onset of hostilities licensing was tightened up, forcing them underground (often literally). At the same time, the first limits on licensed premises came in – there was a new morality in the air. Cocaine, previously associated with the upper classes, became more widely available (and cheaper), and the Army became worried that servicemen would take to the drug. The drugs were arriving in Britain through the docks, most of all the East End docks.

The stories hit the front pages in November 1918, when actress Billie Carleton was found, the morning after the Victory Ball at the Albert Hall, dead in her bed. Her maid found a gold box containing cocaine on her bedside table. The drug had been supplied by her boyfriend, who had in turn bought the drugs from a Scottish woman named Ada and her Chinese husband Lau Ping You. The likelihood is that it wasn’t the cocaine that killed Carleton, but that she choked after taking medication.

The Yellow Peril and Brilliant Chang

There were calls in Parliament for the deportation of all Chinese and the Pictorial News ran a series of pieces on the East End’s ‘yellow peril’ – the trail soon led back to Brilliant Chang. The Limehouse marine contractor had by now progressed to running a Regent Street restaurant where, according to the paper ‘he dispensed Chinese delicacies and the drugs and vices of the Orient.’ The paper wrote that Chang ‘demanded payment for his drugs in kind’ and advised that women ‘who retained sufficient decency and pride of race’ turn down ‘this fellow with lips thin and cruel tightly drawn across even yellow teeth’.

In 1919, there were riots in Limehouse, as readers of the penny press took the law into their own hands. The courts started hitting the Chinese hard too. A typical sentence for opium possession was now hard labour then deportation; some were even deported for gambling on the popular game of puck-apu.
Cocaine raids in Limehouse

In 1922, Freda Kempton, a nightclub dancer and major user of cocaine, visited Chang’s restaurant. Later that day, she went into convulsions and died. At her inquest, Chang was portrayed as a magnet for susceptible white women. The ‘short, elegant, self-confident figure who dressed in fur-collared coats and grey suede shoes’ was hauled in. The police couldn’t connect him to Kempton’s death, but his Limehouse warehouse was raided and a quantity of cocaine found. Before jailing him for 18 months, the Recorder of London told him ‘It is you and men like you who are corrupting the womanhood of this country.’

On release, Chang was taken from Wormwood Scrubs to Fenchurch Street Station, then to the Royal Albert Docks and put on a ship. He was seen off ‘by unhappy girls, with dope-sunken eyes and pallid cheeks’. Chang wasn’t seen in Limehouse again, and the legend grew. He had jumped ship in Port Said, set up a drug business in Zurich, died blind and penniless in Shanghai.

In the atmosphere of hysteria, nobody was going to complain about the razing of Chinatown. The local council decided to clear the ‘slum area’ in 1934 (while leaving numerous worse slums standing). Limehouse Causeway was widened and the shops, restaurants and clubs swept away.

Further reading: The Underworld by Duncan Campbell, BBC Books, 1994, ISBN 0563367938; Dope Girls by Marek Kohn, Granta 2003, ISBN 1862076189
See also

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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