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Category: Chinatown

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

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.