Chinatown London

London Chinatown History

Early History

Chinatown's origins can be traced back to the Great Fire of London in 1666 - or at least the development of the area we now know as Chinatown can be.

An area map of 1585 shows there were no buildings in the area then known as St. Martin's Field, a name still retained in several streets of the area, as well as the parish church off Trafalgar Square. The lack of buildings, except a few farm shacks, is not a great surprise, as the construction of any buildings within a three-mile radius of the City of London was prohibited by royal decree. However, the crown needed finances, and it undermined it's own decree by granting exemptions - on payment of money!

In this way the land was 'bought' by the newly established 'Military Company' in 1615. The company acquired three and a half acres in the northwest part of St. Martin's Field, and used it for an exercise ground. A year later, the company built a 9 feet (2.5m) high brick wall around the site.

No records exist of the use of this military ground during the English Civil War, but it is known that several buildings were built on the site including an enormous gymnasium measuring 100m by 30m.

The next significant event to influence the land was the Great Fire of 1666. In just a few short days 13,000 homes were destroyed and over 100,000 of London's more affluent residents were made homeless. Attention turned to the area around present day Soho because of its proximity to the three palaces of Westminster, Whitehall and St. James. Soho was on the up!

Nicholas Barbon acquired a building lease from Lord Gerrard in 1677. The lease covered the military garden of the complex, which had become known as the Military Yard. Barbon completed the construction of Gerrard Street in 1685, by which time he had also acquired the nearby estate belonging to Lord Newport. Here he developed more houses and a large market. In fact Newport Market only disappeared in the 1980's - it is now under the fire station and new shops of Newport Place and Newport Court (or above the underground car park - however you want to look at it!).

Sadly the area never retained its initial grandeur, and became somewhat rundown by the mid 18th century. It became home for successive waves of immigrant communities, first the French (the church built by French Huguenots on Orange Street is the oldest in the country), Italians and Jews.


The Chinese in Britain

The first Chinese to settle in Britain arrived in the late 18th century. They were exclusively male, and employees of the East India Company. They settled in the dock areas of Liverpool and Limehouse in London. Although the success of the British in the Opium Wars (1840 - 1842) lead to an increased degree of contact between Britain and China, the Chinese population in Britain remained very, very small. At the turn of the 20th Century there were just 545 Chinese in Britain, almost exclusively male. They ran small shops and cafes, catering for the extremely transient Chinese population of seamen.

By 1914 there were some 30 Chinese businesses in the Limehouse area of London, which had become known as Chinatown. The British were, however, far from welcoming. In particular Chinese sailors were considered a direct threat to their British counterparts - in 1908 British seamen formed a picket at the East India Dock to prevent Chinese crews from signing on for work.

The Chinese were almost universally suspected of being lawless opium addicts who were unkempt and dirty: a strange stereotype considering that the most successful laundries in London up until the 1950s were wholly owned and operated by Chinese immigrants.

Public perceptions of the Chinese were much improved by a Hollywood epic of 1919 - D.W. Grifith's epic 'Broken Blossoms' portrayed a young Chinese poet as an unassuming hero, rescuing an English maiden in distress from her murderous father.

The post war years in Britain posed a major threat for the Chinese in Britain. The Limehouse area of East London was obliterated during the blitz on London. At the same time the decline in British shipping resulted in the Seaman's Union changing its rules, making it far more difficult for non-British seamen to get work at British ports. The laundry industry also went into terminal decline with the introduction of High Street launderettes and the appearance of domestic washing machines.

By 1950 there were some 2000 Chinese in Britain, all seeking new income opportunities as well as a place to live. This bleak situation was turned around by a new phenomenon in Britain: returning soldiers from the war in the Far East suddenly created a new customer base for Chinese cuisine. There were two or three Chinese restaurants in the West End. Their newfound popularity with the British attracted others to the area.



Gerrard Street in the late 50's was a shabby street. As a result property prices were very cheap, and short leases could be found for next to nothing in the area between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square. At the same time thousands of agricultural workers from Hong Kong, forced out of their traditional occupations by changes in the world rice markets, began to arrive in Britain. With the booming catering trade, these new immigrants found immediate employment, often with tied accommodation (a practice which continues to this day) as restaurants and takeaways sprang up in every major city and town in the country.

Conditions, however, were not easy. Working 17 hours a day was not uncommon and this lead to no opportunity to learn English. Accommodation conditions were often overcrowded and basic. With the influx of Chinese, and the substantial business success of the catering trade, associated businesses designed to cater for restaurant workers, grew up on Gerrard Street, which became known as Chinatown. More families were reunited as wives and children joined their husbands.

The relative educational success of British Born Chinese brought further economic success, and the Chinese by and large moved out of Chinatown, making room for more commercial space, and went to the suburbs. Chinatown itself was transformed by Westminster City Council, recognising that it had become a major tourist attraction. Gerrard Street was pedestrianised, as was part of Newport Place and Macclesfield Street. Chinese Gates, street furniture and a Pavilion were added as Chinatown came of age, a symbol of the success as well as a cultural focal point of the Chinese community of London.

About Chinatown London

See our about the company page. Chinatown London is based in the UK. Looking for somewhere to eat, try our restaurant guide

Exciting guide to London's Chinatown bristling with features on cuisine, culture and the local community. If this taste of the Orient whets your appetite then there are travel links for those wanting to broaden their horizons

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