Timeline 1900 – 2024

Limehouse’s Chinatown

In 1913, the publication of Sax Rohmer’s novels about the evil genius Dr Fu Manchu saw the beginning of a feverish fascination with the Chinese population residing in London’s Limehouse and particularly the dangers that the ‘Chinaman’ presented to white women.

The mid-1880s had seen the beginnings of a Chinatown in London, with the establishment of grocery stores, eating houses, meeting places and Chinese street names in the East End. By 1890 two distinct yet small Chinese communities had developed: Chinese migrants from Shanghai had settled around Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street (in Poplar) and those from Canton and Southern China around Gill Street and Limehouse Causeway. The 1881 Census had recorded 109 Chinese migrants in London, the majority of whom resided in Limehouse. By 1891 the numbers in London had risen to 302 but those in Limehouse to just 82. Thereafter, the Chinese migrant population of Limehouse gradually increased, reaching 337 by 1921. Around forty per cent of the Chinese counted in the pre-1914 censuses of London were in and around only a handful of Limehouse streets.

While Limehouse remained a relatively small community before the First World War, its highly distinctive ancestral heritage accorded the area its enduring place in the public’s imagination. There was the iconic architecture of Foon’s emporium at 57 Pennyfields, Chong Chus’ restaurant in Limehouse Causeway and the Chinese laundry on the corner of Castor Street. There were also intermarriages between Chinese men and local women which received disproportionate coverage in the press and a few high profile crimes in this relatively law-abiding Chinese community. Amongst such sensationalist newspaper reportage was the case of the London-born actress, Billie Carlton, who had a starring role on stage at the huge Victory Ball held at the Albert Hall on 28th November 1918 but was found dead in her rooms at the Savoy Hotel a short while later. She was a heavy cocaine and opium user who had been supplied with these drugs by an intermediary from a Scottish woman called Ada and her Chinese husband Lau Ping Yu who both lived on the Limehouse Causeway.

Such frequently exaggerated reports of trade in illicit drugs, opium dens, and gambling gave rise to a powerful set of “Chinatown” myths about Limehouse that were featured in novels, films and songs. Thomas Burke’s collection of stories about London’s Chinatown, Limehouse Nights (1916), owed much, according to John Seed, to Jack London, ‘tough boozy narrators revealing the sordid and dangerous spaces of the East End to a nervous suburban readership’. Most of the stories of Arthur Ward, aka Sax Rohmer, were initially set in London’s Limehouse district. According to Robert Bickers, Ward’s biographer: ‘These concentrated on relationships between British women and Chinese men, on illegal immigration, and, somewhat relentlessly, on opium. The criminalization of opium and cocaine possession in the wake of the First World War focused the minds of jobbing hacks on the possibilities of Limehouse, which was presented to the popular reading public as an opium-addled ‘Orient’ in London’s East End’.

These tales in which drug smuggling, ‘white slavery’, and opium dens played major roles, fed a Limehouse literary sub-genre. For example, ‘Dope: a Story of Chinatown and the Drug Traffic’ (1919), was a ‘factional’ account of the cocaine-related death of Billie Carleton and the subsequent exposure of a Mayfair opium-smoking set. Bickers argues: ‘Ward’s Chinatown fiction intentionally had the appearance of reportage, while his savvy marketing of things allegedly Chinese further extended to his music-hall songs and monologues, and even to the creation of a perfume, styled Honan, which was produced by a Chinese workforce in Limehouse, and launched with opium-redolent packaging and publicity in 1919’. The Fu Manchu stories and other Limehouse tales had the effect of racially stereotyping the Chinese people of Limehouse as villains and drug users and smugglers.

Limehouse's Chinatown on Mixed Britannia, BBC Two, TX October 2011. Copyright BBC