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Chinese Communities

Drawn to London by international trade and the politics of empire, London's Chinese community formed a small but important note in the medley of voices which could be heard on London's streets, and occasionally at the Old Bailey.

Contents of this Article

Patterns of Migration

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in London in the 1780s. Most were employed as sailors and worked for the East India Company and the Blue Funnel Line, frequently in the capacity of cooks. A large proportion came from Kwangtung province, though sailors from Chekiang, Malaya, Singapore and Fukien could also be found among their number. In 1856 the "Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders" was established on West India Dock Road, providing one nexus around which a nascent Chinese community could grow. In some ways the inhabitants of the Home reflect the neighbourhood's broader profile. The 1881 census, for instance, records 22 residents, including eleven who gave their place of birth as China and two as Singapore. Of the rest, six came from India or Sri Lanka, two from Arabia and one from the Kru Coast of Africa.

It is impossible to know the exact number of Chinese migrants in London during this period, but census figures suggest that the Chinese presence grew steadily during the nineteenth century, before expanding rapidly in the first three decades of the twentieth. The 1861 census for London records only 78 Chinese-born residents, but by 1911 there were over 247, and twenty years later the figure had risen over four-fold to 1,194. Most of these migrants were young, single men between the ages of 20 and 35, who found themselves at the centre of a network of trade and Empire that by 1900 literally encircled the globe. It was only in the first decades of the twentieth century that the proportion of female migrants began to rise.

Chinese immigrants settled predominantly in the East End of London, particularly in the boroughs of Poplar and Stepney, near to the docks and the "Strangers' Home". In 1881 60 percent of Chinese born Londoners lived in the two boroughs. By the 1920s a significant number of Chinese had moved westwards, settling in Westminster, St Pancras, and Marylebone, while small communities could also be found in Hampstead, Kensington and Wandsworth.

A street scene depicting Pennfields Road, leading towards Poplar High Street. H. Doe Foon's restuarant is shown on the corner facing the viewer; Chinese characters encircle the doorway.

By the turn of the twentieth century social commentators were beginning to talk of London’s very own "Chinatown". Although this community was negligible in comparison to those in cities such as New York and San Francisco the Chinese presence had a disporportionate impact on visitors and commentators. Writers such as Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens the Younger wrote of the enigmatic Chinese shops and restaurants they encountered along Limehouse Causeway, while authors such as Sax Rohmer and Thomas Burke created popular fictionalised accounts of the exploits of shadowy Chinese immigrants intent on world domination. As a result, Limehouse came to possess a dangerous and sinister reputation, according to which Chinese men fraternised with young white women and smoked opium. In its full form, the East End Chinese "opium den", with its trappings of drug addiction and easy sexuality, only really existed in the imaginations of excitable novelists and hopeful social investigators. But in this area Chinese shops and restaurants, laundries and lodging houses sprang up to cater for the needs of a growing community, including the social consumption of opium. Once mixed along the streets of Limehouse with the brothels catering for the maritime trade, all the ingredients of a dangerous and titillating reputation were in place.

Employment

Although the majority of Chinese migrants were involved in seafaring, census data suggest that the Chinese in London were employed in a wide range of occupations. A large number were employed as cooks and waiters in the numerous restaurants and public houses of the East End, and a similar number worked in laundries. A smaller proportion were employed as clerks, firemen, carpenters and interpreters. By 1930 there were over thirty Chinese shops and restaurants in Limehouse, including several tobacconists and lodging houses. Chinese restaurants and cafes were the main social hub of the local community, providing a venue in which to conduct business, and serving secondary functions as informal post offices and banks.

Housing

Limehouse was a well-known slum area. Living and working conditions were extremely poor, overcrowding was rife, and wages were low and inregular. The area had the unenviable distinction of the highest child mortality rate in the city. The Chinese community was concentrated along the narrow streets of Limehouse Causeway, Pennyfields, West India Dock Road, Birchfield Street and North Street Lower.

Many of the seamen who made the long journey from the Chinese mainland found the streets of the East End an unwelcoming place. Stranded in a foreign country with little local knowledge and limited English, many migrants struggled to make ends meet. In 1812 the government ordered the East India Company to provide satisfactory food, clothing and accommodation for the seamen, and a parliamentary committee was established to investigate what could be done to improve the conditions. The "Stranger's Home", founded in 1856, provided some assistance. Nevertheless, even at the end of the nineteenth century, Limehouse figured largely in Charles Booth's comprehensive enquiries into London poverty and squalor.

A young Chinese man stands in the dock, a round plate is held aloft in his right hand.  The legend informs the viewer that the scene is located in an East End Police Court.

Legal Contexts

Chinese men (and a few women) can be found throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century Proceedings. A victim of theft in 1800 named Awing appears to be the first Chinese man to give evidence at the Old Bailey. But in the decades that followed at least a few Chinese witnesses and defendants can be found in each decade. Most of these trials involved interpersonal violence rather than theft. Cases of abuse and murder perpetrated on board ships on the high seas can also be located. There is no evidence of the systematic mistreatment in the court of the Chinese as a group on racial grounds, but trials in which they appear frequently reflect a broader culture of stereotype and prejudice.

The primary legal distinctions which set trials involving the Chinese apart were two fold. First, Chinese defendants were allowed to affirm the truthfulness of their testimony, followed by the breaking of a round plate, rather than swearing an oath on the Bible. A description of how this affirmation was administered can be found in the Proceedings, as a preface to the evidence given by Ho Yaou Tou in 1852. Beyond this, interpreters were frequently employed in trials involving Chinese witnesses. The quality of these translations, however, is open to doubt.

Search Strategies

Chinese émigrés are relatively difficult to trace in the Proceedings. The best strategies involve keyword searching. Terms that produce a reasonable number of examples include:

  • Chinaman
  • Chinese
  • China
  • Asia
  • Asiatic

These searches also produce trials in which Chinese goods are mentioned, or in which European dealers in Chinese goods (i.e. Chinamen) appear, ensuring that these searches are confused by a high proportion of irrelevant results. Searches on specific places and phrases can also be useful. Good results can be achieved by searching by phrases such as:

  • Chinese Laundry
  • Strangers Home

Remember to use quotation marks when searching for phrases.

Place names can be searched both with keyword searching and on the page.

  • Pennyfield
  • Limehouse Causeway

Searches on specific names are generally frustrated by the nineteenth-century variability in rendering Chinese characters into English. Searching on the word interpreter or translator will bring up large numbers of trials involving foreign witnesses and defendants.

Introductory Reading

  • Berridge, Virginia, "East End Opium Dens and Narcotic Use in Britain", The London Journal 4:1 (1978), pp. 2-28.
  • Choo, Ng Kwee, The Chinese in London (London, 1968).
  • May, John, "The Chinese in Britain, 1869-1814" in Colin Holmes, Immigrants and Minorities in British Society (London, 1978), pp. 111-124.
  • Seed, John, "Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900-1940", History Workshop Journal 62 (2006), pp. 58-85.

For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.

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