The recent census shows that the Isle of Dogs has one of the largest Chinese populations in the country. How many of these mostly recent residents would realise that London’s first Chinatown had its origin in nearby Limehouse ?
Before the 1900’s there was only a very small enclave of people of Chinese origin in Limehouse which generally consisted of sailors who worked on the boats travelling in and out of London, a few cafe’s, shops and lodging houses opened in the area to service this often transitory population.
Along the Thames waterfront especially in Wapping and Shadwell, many other nationalities had areas which they frequented.
However although the Chinese were a very small minority in London and the country as a whole, in the late 19th Century well-known authors such as Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle featured Opium dens in their novels.
For the general public who probably would never meet anyone from China, it was this connection of Opium dens and the Chinese that provided the basis of the many of the assumptions people made in the early 20th Century.
It was also important to understand that London and Limehouse was changing:
By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Limehouse and the whole riverside district of East London, stretching along the Thames from the Tower and Wapping to Limehouse and inland north up to the Commercial Road, was a notorious slum area. Its streets of little terraced houses were squeezed among canals and railway-lines, timber-yards and sawmills, lead-works and coal-yards, dry docks, ship-repair-yards, factories and workshops. There was heavy pollution and bad sanitation. There was overcrowding, along with low and irregular wages and among the highest levels of child mortality and the highest levels of poverty in London.
( John Seed , Limehouse 1900-1940)
It was against this background that the Chinese community in Limehouse grew to perhaps 300 permanent residents, however a number of factors were coming together that would launch this small part of London into national and international prominence.
The two authors more than anyone were responsible for the creation of Limehouse’s Chinatown as a mysterious and dangerous place were Thomas Burke and Sax Rohmer.
Although generally sympathetic to the local population, Thomas Burke’s stories were often about local girls involved with Chinese men and the effect this had on the local population.
These tales of low life sex and violence were best sellers especially popular in the United States where a number of Burke’s stories were taken up by the early film makers most notably D.W. Griffiths.
One story from Burke’s Limehouse Nights was made into the film Broken Blossoms by D. W. Griffiths in 1919. Griffiths’s film influenced the creation of ‘Limehouse Blues’, a jazz number from the early 1920s which became a standard. A few years later Limehouse Blues was the title of a Hollywood movie set in the London docks around Limehouse.
Sax Rohmer used Limehouse as a backdrop for his Fu Manchu novels, Fu Manchu was an evil Chinese super villain who uses his contacts in Chinatown to develop drug smuggling and the corruption of society women who get drawn into his evil empire.
These often lurid stories were often repetitive yet gained a world wide readership, other writers such as Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie based stories about Chinese villains seeking world domination.
In the 20s and 30s stories about Chinese master criminals exploded in books, magazines, film and radio many were just variations on the Fu Manchu model.
This creation of a mythical Limehouse and the reality of local animosity against the Chinese population based on employment and housing issues led to a number of attacks.
The local incidents were not helped by the newspapers of the day who greatly exaggerated the Chinese population and often portrayed the lurid stories about Chinatown as if they were facts.
It was widely accepted by the local police that actually the Chinese population had low levels of criminality compared to other London areas.
These years of the “Yellow peril” scare had a negative effect on the local Chinese population who by the 1940s began to move to other areas.
If you walk around Limehouse now there is few signs of Chinatown, however at the beginning of 2oth Century this was undoubtably one of the most famous parts of London.