When talking about London Chinatown, many will instantly think of the one located in Soho, a tourist spot with a wealth of Chinese restaurants, red lantern decorations and traditional Chinese gates. However, not many people realise that it is not the original Chinatown in London. Limehouse in the east end of London was actually where the first London Chinatown located. In the late nineteenth century, as a result of increasing international shipping trade in East London, Chinese seamen had begun to settle in Limehouse. Chinese family owned businesses such as restaurants and laundries arose to focus upon the need of Chinese sailors and citizens living in the area, which helped to create the Chinese community (Palmer, 2000, pp.109). Although the Limehouse Chinatown seemed like a normal small ethnic group community, Londoners in the twentieth century often considered it as a mysterious and dangerous place filled with crime and drugs. Edward Said describes Orientalism as ‘a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’)’ (2003, pp.42) He suggests that Orientalism is a form of western attitude towards the east that consists of inaccurate cultural representations and perceptions, which can be used to explain the western perspective towards the Limehouse Chinese community in the twentieth century. This project aims to address how Limehouse as a site demonstrate Said’s Orientalism. I am going to discuss upon the Limehouse Chinese community over time regarding to present existence, western perspective and the reality of living there.
Firstly, I will provide a methodology for analysing the present and twentieth century Limehouse Chinatown in both western and Chinese perspective that allow us to apply Said’s Orientalism. Secondly, I will use the idea of palimpsest to analyse traces of the Chinese community in Limehouse nowadays through a site visit with a focus on comparing a Chinese monument ‘The Dragon’s Gate’ with the British symbol ‘George the dragon’ in order to show cultural difference. Thirdly, I will apply Said’s Orientalism theory to suggest reasons behind the criminal image of Limehouse Chinese created through novels and movies with its influence and consequences. Fourthly, I will reflect upon the reality of living in Limehouse Chinatown with the use of archives and discuss the possibility of creating the mysterious Limehouse image for economic purpose. To conclude, I will point out the fact that although traces of the Limehouse Chinatown are not conspicuous nowadays, the area is not isolated from events happened in the past that it still presents the impact of imperialism and orientalism.
To start with, the term ‘palimpsest’ is the process of layering where new texts are written on top of existing text but they are often imperfectly erased (Dillon, 2005, pp.244). It can also be a metaphor for describing a city in terms of its physical form and culture over time that although there are many changes in a place as we move through time, in some ways traces from the past still remain. The idea of palimpsest was used to investigate layers of the past Chinese community that coexist with the present in Limehouse nowadays. Observational data was collected through a visit to Limehouse with a walk along Limehouse Causeway, Gill street, Penneyfeilds and Ming street, which were the areas that the Chinese community once lived (Palmer, 2000, pp.108). Site visit for collecting primary resources is advantageous in finding traces that can evidence the existence of the Chinese community in early twentieth century. However, the area has been heavily destroyed in the second world war so it is difficult to find obvious remains of the Limehouse Chinatown. Furthermore, certain books and movies have offered an insight of Limehouse Chinatown and the Chinese community in western perspective. From famous Sherlock Holmes stories to the Fu Manchu movies, we can see how the idea of Limehouse being a crime area was created. I have chosen to use Sherlock Holmes novel: ‘The man with the twisted lip’ not only because it is one of the first novel in the nineteenth century to use Limehouse opium den as a backdrop; but it is also a well-known literature by British author Conan Doyle that has been influential and persuasive since that time. However, Limehouse is only a backdrop in the novel and lack of detailed description of the Chinese community so I have decided to analyse the movie ‘The Face of Fu ManChu’ (1965) which is based on a series written by British author Sax Rohmer. There are various versions of Fu ManChu movie from the 1920s and I have chosen to analyse this one mainly because it is the most famous one and it is also difficult to study and examine earlier movies due to the bad quality and availability. Although these books and movies are just a creation out of imagination without strong historical evidence, they reflected how British people imagined the Chinese Community in Limehouse was and shows their fear to the ethnic group. The review of them allow us to apply the Orientalism theory to explain the stereotype due to the difference in west and east. Instead of focusing on the plot of these stories, my mind focus will be analysing how the Chinese characters and Limehouse Chinatown were described by the west. Moreover, archival research and analysis are useful in accessing historical references and evidence regarding the Limehouse community. Many photos and videos of Limehouse Chinatown were destroyed in the second world war thus I cannot use many images of the past Chinatown in this project. Fortunately, the London Metropolitan Archives provides a wealth of oral history collections including interview with people who once lived in Limehouse Chinatown. This information allows us to investigate the reality of the Limehouse Chinese community provided by the residents there, which can then be compared to the western perspective and imagination.
Limehouse nowadays: The hidden meaning of dragon gate monument
The idea of palimpsest not only allow us to study the physical transformation of a city about how new buildings coexist with the old; but it is also about stories of daily lives in a place over time. Therefore, in order to investigate the roots of Limehouse Chinatown, I went to Limehouse to find layers of the past that can be seen in the present. According to Palmer, a small but stable Chinese community was formed in Limehouse around the 1890s with the Chinese migrants from Shanghai settled around Pennyfields and Ming Street while those from Canton and Southern China around Limehouse Causeway and Gill street (2000, pp.108). I begin my walk from Limehouse Causeway and Gill street (Point A and B in Fig.1). Through my observation, there are only publicly owned housing, schools and some commercial buildings there. Comparing the present with old photos of Limehouse Causeway, it shows that the outline of the street has not changed much whereas all the Chinese related shops are now replaced.
When I continued my walk in Pennyfields and Ming street (Point D and E in Fig.1), a Chinese restaurant is located in Pennyfields but it was only opened in recent years. The street name ‘Ming street’ gives clues to the area’s history as it is inspired by the Ming dynasty of China. Besides, no obvious traces remained from the past that is related to the Chinese community could be found. The main reason is due to the slum clearance and bomb damage during Second World War (Seed, 2006, pp.59) which forced the Chinese community to move away and formed a new Chinatown in Soho that is still present now. While I continued my walk, I found a monument located between Penneyfeilds and Limehouse Causeway (Point C in Fig.1).
The metal monument named ‘The Dragon’s Gate’ (Fig, 4), comprises of two Chinese dragons chasing each other. People might be curious of its meaning and existence since it seems inharmonious to the area. Indeed, ‘The Dragon’s Gate’ commemorates the presence of the Chinese community that once lived in Limehouse and it is located in the mid-point of where the Chinese Community lived 100 years ago (Dunn ,1997, pp. 35). It consists of two Chinese dragons chasing each other’s tails that forms a circle. According to the designer Peter Dun, dragon is a Chinese symbol of good fortune and the use of two joining dragons is a metaphor of embodying the power of unity and renewal (1997, pp. 35). The existence of the monument is to dedicate the Chinese community worked miles away from their native homeland in the early twentieth century. Since there are not any obvious remains of the former Chinatown in Limehouse nowadays, using the ancient Chinese symbol in the monument is to remind people to respect and remember them while celebrating the long history of London being a multicultural city. Moreover, I believe that the monument has another hidden meaning. Although dragon is a positive symbol in the Chinese culture, the west often views dragons as evil beasts. The ‘St. George and the dragon’ statues which are widespread across the country would be a great example of expressing a different meaning of dragons. The myth of how George slaying a devil dragon made him a patron saint in many western countries and it is also a symbolic figure in England to represent traditional English bravery and strength. (Royalmint, 2018). From the statue that is located in Hype Park (Fig.5), St George raises his sword to celebrate victory for defeated the dragon, which is dead under his horse. This shows that dragon is commonly used to represent evil that brings harm and fear to human whereas slaying dragons is a symbol of courage and strength. The beliefs of dragons differ greatly due to cultural differences and this divergence of view can also be reflected in Western perception towards the Chinese especially in the early twentieth century. In the 1900s, the western began to acknowledge the Limehouse Chinatown through media and novels and considered it as the heart of depravity and vice in London. These stereotypes were due to the misunderstanding and fear to the unfamiliar ethnic group because of the difference between east and west which can be explained by the orientalism theory. Therefore, ‘The Dragon’s Gate’ not only commemorates the first Chinatown in London but also represents the western stereotype towards the east in the past. I will discuss further upon the stereotype in the following sections.
Western perspective of Limehouse Chinatown: Orientalism
In the early twentieth century, Limehouse Chinatown had become extremely well known through the imaginative impact of popular novels, songs and films. However, various influential British author had already used Limehouse as an exotic and dangerous setting frequently in their literature during the nineteenth century (Newland, 2008, pp.110). ‘The man with the twisted lip’, one of Sherlock Holes stories written by British author Conan Doyle employed Limehouse as a mysterious and terrifying backdrop to the narrative that linked to crime and drugs. He sets the story in ‘an opium den in the farthest east of the City’ (Doyle, 2011, pp.13) where Asian attendants supplying drugs and tools to customers. (Doyle, 2011, pp.15) This shows that since the nineteenth century, many literatures had already noted the existence of Asian immigrants in London east end especially the Limehouse district with an image of trading and smoking opium. This created a strong link between opium and Limehouse in people’s mind. As opium was increasingly criminalised in late 1890s, Limehouse Chinatown became a place associated with crime. (Witchard, 2007, pp.7) Doyle has been a well-known author since that time so his description of Limehouse was influential and persuasive. Although Limehouse is only a backdrop in the novel without detailed description of the Chinese community, the dangerous image of Limehouse was reinforced through later productions that nearly all stories about Limehouse Chinatown by western authors had a common theme of being a ‘mysterious, grimy underworld of opium, crime and corruption.’ (Woodfine, 2016)
The Fu Manchu series by British author Sax Rohmer is an influential representation of western stereotype since the series had made into movies, radio broadcasts and television show worldwide since the 1930s. (Seshagiri, 2006, pp.163) London Chinatown was a key theme in Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series and I have chosen to analyse its movie ‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ (1965) since it allows us to see vividly how the Limehouse Chinatown was imagined and created. The movie talks about a Chinese villain Fu ManChu seeks to take over the western world from his secret headquarter in Limehouse Chinatown with a British police commissioner Denis Smith combats against his evil plan. In the movie, Fu Manchu and his Chinese fellows who wear black Chinese custom, hind in the dark to kidnap innocent English citizens to their headquarter in Limehouse Chinatown while Fu Manchu even orders his fellows to ‘Kill the white man and take his women’ (1965, 35:37). This creates negative portrayals of the east culture and Asian immigrants invading the modern and superior west that created collective fear. Although the Fu Manchu story was only a creation by English author without strong historical evidence, it gathers attention that time since most Londoners were not familiar with the Limehouse Chinese immigrant. (Seshagiri, 2006, pp.164) It not only created a widespread stereotype that the Chinese community was insidious and evil; but it also fuelled tensions and cultural anxieties regarding to race and immigration that the Limehouse Chinese was a threat to the Western world. The reason behind the creation of dangerous Limehouse Chinese image can be explained by the Orientalism theory.
Said used the idea of ‘Imagined geographies’ to suggest that the perception of a specific place is created by the dominance and powerful authority (2003, pp.63) According to Said, ‘The exteriority of the representation is always governed by some version of the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would; since it cannot, the representation does the job.’ (2003, pp. 21) This suggests that Orientalism relies on the production of knowledge by the dominant superior group when the orient cannot represent themselves. Since the eastern culture and languages are contrasting from the ‘mainstream’, the west considered that they were in a higher position than the orient and it was the western job to identify and describe the orient so as to have authority over it. Therefore, the eastern culture gained meaning in the west only through how the west viewed them and the idea of how the west produces a view based on a particular imagination can apply to the Limehouse Chinese image. In the early twentieth century, many Londoners did not know much about the Limehouse Chinese and the Chinese culture because of the language barriers and limited information. The only thing they knew about the Asian immigrant in Limehouse was the opium den they operated. Based on the opium image, they considered that the unknown ethnic group had brought bad influences into the country so it was a threat to them as it would invade the civilised and superior western culture. The idea of ‘Imagined geographies’ implied here as Londoners created the Limehouse Chinese image based on what they believed and exaggerated it through imagination. This explains why Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories were successful as it was not only a satisfaction to Londoner’s curiosity about the unknown migrant, but it also linked to their fear and apprehension towards them.
Moreover, orientalism is not only about western imagination but it is also about power, domination and authority. In many stories about Limehouse Chinatown, the Chinese there often has an evil image whereas some British heroes appear to defeat them. Take the Fu Manchu stories as an example, the British police Denis Smith who in the story fights again Fu Manchu symbolizes the English’s civilised and humane image while giving the Chinese migrants a villain image. (Seshagiri, 2006, pp.164) This can be implied to what Said stated as “flexible positional superiority” that the Orientalist can be in any relationship with the Orient without losing their power and still be superior over them. (2003, pp.15) Indeed, Fu Manchu is described as an intelligent super villain but his evil plans never success because of the British police. This suggests that in the twentieth century, creating the evil Chinese image was to emphasise that the western culture is civilised, which also brings out the idea that the Orient needs to be governed by the west to end its crudity and savagery. (Said, 2003, pp.86) The thirst for the orientalist to control and take over the orient which they consider irrational points out the fact that it is imperialism which motivated orientalism. The weakness of east and greatness of the west that are presented through orientalism suggest that the western imagination of the east was an imperialistic outcome to show their authority and power.
Reality of living in Limehouse Chinatown
The dangerous image of Limehouse Chinatown created a widespread fear in the early twentieth century but not many people recognise the truth of living there. Chinese community archives at London Metropolitan Archives is a collection relating to Chinese migrant in London since the eighteenth century that allows people to access to historical evidence of the Chinese community. With the use of archives, a strong contrast from the imagination is shown. The oral history collection from London Metropolitan Archives, ‘Memories of the genuine children of Limehouse Chinatown’ (LMA/4534/01/01/001), documents the Chinese citizens in Limehouse during the early twentieth century. In the oral history video, Connie Hoe who grew up in Limehouse in the 1920s describes her memories in Limehouse Chinatown. She mentioned that the Limehouse Chinatown was never mysterious and considered the movies and novels about evil Limehouse Chinese are ridiculous. She also suggests the idea that the emerge of dangerous image was for economic purpose where Limehouse Chinatown had become a tourist spot for Londoners to adventure and discover the dangerous community. (LMA/4534/01/01/001/a, 1:19:07-1:22:40) Indeed, the Chinese immigrants was negligible that time comparing to European immigrants (Seed, pp.64) while opium smoking was not a social problem as the British emphasised since only an insignificant part of the community consume it (Witchard, 2004, pp.9). This suggests that the Chinese community in Limehouse was actually a peaceful and ordinary small ethnic group community but were considered as dangerous criminals due to western imagination. Moreover, there is a rise of organised tours in Limehouse from the mid twentieth century as Londoners wanted to explore the mysterious place they learnt from novels (Roemer, 2009, pp.417). Due to the increasing interest of the Limehouse Chinatown, more myths and stories related to the Chinese community emerged for economic value. Newman and Smith (2000, pp.9) stated that ‘Economic activity concerned with the production of culture is important in modern urban economies’ This can imply to Limehouse that the west produced an evil and threatening Chinese culture for the economic value driven from tourism. The innocence Chinese citizens in Limehouse were portrayed negatively as they became a tool for the success in the tourist industry. As Chinese migrant in London rose in late twentieth century, Londoners started to learn more about their culture so the popularity of these imagination declined. The dangerous image of Chinese in London began to fade out and forgotten by Londoners as times go by.
Conclusion: reflection of orientalism in Limehouse nowadays
Nowadays, there is barely a trace of the Limehouse Chinatown remains. A new Chinatown that continues today developed in Soho after the war and the former one is now forgotten. Limehouse Chinatown seems to become a lost fragment of London history. However, the idea of palimpsest suggests that all places comprise events in the past which cannot be wiped out completely by time. The dragon gate monument that stands in Limehouse nowadays is a good example that supports Dillon’s idea that ‘The ‘present’ of the palimpsest is only constituted in and by the ‘presence’ of texts from the ‘past’.’ (2005, pp.249) Although most Londoners have forgotten the Limehouse Chinatown, the dragon gate monument has proved that history cannot be erased entirely. The Limehouse Chinese community is also a part of the London history that Londoners should reflect on. The way how the west created negative misconceptions and myths concerning the Limehouse Chinese reflected the impact of orientalism and imperialism. Said’s idea of orientalism does not imply that people cannot generalise unknown and unfamiliar things. However, separating the unknown from the ordinary to begin with is inappropriate. London nowadays is a multicultural city with people coming from various background. Respecting others’ culture is important and the story of Limehouse Chinatown is a great lesson to Londoners to show the importance of learning and understanding different culture.
Yi Ching Wong
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Limehouse Causeway in 1930s
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‘St. George and the dragon’ statues in Hype park
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