Power Relations in the History of Chinatown22 minute read

On 10th November 2016, an excavator brought down a small pagoda in Chinatown. This demolition was merely a part of the undergoing redevelopment project of the Newport Sandringham building. However, the act was extensively covered, discussed and criticised within the Chinese community. Blog writers and news reporters accused the developer and the Westminster Council for demolishing the pagoda without notice in advance and neglecting the meaning of the landmark to the Chinese community in London. A place, in this case, the pagoda, “has more substance than the word location suggests…it has a history and meaning” (Tuan, 1979) in contrast to the physical space. It is the ties, relations, experience and nostalgia which caused the negative reactions by the Chinese community even the developer Shaftesbury PLC is constructing a similar pagoda in another part of Chinatown.

The Chinese community appears to lack bargaining power regarding changes and development in the Chinatown despite its high visibility in central London. In recent years, increasing land value in London provided incentives for developers to propose redevelopment projects, to extract profits from an area that has seen little changes since its institutionalisation in 1985. The talk of the regeneration project started more than 10 years ago in 2004 hence the demolition in 2016 was not a sudden move by the council. Is the demolition a result of insufficient resistance by the Chinese community? Or was the past and future of Chinatown and the Chinese diaspora in England always dictated by external forces?

In this essay, I am going to investigate how power affects the construction of urban space. I argue that current power relations are an outcome of history and social relations during the formation and development of Chinatown. The first part of the essay will provide background information of the Chinatown where the second part will analyse several representations of the area and the community in the context of producing imbalanced power relations.

Chinatown as a palimpsest

Sarah Dillon (2005) applied De Quincey’s notion of palimpsest to cultural studies. She mentioned that palimpsests “were created by a process of layering whereby the existing text was erased”, and the erasing of the previous layers often leaves ghostly traces in the current form as expressed by concrete objects. In the case of Chinatown, physical objects like the arch and now the old site of the pagoda are results of changes and amendments took place in the area that contains memories and experiences of the older generations of the Chinese diaspora. Other than the physical form, the mix and origin of the Chinese diaspora, as well as social position and power relations, are undergoing changes with parts of the past remaining. It can be argued that which layers remain and which get replaced and written on top of is an outcome of power relations and conflicted interests in a confined urban space. For example, an old dim sum restaurant reflects a period of domination of migrants originating from Hong Kong whereas a Sichuan restaurant reflects the recent rise of mainland China and its extensive reach around the globe. With limited space and growing population and demand in central London, Chinatown is a highly contested space and its power relations and physical form can be seen as a palimpsest.

Drawing on Don Mitchell’s work (2000) on the production of culture, the concept of culture is based on the context of production and consumption by the audiences. Culture is not backed by concrete objects like the pagoda but instead, producers and consumers work together and put value on the image and spectacle of cultural acts like the celebration of the Chinese New Year with lions and dragons held in the Leister Square next to Chinatown. The council, the Chinese business associations and tourists are producing an image together to celebrating the multiculturalism and the Chinese community being the ‘model minority’ (Wong, 2003). Mitchell sees culture as a contested relationship where the domination and resistance over time are made by political-economic forces, and in other words, power relations. The work of Hatziprokopiou (2012) echoes similar concept in contested Chinatowns specifically, he argued that the Council presented the London Chinatown as a brand to attract more businesses and capital. Whereas Chung (2008) argued that commercial success is crucial to maintaining Chinatown’s public profile, as well as its function as a hub for the community. The history of Chinatown and its meaning to the Chinese community is well researched in various studies, this essay will focus on a shorter spectrum of Chinatown’s history and argue for the lack of power of the Chinese diaspora.


The methods I employed for this essay consist mainly of secondary sources as power relations are best shown by studying existing sources critically. Primary data and interview would put the emphasis on the snapshot and results of an ongoing process. The sources I drew from for my research include official documents from the government (Westminster Council) such as the Chinatown Action Plan and the planning application for the Newport Sandringham Building. These sources represent the stance and approach of the party with power and thus more strongly reflect changes in the built form of Chinatown over time.

I will also draw on recordings from the London Chinatown Oral History Project for first-hand experience regarding early settlers’ lack of power, and novels written by Sax Rohmer and Lao She to provide insights to the attitude of the English population towards the Chinese diaspora before the second world war. These sources not only represent the audiences and the consumers of the Chinatown with the perspective of the less powerful group, they provide a context of the Chinese community and allow us to understand how the current Chinatown is made by social and power relations from the past.

As a regular user of the research site, my own experience and interpretation of the site may result in a biased perspective while evaluating sources from different parties. For example, I would look at Chinatown as a site of consumption rather than a place for capital accumulation or business competition, which is different from real estate developers and Chinese business owners. Sharing similar culture with the Chinese community may also result in unjustified sympathy towards the community’s lack of power in the contested space with conflicting interests. However, my position allows me to access news articles and novels written in Chinese and the Oral History project recorded mainly in Cantonese, it means that I have a wider source of information that will likely represent the perspective and experience from the Chinese community more accurately.


Drawing from “Chinese diaspora in Britain” as part of the exhibition China: Journey to the East by the British Museum, the first Chinatown emerged around Limehouse in the 1880s which consisted of only a few catering businesses serving the Chinese shipmen working for the East India Shipping Company near the docklands. In the pre-war period, the diaspora was self-containing, separated with a low degree of acceptance as shown by the hostility early Chinese laundries faced by the local population. Other than the Shipping Company, laundries remained to be the biggest sector that the Chinese community specialised in until the end of World War II. After the WWII, British soldiers returning from the Far East discovered a liking to Chinese cuisine thus the catering industry began to dominate Chinese employment and businesses and restaurants started to serve the English population as well as the diaspora. Some Chinese businesses therefore moved to Soho and set up restaurants where rents and running costs were low. The formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and its strict emigration policies meant that the main route to escape communist ruling was to go south to Hong Kong, a former British colony, displacing a significant number of farmers The construction of the Plover Cove dam also displaced several villages during its construction. British immigration policy in the 50s and 60s allowed these displaced population to move and live freely in England as they are direct colonial descendants. The villagers thus formed the early post-war Chinese diaspora in England.

Massey’s progressive sense of place (1994) and Tuan’s view of space and place are put into action in this context. The confined space of Soho Chinatown is physically and mentally linked to history and locations beyond the bounded area shown on a London map. The post-war Soho Chinatown has a stronger link to Hong Kong, specifically the rural New Territories than the former Limehouse settlement where laundries were the main income for Chinese people. The intertwined layers and history are embodied in the surface and fabric of the current Chinatown. This also implies that the links and patterns of Chinatown to different parts of the world is changing, which makes the site palimpsestuous. Developing further, we can see that the post-war diaspora was formed under various sources of pressure including destroyed settlement in Limehouse, the threat of communism in Hong Kong and the lack of transferable skills to find work in London. There was also pressure for them to succeed as pioneers in a foreign country. The movement and formation of the diaspora were a result of wider economic and political power displacing people over a long distance, as the location of Chinatown was influenced by market land value, and catering is one of the few skills that the diaspora can sell in London that had sufficient demand. Therefore, I argue that the actions of the early post-war settlers were shaped by stronger outside forces and they did not have a dominant role in the construction and consumption in the Soho Chinatown.

Fu Manchu vs Mr Ma and Son: imagination vs experience

Rohmer invented an influential character in Fu Manchu despite not having set foot in the Chinatown in Limehouse or research about the small Chinese diaspora at the time. Fu Manchu was created to be a supervillain that can speak every language, make various potions and perfected the act of hallucination. The first book The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu quickly gained popularity and led to more than 10 future novels featuring the same villain as well as dramas and TV series into the 1950s. This section will only give a general summary of the meaning of Fu Manchu to Chinatown and the Chinese community as more in-depth discussion can be found in existing studies such as works of Ruth Mayer (2011) and Greene (2015). Mayer argued that Rohmer’s novels “are clearly not about an authentic Chinatown… the stories fail dramatically in their effort at local colour effects and tend to represent Chineseness as one clear-cut and repetitive feature…” (2011). The growth of the Limehouse Chinese quarter was portrait as a nest for criminals and evilness. It is argued that this clear-cut character in Fu Manchu left strong impressions in readers’ minds and influenced later titles like Ming the Merciless (1934), Dr No (1958), The Mandarin (1964), and even the James Bond series in having an oriental supervillain, as the fear of unknown and mystery in Chineseness intrigue the audience greatly.

Fu Manchu was created at the height of imperialism with China being the victim of dominance by various western powers. However, the novels usually involve large scaled, evil global domination plans by the organisation Si-Fan to take over the whole western civilisation. Despite contrasting with history and truth, these cultural representations strengthened the stereotypes and gut reactions of westerners towards unknown and exoticness. Scenes that explicitly commented negatively on the skin tone of Chinamen and the fear of becoming a Chinese can be found frequently in the series. It can be argued that the reverse role of domination is a justification for the expansion of western influence towards the Far East. Racial paranoia and fear of a declining empire are embedded in the fantasied evilness coming from a community of otherness.

Fu Manchu’s popularity in the inter-war years suggested that the fear and lack of knowledge towards the Chinese community were common among the public and racism in popular culture was generally accepted. This corresponds well with the fact that early Chinese laundry businesses were met with hostility. It also implies that the social environment and context prior to WWII granted little power and rights to the Chinese community and the society was difficult to integrate into. The self- containing tendency of the Chinese quarter further reduced interactions between the community. Attitudes towards the Chinese diaspora now has significantly changed with more knowledge about and interactions with the community. However, some underlying stereotypes such as appearance and self-enclosed nature persist. Attitudes and social acceptance towards the Chinese community can be argued to be a palimpsest in a sense that new impressions such as quietness and academic achievement replace certain parts of the stereotype, but the images conveyed by writers like Rohmer still haunt today’s landscape.

Lao She’s Mr Ma and Son was set in a similar period as the first Fu Manchu novel, however from the perspective of Mr Ma and his son, who just arrived in London to takeover a business owned by his brother. Lao She lived in London as a Chinese teacher at the time of writing the novel and he incorporated his own experience as a foreigner to create some distinct characters. Social acceptance and attitudes are implied by day-to-day interactions between Chinese settlers and local Londoners in the plot. Mr Ma, a typical Chinese settler, had difficulties in finding accommodation and forming bonds with his English host family. Racism and stereotypes can be found throughout the novel such as association with crimes and gambling. Mr Ma often finds himself powerless when facing the problems and ultimately decided to simply go to bed without resolving any of the problems. On the other hand, younger Mr Ma adapted to the city better, however he found himself being restricted by traditional Chinese values and power his father has towards him.

Rather than one-sidedly complaining about the racism and unfair treatment towards Chinese people. Lao She also accused the inward looking and weak Chinese community, living as an inferior race without resistance or learning from the western society. During a phase of western domination, Lao She implied that the reason for the lack of power and inferior position in the social hierarchy was partly caused by the burden of traditional Chinese values that persisted for centuries. We gained insights into the imbalanced power relations between the local and the Chinese community by analysing two contrasting influential novels written by writers with different backgrounds. As power relations are fundamentally constructed and reproduced socially, forms of cultural representations like these not only reflect the society at the time of writing, they affect readers’ perception and attitudes towards the Chinese community. The imbalance of power is also more than a one-sided domination and racism by the Londoners, but rather a result of a two-way dynamic interaction, or the lack of interaction, along with assumptions and stereotypes, shaped and formed the early Chinese diaspora and Chinatown.

London Chinatown Oral History Project

The Oral History Project of Chinatown interviewed over 100 participants from different origins and moved to the UK from the 1950s to 2000s. The project provided information on the everyday living experience of the post-war London Chinese community on their settlement, work and life. The audio is recorded and made available to the public in the London Metropolitan Archive. Here I summarise a few of the selected interviews.

Patrick Hase, a former civil servant in the British Hong Kong government provided background information and the general pattern of the wave of migration in the 1950s until alterations in the 1970s where the UK imposed stricter immigration policies. He mentioned the relative easiness for unskilled first-generation migrants to make a living in England. This information got passed around back in the home villages and relatives and friends of the early migrants followed to the UK, resulting in Chinese communities in England having the same origin and the enclosed nature of the early Chinatown. He also mentioned that this wave of people spent most their time in restaurants without learning English or the city. The communities kept strong links with their villages and people aimed to return to Hong Kong after earning a certain amount of money. The diaspora was more accepted in England but there remains a lack of attachment and involvement of the community to the city in this generation, which could lead to the quiet, self-enclosed and invisible stereotype that we can still see today.

Interviews with participants from Hong Kong focus on their personal experience and interactions with the Chinatown. Their experience mostly follow Hase’s comment that people moved to London because of ties with families or invitation by friends. They focused on making a profit in Chinatown or using networks and links associated with the Chinatown. A general trend of growth of Chinatown from the 1950s to 1990s is also identified. Peter Lam arrived in London in 1990 at the age of 10 and he mentioned that Chinatown at the time was dominated by people from Hong Kong speaking Cantonese, with more diverse retail units other than restaurants such as shops selling books, magazine, CDs and small accessories. Chinatown was a space primarily used by the Chinese diaspora for all purposes from catering to entertainment for first generation migrants. We can see that the Chinese diaspora before the 1990s was focused on making a living. People were willing to adapt and learn new skills and work in any given opportunities. The business scene was volatile despite the steady growth and largely unchanged appearance of the Chinatown. Here we see the enclosed and hard-working stereotype developing as the Chinese community grow, overwriting some of the impressions from the Fu Manchu period, forming a subdued, problem-free diaspora.

Newport Sandringham Building

Shaftesbury Ltd submitted a planning application in early 2015 to refurbish the Newport Sandringham Building and the project is set to be completed in late spring of 2017. The building is located next to the demolished pagoda in the eastern end of Chinatown. The development is set to accommodate new retail and catering units. Drawing from the planning application submitted by Shaftesbury Ltd, main changes to the land use of the building include increased floorspace for retail and theatre, and significantly reduced share for betting shops, restaurants and clubs. Shaftesbury Ltd argued that the current landscape in Chinatown is dominated by Cantonese restaurants and more variety is needed. The catering sector is also finding it more difficult to employ chefs due to the government’s strict point-based immigration system. A mix of more diverse shops was proposed that is more open to other Asian or even western businesses. The proposal also mentioned the need for better hygiene and a more rationalised layout in the building. Shopfront is set to be elevated up pushed out to the ground level with large glass windows facing Charing Cross Road.

Map of the site of development
Map of the site of development
View of the building from Charing Cross Road before development
View of the building from Charing Cross Road before development

The modern Anglo-American rationale behind this proposal seems to clash with the values of the Chinese diaspora. Shaftsbury Ltd preferred for a clean layout and order that is under control rather than the free-forming diverse market stalls the Newport Sandringham Building originally was. And the council can be seen to have the same preference based on the quick approval of the application. The planning system itself is an ordered procedure with great power that requires the applicant to check every box of the form. The history and relations that give meaning to a place are absent, the site is bounded by straight red lines on a map and the attachment the diaspora has towards the place is reduced to a row in the summary table, ‘Conservation area: Chinatown’. The quick pace of this project from proposal to completion seems to imply that the physical form of Chinatown is dictated by British developers and the council. The type of business is restricted by landuse and shops get displaced due to redevelopment projects or rising rents coming with redevelopment projects.

Small stalls originally in the Newport Sandringham Buildling
Small stalls originally in the Newport Sandringham Building

A similar theme of development can be found in Westminster Council’s ‘A design strategy for Chinatown’ (2008). The document criticised the hidden and closed T-junctions that are common in Chinatown, saying that a more open and accessible layout can make Chinatown more visible and encourage visitors to stay longer, browsing and sightseeing in Chinatown. Further amendments were suggested that an arcade can be built to link Gerrard Street and Charing Cross Street through the Newport Sandringham Building. The theme of improving cleanliness, accessibility and visibility continue throughout the documents, while showing images of proposed design elements in China. In addition to order and control, the council seems to want to improve the image and spectacle of Chinatown, not from the perspective of a Chinese consumer but to promote it as a tourist site. Conscious effort to conserve and implement Chinese elements are shown in these two documents however the framework and ideals are still based on white British capitalistic values.

Current T-junctions vs preferred solutions
Current T-junctions vs preferred solutions


This essay analysed novels, official documents and interviews produced by different parties in both the British population and Chinese community, covering various periods of the Chinatown and Chinese diaspora history. It demonstrated that both the built form of Chinatown and the power relations embedded can be considered a palimpsest, with new layers partially covering old images. There appeared to be a power imbalance between the migrants and the hosts as proven by the diaspora’s need to form associations and reliance on religious organisations. Chinatown has been growing since its establishment and Chinese migrants are more readily accepted and integrated into the society. However, traces of old stereotypes and perceptions shown in the novel by Lao She and interviews persist. Official procedures and capital have great power and influence in the development and future of Chinatown. And the acceptance or tolerance to Chineseness can be argued to be driven by profits and conservation regulations. It is apparent that the Chinese diaspora does not have full control over their community base in London. External political and economic forces are rapidly shaping the development of Chinatown in recent years without facing extensive resistance. However, it can also be argued that the Chinese community is accepting and adapting to changes given to them as they did in the 1920s and early post-war years. The quiet and subdued stereotype did not fade over time and the community is not pursuing the power to shape the landscape. Analysis of second and third generation Chinese migrants is limited in this paper and therefore I cannot comment on the future implications of this power imbalance. However, we can speculate that the concern of the lack of power and loss of Chinese culture can be explained by better integration of second/third generations as new layers of social relations are covering the enclosed nature that has haunted the community since the 1900s.


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