We’ve all come to think of Chinatown as an integral part of Soho, known for its vibrant decorations, rich cuisine, and Instagrammable bars. Notorious restaurants line the streets of Soho with colorful displays that draw tourists from all over the world – with over 100 local food businesses in the area, it’s not hard to find what you’re looking for.
Decades of hard work and development have made Chinatown what it is today. But its history dates back long before the first restaurant opened on Gerard Street in the 1950s. In fact, London’s first Chinatown was based in the east of the capital.
READ MORE: ‘I went in search of East London’s forgotten Chinatown, known as a ‘den of criminals and drugs’
Chinatown was originally based in Limehouse – an area which Chinese immigrants began to populate in the late 18th century. The early settlers, who were almost exclusively men from Canton and southern China, first established a community at Limehouse Causeway. Most were originally sailors serving on European ships.
The men who ended up in London were promised money and upkeep in British ports while they waited to return to Asia but, in reality, most were abandoned and the sailors were forced to take tea unloading jobs on the docks. Eventually, appalling living conditions brought them to Limehouse.
By 1914, Chinese restaurants and shops had begun to flourish in the area. Limehouse might have been said to have an opium den or two, but overall it was considered a law-abiding area that had its own charm.
Nearby, another community, known as the Shanghai Community, has grown up at Pennyfields and Ming Street. By the 1920s, a few hundred Chinese immigrants lived in this area and a number of organizations had been established, such as the Chung Hwa Club, to create a space for teaching Chinese language and crafts.
Rival gangs from the Cantonese and Shanghainese community eventually began fighting each other for control of gambling dens in the area, but levels of crime were exaggerated by novels and fiction at the time. By the 1920s, Limehouse Chinatown had become associated with drug trafficking, exotic mystery, and prostitution due to the imaginative storytelling of several authors and filmmakers.
Ultimately, the Chinese community was never meant to last in east London. Limehouse was heavily bombed during the Blitz and the area then went into decline during the interwar period.
Meanwhile, it was World War II that brought business back to the Chinese community after British soldiers, who had served in East Asia, returned with a craving for Chinese food. Following London County Council’s post-war slum clearance, Chinese immigrants moved en masse to Soho, where the first restaurant popped up in the 1950s.
Soho itself was created during construction following the Great Fire of London. Now that Chinatown has its base in the area, it has been nicknamed “The Imperial City” by community members who have realized that Chinatown is nestled right in the heart of the city’s capital.
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