Visit a Chinatown and you’ll easily be brought to a whole different world! Upon closer analysis of this interesting world, however, a realization comes to mind: the Chinatowns around the world have features that make them distinct from the rest.
Chinatown London has its unique character but it is one with many other Chinatowns around the globe for having its own interesting history. Located at the heart of London (occupying an enclave along Gerrard Street in Westminster), Chinatown London showcases Chinese culture in the modern west through a number of Chinese restaurants, souvenir shops, supermarkets, bakeshops, and other Chinese-run enterprises.
Though the Chinese immigrants came in as early as the 19th century, it was in the post-war era that the community gained a reputation and established the area where it is standing now. In the 1950s, Chinatown London had become known for its lively nightlife and reasonable commercial rents. The British soldiers who returned from the war in the Far East and who had developed a fondness for Asian cuisine heavily patronized the Chinese restaurants and supermarkets in the area. This paved the way for the rise of Chinese entrepreneurs in Chinatown.
In the 1980s, Chinatown London has started gaining more popularity, getting the full Chinatown treatment—from Chinese gates to a pavilion. That area along Gerrard Street began having its character defined. Up to this day, Chinatown London remains a thriving center of immense oriental wonder. The Chinatown is where you could find Chinese restaurants, souvenir shops, travel agencies, health clinics, and everything Chinese in London.
In an online event held on October 10, 2020 (organized by the Chinatown Museum and Bahay Tsinoy) entitled ‘Chinatown Portals: London,’ which formed part of a series of online events on three different Chinatowns around the world, researcher Minji Xu discussed more uniqueness of Chinatown London.
The founder of ExploreCulture.net explained one difference of Chinatown London, tracing back to the mid-19th century. “Almost 90% of the Chinese immigrants moving to the UK at that time were sailors who work for the ships,” she said. Those immigrants were of different backgrounds and skills compared to those who moved to the Philippines or to California.
During the webinar, Xu described the sensory experience of being in Chinatown London at specific times. In the morning, she cited as an example, silence marks Chinatown London, a stark difference to the sound of traffic jams and honking cars in Chinatown Manila. But one sound makes mornings in Chinatown London distinct: big train wheels-like sounds! What could they be? The sound of trolleys on cobble streets making their way to the restaurants to deliver ingredients!
During the Chinese New Year, a very unique sound can be heard. The traditional lion and dragon dance drums and cymbals never fail to impress, but the sound of bagpipes alongside the lion and dragon dance makes Chinatown London special.
Through the years, Chinatown London has managed to keep its identity despite the alluring hustle and bustle of a busy modern city like London. You may want to include it in your itinerary the next time you visit the United Kingdom after this pandemic.
The author of this article:
An accomplished young Chinese Filipino writer and media personality, Aaron S. Medina is associated with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Ateneo de Manila University Chinese Studies Program, the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, and CHiNOY TV. He has a passion for truth, justice, and Pokémon, too! Follow him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aaron.joseph.s.medina/