Where To Find Histories Of Chinese London

By Kate Smith | 25 January 2006
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photo shows tree high chinese pagoda

The Chinese pagoda at Kew. Closed to the public for many years, it has recently reopened at selected times. Check with Kew Gardens for the availability of timed tickets to climb the structure.

From histories of the first Chinese migrants to London, to museum displays of some of the finest objects from Chinese art, we take a look at where you can find Chinese stories in London museums, and the places that regularly run Chinese programmes.

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photo shows leather sandals, opened to show space for drugs

Shoes for smuggling opium. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

The Limehouse community

For many years, Chinese art and goods were far easier to find in London than Chinese people. However, a small number of seamen worked at the docks in Limehouse whilst London's first Chinatown grew in the area in the late 19th century. Little remains of the original Chinese presence in that area now, but the Museum in Docklands runs occasional walks in the area, and a Chinese programme, especially during February. Some events are in Mandarin - phone 0870 444 3856 for details.

During the late 19th century Chinatown had a rather shady reputation, mostly undeserved, generated by the English fiction of the period. However there was some opium smuggling from the East as a pair of drug smuggling shoes in the Museum of London testify.

photo shows green drumkit

Carlton jazz drum kit. London, 1937 This striking 1930’s drum kit features a selection of wooden blocks and two cymbals (before 1870) from China. Courtesy of the Horniman Museum.

Music

The Horniman Museum has a wonderful collection of Chinese musical instruments ranging from this modern drum kit to the Sho Mouth organ, which is a collection of 15 pipes - ideally made from bamboo that has been smoked in the roof of a house for many years. The interactive displays at the Horniman allow you to 'choose' a virtual instrument and learn more about it.

Tea, silk ...

The explosion of trade between the UK and China was based on three major goods. In the early years of the trade, the West did not know how silk and porcelain were made, meaning that these Chinese goods were hugely valuable. Later, tea remained a prime import, but porcelain was used as ballast in the ships. Tea could not be transported alongside any cargo with a strong smell, so porcelain was ideal.

The Cutty Sark is the last remaining tea clipper in the world to have traded with China. Now the ship is a museum: tea chests in its hold are a reminder of the past.

photo shows bowl from 350 BC

A bowl for offering food to the dead. Courtesy of Croydon Lifetimes Museum.

... and porcelain

Three London museums have particularly fine Chinese porcelain collections.

The Percival David Foundation for Chinese Art has such a rare and fine collection that it draws specialists from all over the world. Many objects belonged to Chinese emperors. Its approach is quite academic, but it is open to all, and runs exhibitions each year that describe in more detail some items in the collection.

The Riesco Collection at Croydon Lifetimes Museum is the result of one man's passion for collecting Chinese porcelain. Some of the collection is over 2,000 years old, and includes a dish from 350BC for offering food to the dead. Lined with lead, it would still poison anyone attempting to eat from it.

The Victoria and Albert Museum holds over 22,000 Chinese objects. 600 of the best items are on permanent display in the T.T Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art. As well as porcelain, they have silks and jade. They are also the only place in London we've found with examples of antique Chinese furniture.

If you don't know your Ming from your Qing Dynasty, the V&A's website offers some help for beginners. It also tells the story of the Willow Pattern Plate - sadly the story is completely inauthentic and invented as an early marketing tool!

photo shows bones of chinese dinosaur

A Chinese Dinosaur. Courtesy of the Natural History Museum.

Chinese Dragons, and other hard science

The Natural History Museum is another venue that regularly runs theatre and storytelling events to celebrate Chinese New Year, and again it runs occasional events in Mandarin. It looks at hard natural history as well and holds the nearest thing you'll see to a "real" Chinese Dragon - the bones of a Chinese dinosaur. You can learn more about the dinosaur here.

Climb past the spaceships and virtual reality machines of the Science Museum and on the top floor you'll find the new Non Western Medicine galleries of the museum. They include much information the history and principles of Chinese medicine.

Postwar Chinese-British Lives

Despite the huge trade between Britain and China that had lasted for centuries, the British-Chinese population in 1946 was only 5,000. It was the postwar explosion in the catering trade that brought an influx of migrants to the UK. For many working long hours seven days a week in Chinese restaurants meant the risk of isolation. In the last few years, oral histories of the period have begun to be gathered by both museums and community organisations.

The Chinese National Healthy Living Centre has created a DVD, Whispers In Time which tells the story of Chinese in London since 1945. The centre has since produced a book on histories of the community for children: Dragons and Teacups. Contact the centre for news of their latest public events.

Eastside Community Heritage have also done a series of interviews called Chinese Lives. You can watch video versions of some of the material online. Their interviews include the younger generations, who aspirations have often taken them away from catering to a far wider choice of professions.

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