The Chinese In Limehouse 1900 - 1940

By John Seed | 31 January 2007

Dr John Seed describes how a modest Chinese population in Limehouse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries got a sensational reputation in popular literature and in the press.

photo shows street with shopfront saying h doe foon

A Chinese shop in Limehouse at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. This image comes from the book 'Wonderful London'. Courtesy of John Seed.

Before the First World War there were never more than a few hundred Chinese people in London - and many of these were transitory sailors.

Why then did so many myths grow up around the Chinese of Limehouse – stories of mysterious murders in foggy riverside alleys, of sordid opium dens, of innocent English girls lost in a dangerous underworld controlled by an evil Chinese genius?

In a talk at the Docklands Museum on 28th January 2007, Dr John Seed from Roehampton University explored some of the realities of Chinese life in Limehouse from 1900 - 1940. He showed how public responses to several drug scandals, to interracial marriage, to housing shortages and unemployment, contributed to an enduring myth: the idea of a Chinatown in Limehouse that never really existed.

Has any district of London attracted as much attention as did Limehouse between the Great War and the 1930s? Limehouse, and its ghostly double ‘Chinatown’, figured as a dangerous and exotic place in a whole series of novels, films, magazines, even in popular songs.

‘Chinatown’ was a key theme in Sax Rohmer’s early Fu Manchu novels in which an evil Chinese genius plots world domination – often from some kind of secret headquarters around Limehouse. Several other Rohmer novels published between 1915 and 1920 dealt with drug smuggling and the dangerous oriental presence in the London docks.

Others jumped on the Fu Manchu bandwagon. Edgar Wallace’s novel The Yellow Snake published in 1926 had its Fu Manchu character Fing Su and an underground Chinese network in London (though, oddly, located in Peckham). In Agatha Christie’s The Big Four, published in the following year, Hercule Poirot confronted another diabolical Chinese genius seeking world domination and at one point his assistant, Hastings, was imprisoned in a Limehouse opium den. Throughout the nineteen-twenties and thirties the threat of Fu Manchu and his numerous oriental clones was recycled in comic books, magazine stories, radio shows and several film adaptations and imitations.

drawing shows chinese man holding plate or other round object aloft as he swears an oath

A Chinese man swears an oath in an East End magistrates court, from 'The Graphic' August 2nd, 1913. Courtesy of John Seed.

A very different kind of Limehouse Chinatown was manufactured by Thomas Burke, in a number of short stories, collections of verse and newspaper articles during the same years. Burke’s Chinatown stories – fiction and journalism – owed much to Jack London. Their tough boozy narrators revealed the sordid and dangerous spaces of the East End to a nervous suburban readership.

They were stories about the interaction between working-class English men and women and their Chinese neighbours. They happened in little corner cafes, in the backrooms of terraced houses, in corner shops and public-houses, and they involved petty crime, sex and much violence. Burke’s writings on Chinatown did not have quite the international currency of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, but they were best-sellers. And they too found a ready market in the United States and were picked up by Hollywood.

One story from Limehouse Nights, ‘The Chink and the Child’, was made into the film Broken Blossoms by D. W. Griffiths in 1919. Griffiths’s film of Burke’s story is evoked in ‘Limehouse Blues’, a jazz number from the early 1920s which became a standard in the repertoire of many jazz musicians. With added lyrics by Douglas Furber, it was turned into a hit record by Gertrude Lawrence in 1931. A few years later Limehouse Blues was the title of a Hollywood movie set in the London docks. Starring George Raft and Anna May Wong, this 1934 film played with a fairly conventional cast of stereotypes – the erotic and dangerous Chinese femme fatale, the scheming Chinese-American café-owner and drug-smuggler in Limehouse, the innocent English girl and the manly square-jawed hero. There was an English remake of Broken Blossoms in 1936 and there were other films in these years in which Limehouse and Chinatown played a strategic role – Twinkletoes (1926) and Piccadilly (1929) for instance.

In a very different register, George Formby had his first record success in 1932 with ‘Chinese Laundry Blues’, recorded with the famous Jack Hylton Orchestra. It was a comical song about a lovesick Mr Wu in his Limehouse laundry.

Oh Mr. Wu,

what shall I do,

I'm feeling kind of Limehouse Chinese Laundry Blues’.

There were other George Formby songs about Mr Wu in Limehouse, including ‘The Wedding of Mr Wu’ (1933) and ‘Mr Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now’ (1939).

A series of best-selling novels and short stories, several English and American movies, American comic books, radio programmes, a classic jazz number and two very different hit records brought into international currency images of a Chinese underworld set in a dark, foggy, dockside district of East London called Limehouse.

drawing shows chinese men gathering around a newspaper in a chinese teashop

This image comes from 'The Graphic' of November 1911. It shows Chinese men reading news of Sun Yat-sen's rebellion. It notes that most expatriate Chinese people are in favour of the revolution.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Limehouse and the whole riverside district of East London, stretching along the Thames from the Tower and Wapping to Limehouse and inland north up to the Commercial Road, was a notorious slum area. Its streets of little terraced houses were squeezed among canals and railway-lines, timber-yards and sawmills, lead-works and coal-yards, dry docks, ship-repair-yards, factories and workshops. There was heavy pollution and bad sanitation. There was overcrowding, along with low and irregular wages and among the highest levels of child mortality and the highest levels of poverty in London.

What made Limehouse and its riverside neighbours distinctive was their maritime connection. This was the most cosmopolitan district of the most cosmopolitan city in Britain. Since Victorian times dozens of cheap lodging-houses and brothels, public-houses, beer-shops and dance-halls had catered for, and often ruthlessly exploited, a floating population of sailors with little English and too much money in their pockets: Charles Dickens Junior in 1879 noted how the cafes, pubs, beer-shops, boarding-houses and dance-halls along the old Ratcliffe Highway were ‘each, for the most part, devoted almost exclusively to the accommodation of a single nationality’. Thus the Rose and Crown at the Wapping end of the Highway was mostly used by Spanish and Maltese sailors. There were other places largely catering for Germans, or Swedes, or Greeks or Italians. There was even a music-hall, The Bell, which provided entertainment ‘for the edification of Quashie and Sambo, whose shining ebony faces stand jovially out even against the grimy blackness of the walls’.

For Dickens, European and black sailors were to be found, separate but at least visible, on the open streets of Shadwell. The Chinese, by contrast, occupy a more sinister kind of space:

Hard by Quashie’s music-hall is a narrow passage, dull and empty, even at the lively hour of 11 pm., through which, by devious ways, we penetrate at length to a squalid cul-de-sac, which seems indeed the very end of all things. Chaos and space are here at present almost at odds which is which, for improvement has at the present moment only reached the point of partial destruction, and some of the dismal dog-holes still swarm with squalid life, while others gape tenantless and ghastly with sightless windows and darksome doorways, waiting their turn to be swept away into the blank open space that yawns by their side. At the bottom of this slough of grimy Despond is the little breathless garret where Johnny the Chinaman swelters night and day curled up on his gruesome couch, carefully toasting in the dim flame of a smoky lamp the tiny lumps of delight which shall transport the opium-smoker for awhile into his paradise.

The Chinese opium den is, Dickens implies, the lowest stratum of the international hierarchy in the streets around the London docks. And it is to be discovered only through ‘narrow passages’ and ‘devious ways’. These kinds of image of a sinister Chinese settlement in the London docks were recycled and elaborated throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

photo shows actor dressed as chinese man holding a bunch of flowers

A still from D W Griffiths' 1919 film Broken Blossoms shows a 'Chinese' man walking down a decaying Limehouse Street. Courtesy of the BFI. Broken Blossoms is one of a series of 100 films about London that you can see at the new BFI Mediatheque when it opens on the South Bank in March (next to the NFT cinema). Use of the Mediatheque is free, but it's likely to be very oversubscribed, so book well in advance.

Is it possible to penetrate the endless riverside fog and get some precise and accurate figures of the settled Chinese population in London – and around Limehouse in particular? Official census figures cannot be treated as anything more than the roughest of estimates. Categories defining Chinese were always uncertain and shifted between censuses. In particular, there was a problem in categorizing nationality, as opposed to the fairly simple question of place of birth. Place of birth is not the same as ethnic or national identity. Around two-thirds of those counted in the 1881 census as living in London and born in China were the children of British merchants, missionaries or soldiers. Conversely, Chinese people born in Malaysia, British Guiana or elsewhere would not be categorized in the census as Chinese. Nor would the children of one or even of two Chinese parents born in London. An example from the 1881 census returns: William Achong and his English-born wife (and three children) had a laundry in Fulham. Here were children with a Chinese father and an English mother. They were invisible in the census as far as their Chinese origins went. Their place of birth was, of course, London.

A further set of complications: how accurate could census figures be when the evidence was provided by householders whose English was usually very limited and who were deeply suspicious of any enquiries by the agents of the British state? Journalistic forays and police investigations were consistently met by deep suspicion, unwillingness to communicate information and apparent incomprehension. The Chinese lodging-house keepers in Limehouse were frequently prosecuted for accommodating more than the maximum numbers they were legally permitted. They too are unlikely to have provided accurate information to the authorities.

Having given these cautions about the limitations of census data, here are summaries of the returns for 1881 – 1931.

Table 1. Chinese in London, from census

224 109 70

These figures suggest first, a slow and uneven increase of the Chinese in London, rising to 1,194 by 1931. Second, the census shows that the Chinese population was extremely small throughout this period. By comparison with European immigrants the Chinese presence in Britain was negligible. The Chinese before the First World War numbered half of one per cent of the foreign-born population of Britain. In the 1920s and 1930s they constituted just over one per cent. Compare the 1,194 Chinese aliens in Greater London in 1931, for instance, with over 25,000 Poles, nearly 18,000 Russians, 11,000 Italians, and over 9,000 French and Germans.

Within London there was a marked concentration of Chinese in Limehouse. Around forty per cent of the Chinese counted in the pre-1914 censuses of London were in and around a couple of Limehouse streets. In the 1921 census the highest concentration was still in Limehouse, which is inconveniently and arbitrarily split down the middle between the borough of Poplar (221) and the borough of Stepney (116). These 337 Chinese made up forty-seven per cent of the London total of those born in China and of alien or unstated nationality.

By contrast, Chinese were absent from other working-class and industrial districts, such as Bethnal Green and Shoreditch in the East End or Deptford, Southwark and Bermondsey along the southern bank of the river. However, by the nineteen-twenties there were significant numbers in several core West End boroughs – Westminster (75), St Pancras (65), St.Marylebone (38), together adding up to 25% of the Chinese in London. They were also settled in smaller numbers in such suburbs as Hampstead (31), Kensington (22), and Wandsworth (18).

The 1931 census figures indicate that the movement of the Chinese to the West End and the suburbs was accelerating. The Chinese-born population of Stepney and Poplar had apparently fallen from 337 to 167 – now less than fifteen per cent of the London total. By the early 1930s the largest settlement of the Chinese was in the West End: Kensington (135), Westminster (115), St Pancras (93), Paddington (75), Holborn (68). There were also sizeable clusters further out in Wandsworth (82), Hampstead (81), Hendon (44) and Ealing (34).

The Rector of St Anne’s, Limehouse was probably not too far out in 1930 when he said of the resident Chinese community around Limehouse that ‘their invasion’ began in the 1880s, reached its height during the Great War and had since declined. They currently numbered, he thought, about 300, sometimes increased temporarily by Chinese crews. Other sources indicate a similar kind of trajectory. If, for instance, we count the number of Limehouse businesses with a Chinese name listed in the various Directories of the period – admittedly a very blunt instrument – we find steady growth until the early 1930s. In the 1890s we find no Chinese businesses in Pennyfields; Limehouse Causeway had only a couple of tobacconists and a boarding-house . By 1911 there were at least nine Chinese businesses around Limehouse – including several tobacconists and lodging-houses. The post-war years saw a rapid increase. By 1919 there were fourteen Chinese businesses – grocers, tobacconists, a boot-maker, a couple of restaurants. These businesses peaked at twenty-six in the early 1930s. Numbers began to fall away after 1932.

We can track the development of some kind of émigré Chinese community. Its cafes, shops and lodging-houses were places to meet and exchange news and gossip. Shops served as post-offices where letters could be left and collected and banks where money could be left in safe keeping. There was no local Chinese newspaper but notice-sheets of news from China were sometimes pasted on a wall in Pennyfields. There was an Oi T’ung Association set up in 1907 and the Chung Sam Workers Club founded in the early 1920s – both providing support to Chinese seamen and both politically aligned with the Kuomintang

The existence of a Chinese community was, however, short-lived, however. In 1934 Limehouse Causeway was widened and a maze of alleys and side streets, including several occupied by Chinese businesses and lodging-houses, were demolished. But the primary causes of the long-term decline of the Chinese community in the area were to do with the port. Chinatown, an 1895 article in the Gentleman’s Magazine accurately stated, was no more than a single street of shops and boarding-houses:

It exists by and for the Chinese firemen, seamen, stewards, cooks, and carpenters who serve on board the steamers plying between China and the port of London.

This remained the case for the next fifty years. It was this dependence which generated the rapid growth of Chinese businesses in Limehouse during the First World War, continuing throughout the 1920s. And it was this dependence which brought about their decline in the 1930s. Chung Chu, who kept a café on Limehouse Causeway, said in 1931 that the slump in shipping entering the London Docks was killing the Chinese population. There were now about a hundred families living in the area but they were drifting away and there was no future for the Anglo-Chinese children:

the boys find work hard to get, and the girls drift about the streets ostracised by white girls of their own age. They, and not the white wives, are the broken blossoms.

Much of Limehouse, was destroyed in the Blitz. There were still some Chinese sailors entering the port during the Second World War and some Chinese lodging-houses and businesses remained open. Others however were closed and many Chinese were evacuated to the relative safety of the West End or the suburbs. In 1951 Peter Fryer for the Daily Worker found a few cafes and laundries, some Chinese seamen, and a fairly impoverished population of fifty resident families: perhaps a quarter, he thought, of what it had been before the Blitz.

It is, of course, from the 1950s that a very different kind of Chinatown began to be developed in the West End of London around Gerrard Street. In the early 1960s Ng Kwee Choo interviewed several workers who had jumped ship in the 1920s and ’30s and found jobs ashore. But they looked with some resentment on new generations of post-war Chinese immigrants in the West End, mostly from Hong Kong. The older generation were generally from mainland China, especially Kwangtun, and looked back with some nostalgia to the inter-war years when the London Chinese were still a small and close-knit community.

A final but crucial point: the streets that are always specified as Chinatown – Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway – were never at any time exclusively Chinese. Visitors were often struck by the obvious Chinese presence. As George Sims reported in 1905:

There is no mistake about the Chinese element. The Chinese names are up over the doors of the little shops, and as we peer inside them we see the unmistakable Celestial behind the counter and Chinese inscriptions on the walls.

The visible strangeness of Chinese shops and signs and faces was similarly commented on by many visitors in the 1920s and 30s. There was, however, no territorially distinct and ethnically homogenous Chinatown in Limehouse. From the 1890s through to the 1950s the Chinese were a small minority in a mixed community of tradesmen, casual labourers and transient sailors. Chinese boarding-houses and shops and cafes existed side by side with English working-class families, pubs, shops and tradesmen and a multinational population catering for sailors of a hundred different nations.

To summarize: in one way the census figures consistently overemphasize the numbers of Chinese living around Limehouse by including seamen temporarily ashore. At the same time, there were always some Chinese seamen with English wives and children around Limehouse who were overseas at the time of the census. Contemporary estimates vary widely, as we have seen. For what it is worth, I trust Chung Chu, the local Chinese restaurant owner, who in 1931 said there were around a hundred Chinese families in Limehouse. This is confirmed by a by a local policeman, with twenty years experience in the district, who told an inquest in 1934 that there were no more than 100 Chinese men living in the area. A sympathetic correspondent to The Times in the same year similarly gave a figure of around 100 Chinese in Limehouse. And in 1935 a survey cited by Michael Banton gave a figure of 100 Chinese in Limehouse, adding that ‘they have decreased in numbers very considerably’.

The 1931 census figure of 167 would thus include sixty or so transient seamen. But the local Chinese Chung Hwa School in 1935 mentioned ‘some hundreds of children with Chinese fathers and British mothers’. Taking this into account and adding the unknown numbers of wives and children, the real figure for the Chinese community is probably closer to the Rector’s 1930 estimate of about 300, with some fluctuations of numbers of seamen. The figure was probably higher during the 1920s with as many as perhaps 200 or more Chinese residents at various points, numbers of them, as we have seen from the 1931 census, moving into other parts of London.

Whatever the precise numbers, the question remains: how did these few riverside streets, with their small Chinese settlement, become such a focus of national attention? How did drab Limehouse become exotic ‘Chinatown’, one of the most exciting and dangerous ‘places’ in Britain by the 1920s?

First, it inherited something of the dangerous mystique of the Victorian opium den. A variety of circumstances began to make the association of opium, the docks and the Chinese minority a much more potent image. A 1907 newspaper article headed ‘Opium Smoking and ‘East End Dens’ warned that there were now at least six places where opium smoking occurred, all in the Chinese district of the docks. This was a dangerous and unsavoury area, especially for those more accustomed to the West End:

But the opium victim, intent on satisfying his desire, rubs shoulders with criminals and desperadoes of the worst type, careless of the risk he may be running.

Thus opium smoking, among the Chinese of Limehouse, was no longer a youthful adventure. Now it was corroding the moral backbone of sections of the middle classes. The article went on to signal another dimension of the opium problem, one which was to figure prominently in the fictions of Sax Rohmer and in sections of the press after 1918. The patrons of one Chinese restaurant which provided opium in luxuriously-furnished upstairs rooms included ‘Society women seeking a new sensation’.

This kind of press attention and the linkage of Limehouse, Chinese immigrants and opium with moral danger and English women was recurrent in pre-war years. But it reached a crescendo in the immediate post-war years. The singer Billie Carleton was found dead in her Savoy Hotel suite the morning after her starring role at the great Victory celebration at the Albert Hall on 28 November. The inquest decided that she had died of cocaine poisoning and connections to Chinatown were made.

The press had a field-day with sensationalist stories derived as much from the fictions of Sax Rohmer as from any substantial evidence. Rohmer himself quickly cashed in, turning the Carleton case into a novel: Dope: a Story of Chinatown and the Drug Traffic. Full-blown paranoia was whipped up by the Daily Express. One article in October 1920 screamed in large headlines: ‘Yellow Peril in London’, ‘Vast Syndicate of Vice with its Criminal Master’, ‘Women and Child Victims’. ‘A Chinese syndicate, backed by millions of money and powerful, if mysterious, influences is at work in the East End of London.’ As fast as the London police captured its Chinese agents and the magistrates imprisoned and deported them, new ones appeared. Stories were everywhere of a Chinese ‘Moriarty’ who never strayed from the back streets of Limehouse but knew everything that passed in the wider world and exerted immense authority on his myriad of subordinates. ‘In the underworld his name is uttered only with that respect due to a master.’ And white women, suborned by the Chinese in ways left to the reader’s imagination, were the particular victims of this international drugs and gambling syndicate:

White Englishwomen seem to exert a remarkable fascination for them. But the white women who fall into the clutches of the ‘yellows’ are not Londoners, but mainly come from provincial inland towns. They are without exception young and pretty, but in what manner they are attracted to the Chinese quarter in of London has not been unravelled.

Not be outdone Evening News headlines in the same week shrieked: ‘The Lure of the Yellow Men’, ‘English Girls’ “Moral Suicide”’. It recounted stories of young and attractive English girls drawn into a world of drug addiction, gambling and sexual abuse. Even children were not spared: ‘The police have acquaintance with cases where young children have fallen victims to the lure and the lust of the coloured races’. We are in the ideological territory here of Burke’s fiction and Griffiths’s film Broken Blossoms.

Dozens of newspaper and magazine articles in 1919, 1920 and 1921 reinforced these supposed connections between Chinese seamen, Limehouse shopkeepers, suborned white girls and the West End demi-monde. Smuggled into the London docks in the bilges and engine-rooms of cargo-ships or, in smaller quantities, hidden in the clothing of Chinese seamen, opium found its way into the hands of Limehouse shopkeepers or other agents in the docks. The Chinese dealer cultivated local English ‘girls’:

He … went into the streets, selected some of the prettiest girls he could find, and lavished luxury on them. For their rags and penury he gave them fine clothes and wealth, and after about four months with him they were sent forth into the West-end to spread the cult.

They in turn cultivated ‘the wealthier kind of profligate’ in clubs around Leicester Square, introducing them to the opium pipe. These subsequently converted their friends. Thus addiction to the drug spread into the city via the Chinese in Limehouse and the English women they had seduced.

So much for the national press and the moral guardians of the state. What about the attitudes of the wider population, and especially the working-class population of the London docks?

The tiny Chinese minority provided little competition in the English or the London labour market.

TABLE 2 - Occupations of Chinese men, England & Wales, 1911

Number% of occupied Chinese males
Merchant navy48049%
Cooks, waiters, etc.354%

Source: Census 1911

These four areas of work occupied 95% of Chinese men in England and Wales. In the kinds of ordinary trades found in every city of the time – transport, for instance, or the building trades -- the Chinese migrant was absent. However, there was one area of the labour market in which the Chinese did compete with the English working class, as Table 2 indicates: the merchant navy.

Tensions exploded in the London Docks in 1908 when British seamen repeatedly stopped Chinese crews from signing on at the Board of Trade offices at East India Dock Road, a few hundred yards from the streets of ‘Chinatown’. There were violent clashes and police had to escort the Chinese safely home. Questions were asked in the Commons and Winston Churchill gave assurances of government concern about the use of Chinese labour on British merchant ships.

During the transport worker’s strikes in Cardiff in July 1911 there were anti-Chinese riots during which all thirty-three Chinese laundries in the town were destroyed. Nothing on this scale occurred in London but there was continuing tension and sporadic violence. This blew up into something more serious in the summer of 1916. The Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union organized protest meetings around Limehouse and Poplar against the increasing use of Chinese labour on British ships. There were wild accusations, voiced by union leaders and even by their lawyers in court, that some of these Chinese seamen were spying for the Germans.

Several of these protest meetings spilled over into demonstrations which turned violent. Windows of Chinese shops and houses in Limehouse were broken, though nobody was hurt. In May and June 1919 anti-Chinese rioting again broke out around Limehouse. Rumours were rife that Chinese seamen were signing on for much less than British sailors would accept. An angry crowd of unemployed British seamen gathered outside the Board of Trade Offices on East India Dock Road and later there were attacks on individual Chinese and damage to property before a strong police presence restored an uneasy order.

Antagonism in the London docks to the Chinese as cheap labour was exacerbated by conflicts over housing. There was an acute housing shortage in the area. In June 1919 a crowd attacked a house in Poplar into which two Chinese men and their English wives were moving. There were rumours that a demobilized British soldier had been refused as a tenant. The wives were besieged in the house and had to be rescued by the police. The house was then set on fire and furniture destroyed. Over several days following there were angry crowds in the area, attacks on a nearby Chinese laundry and threats to destroy the whole Chinese quarter, as well as sporadic attacks on black seamen. Again hostility to the Chinese persisted. Under the headline, ‘London’s Expanding Chinatown’, an article in the Daily News in 1920 said that the expansion of the Chinese population beyond its Limehouse base was provoking local hostility because of the housing shortage.

The Star summarized the sources of anti-Chinese resentment at the end of the war:

As Englishmen joined the Army, Chinese came in to replace them in many instances in the factories and in the kitchens of hotels and restaurants. The Chinaman gave up the sea for a shore job, earned good money and then he and his compatriots overflowed from his original quarter, forming alliances in some cases with white women.

In other words, while courageous young Englishmen went off to fight for King and Country, these Chinese immigrants took their jobs and their homes, earned good wages and seduced their women.

Resentments were fuelled by consistent exaggerations of the size of the Chinese population. At a well-publicized court case in May 1916 a local police superintendent stated that there were thousands of Chinese living in Limehouse and a lawyer for the seamen’s union claimed a few weeks later that ‘the Chinese population had grown from 1,000 to 8,000, and a large number of British seamen were pushed out by them’. There were other equally ludicrous overestimates. For instance, one newspaper in 1926 claimed that before the war Limehouse had had a Chinese population of 2,500 – clearly a wild overestimate. As the Chinese novelist Lao She wearily commented in 1929:

If there were twenty Chinese living in Chinatown, their accounts would say five thousand; moreover every one of these five thousand yellow devils would certainly smoke opium, smuggle arms, murder people then stuff the corpses under beds, and rape women regardless of age…

There is much more to be said about this: about how the Victorian opium den was transformed into a broader space for the interplay of sexuality, Empire and drugs in the first two decades of the twentieth century; about anxieties surrounding inter-racial sex; about some kind of historically-specific crisis of masculinity at the end of the war; and about how these intersected with fears and frustrations about unemployment, low wages and housing shortages in working-class districts like Limehouse and Poplar. This potent mix of fears and resentments was the brew out of which the writings of Sax Rohmer and Thomas Burke emerged and to which they in turn contributed. Fu Manchu and the tales of Limehouse Nights were merely the latest instalments of an ideological repertoire which was utilised by journalists, policeman, magistrates and even local people.

Much much more needs to be said about the experiences and perceptions of the Chinese population itself.

Enough has been said, however, to at least begin to explore why a small district in the London docks with a population of a hundred or two Chinese men, many of them seamen temporarily ashore, should have attracted an inordinate amount of public attention, especially during the Great War and the years immediately after.

JOHN SEED teaches History and Cultural Studies at Roehampton University in London. He has published on art, religion, politics and the propertied classes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. He has also published on twentieth-century British and American poetry and on the 1960s and is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Pictures from Mayhew: London 1850 (Shearsman Books, Exeter 2005).


A longer version of this talk was published as ‘”Limehouse Blues”: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900-1940’, History Workshop Journal, No.62, Autumn 2006.

1. Sax Rohmer’s three early Fu Manchu novels are: The Mystery of Fu Manchu, London,1913; The Devil Doctor, London, 1916; The Si-Fan Mysteries, London 1917.

2. Rohmer’s other relevant works dealing with the docks, the Chinatown area and drugs are: Yellow Claw, London, 1915; Tales of Chinatown, London, 1916; The Golden Scorpion, London, 1919; Dope, London, 1920.

3. Relevant works by Thomas Burke include: Nights in Town: a London Autobiography, London 1915; Limehouse Nights, London, 1916 (Broken Blossoms, London, 1920 and In Chinatown, London, 1921 were selections from Limehouse Nights); Out and About London, London, 1919; Whispering Windows: Tales of the Waterside, London, 1921 (also published as More Limehouse Nights, New York, 1921); The Wind and the Rain: a Book of Confessions, 1924; East of Mansion House, London, 1928; The Pleasantries of Old Quong, London, 1931 (also published as A Tea-shop in Limehouse, Boston, 1931); City of Encounters: a London Divertissement, London, 1932; Night-Pieces: Eighteen Tales, London, 1935.

4. There are recordings of Limehouse Blues by Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Stefan Grappelli, Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Glenn Miller – even by Gerry Garcia and Grateful Dead.

5. See George Formby Complete, ed. A. Bailey and P. Foss, London, nd.

6. Charles Dickens (Jr), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879, pp. 218-19.

7. For a good introduction see P. J. Waller, ‘Immigration into Britain: the Chinese’, History Today 35: 9, September 1985, pp. 8-15.

8. For an excellent account of this case and of the whole issue of drugs, women and race at this juncture see Marek Kohn, Dope Girls: the Birth of the British Drug Underground (2nd edition) London 2001

9. Lao She, Mr Ma and Son. Sojourn in London, trans J.Jimmerson, Beijing, 2001, p.25. This novel was first published in China in 1929.

10. The Chinese in Britain, a series of programmes by Mukti Jain Campion and Anna Chen, to be broadcast on Radio 4 from April 30th 2007, will give a voice to the experience of many Chinese migrants.

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