The arrival of the first Chinese seamen in London is linked to the growth of British trade with China, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries. As the activities of the East India Company expanded, China became a hugely important and profitable market.
Tea dominated the Anglo-Chinese trade as its consumption grew in Britain. The Company began to export opium from India to China, selling the drug to raise the money to buy shipments of tea.
This was against the law and angered the Chinese authorities. In 1839, war broke out between Britain and China over the opium trade. Britain defeated China and under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Hong Kong became a British colony.
Chinese sailers were employed as Lascars on East India Company ships. Most Chinese seamen were engaged in the 'country trade' between China and the main Indian ports. Some did make it to London on East Indiamen.
There was even a visit to London by a Chinese junk. The Keying reached Gravesend on 28 March 1848, after sailing from Canton to New York. This was the first Chinese vessel to enter the Port of London. Queen Victoria boarded it while moored in the Thames.
For those unfortunate Chinese who were left destitute in East London there was some hope that they would be accepted into the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders. This place of safety was opened in 1857 in West India Dock Road.
Research into local inquests has highlighted some maltreatment of Chinese crew. In one case, a Chinese Lascar called Chan arrived in London from Calucutta on the ship Norma. Chan, who was in a very weak condition, was found by two other Lascars who carried him to the Dreadnought hospital ship at Greenwich.