Chinese in the Port of London
Chinese seamen stranded in London were allowed to work in the docks and many were involved in unloading China tea.
The 'Cutty Sark' chinamen
James was brought to London and grew up at Poplar. He became a seaman and cook on the Cutty Sark between 1885 and 1895. Another Chinese man who served on the Cutty Sark was Ah Sing Lee, a steward from Singapore. He was taken on at Shanghai in 1879 and discharged at London in 1880.
Chinese sailors in the Royal Navy
The British India Steam Navigation Company (BISNC), with ships such as the SS Almora and the Blue Funnel Line brought more Chinese seamen to London, especially after 1890.
Amahs and wives
Though local sources suggest that by 1860 there were some Chinese men married to English women. Many lived at riverside settlements such as Deptford and Woolwich.
Most Chinese seamen lived to the north of the river. By 1880 the Chinese community was based in Limehouse and consisted mainly of Shanghai and Cantonese seamen who catered for the Chinese and Indians that arrived at the docks. In 1881, there were several Chinese seamen living in the boarding house of Mr M. Lamar at 14, Limehouse Court.
Two Chinese London communities
By 1890 there were two distinct communities:
The historian Sir Walter Besant put the Limehouse Chinese community at less then 100 people in 1891.
By 1911 the area of Limehouse and Pennyfields was known as Chinatown. At Pennyfields there was a Christian Mission for the Chinese and a Confucian temple. At Limehouse Causeway there was the famous Ah Tack’s lodging house.
Prejudice and hostility
There was much prejudice against the East End Chinese community, with much of it initiated by the writings of Thomas Burke and Arthur Henry Ward. Both of these men wrote about the Chinese community.
Burke and Ward exaggerated the Chinese community's true size and made much mention of gambling, opium dens and 'unholy things' in the shadows.
Though there were some individuals involved in gambling and opium smoking, for the majority of Chinese people life was hard work in the docks. It was a struggle to find passage for the return voyage to the Far East.
The novelist Arnold Bennett, who visited the Limehouse Chinatown in April 1925, correctly remarked:
'On the whole a rather flat night. Still we saw the facts. We saw no vice whatever. Inspector [of Police] gave the Chinese an exceedingly good character.'
At that time the community was still based around Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields. The area was marked with lodgings for seamen and restaurants.
These streets were heavily bombed during the Blitz. Now only their names remain to evoke the past community. There are names such as Canton Street, Mandarin Street, Pekin Street, Ming Street and Nankin Street.
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