The port in literature
An invented community
Unfortunately, most Chinatown literature was not a portrait of a real community. Instead, writers and journalists thrilled their middle-class readers with lurid descriptions of a world of crime, opium dens and gambling joints.
Sax Rohmer and Thomas Burke
Some great writers, including Oscar Wilde (in The picture of Dorian Grey) and Conan Doyle (in the Sherlock Holmes story 'The man with the twisted lip'), portrayed opium dens in their work, but the heyday of Chinatown literature was the period between the World Wars.
The most famous Chinatown writer was Arthur Ward (1886-1959), who wrote under the name of Sax Rohmer. His Dr Fu Manchu appeared in 1913. A series of adventures of the fiendish villain followed until 1939.
The prosaic reality
Many of these works contained derogatory descriptions of a community in the grip of crime, gambling and drug use.
Unfortunately, the real Chinatown bore little resemblance to the lurid underworld of the hack writers. Opium smoking and gambling certainly did take place, but most people in Chinatown were too busy trying to make ends meet.
The novelist Arnold Bennett provided a more sober observation when he visited Chinatown in April 1925. He claimed he 'saw no vice whatever' and felt it was a 'rather flat night'.
This was a far cry from what others were writing about Chinatown at that time. As every hack writer knows, a sensational headline wins more readers than dull truth - and few wanted to read about ordinary businesses, laundries and simple boarding houses of Limehouse.
Outrage and hypocrisy
The outrage over the opium dens in Limehouse was particularly ironic, as the British had done more than anyone to promote opium smoking among the Chinese.
Desperate to find a product that the Chinese would buy in exchange for tea and porcelain, the British eagerly sold opium grown in India.
Not surprisingly, writers on Chinatown did not dwell on this aspect of British Imperial history.
The ‘Chinatown’ literature has its echoes in the media today, with immigrants and asylum seekers now cast in the role once given to the Chinese community. In the newspapers or television, such people are all too likely to be portrayed as villains importing all manner of vices into an otherwise saintly and crime-free country.
The prosaic reality – that most of these people are busy doing low-paid and low-status jobs in order to eke out a living – is as unappealing to the general public now as the truth about London’s Chinatown was a century ago.
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