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The port in literature

Sherlock Holmes
Charles Dickens
Daniel Defoe
'Chinatown' literature
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'Chinatown' literature

An invented community

A Chinese shop (Limehouse).
View full size imageA Chinese shop in Limehouse. © NMM
A favourite subject for many writers and journalists was London's original Chinatown in Limehouse. This was a compact area in which several small Chinese-run businesses catered for the mainly transient Chinese seafaring population.

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

Opium smokers
View full size imageOpium smokers. © NMM

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.

Chinese gamblers in an opium den.
View full size imageChinese gamblers in an opium den. © NMM
Another Chinatown specialist was Thomas Burke (1886-1945), whose book of short stories Limehouse Nights appeared in 1916. Two further collections followed in 1926 and 1931.



The prosaic reality

Chinese Mission House (Limehouse).
View full size imageThe Chinese Mission House in Limehouse. © NMM

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

Opium Ships at Lintin in China, 1824, by William Huggins.
View full size imageOpium Ships at Lintin in China, 1824, by William Huggins. © NMM

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.

Destroying Chinese war junks, by E. Duncan.
View full size imageDestroying Chinese war junks, by E. Duncan. © NMM
When the Chinese government tried to end the opium exports, Britain fought two Opium Wars in 1839-42 and 1856-60 to keep the trade open.

Not surprisingly, writers on Chinatown did not dwell on this aspect of British Imperial history.


Contemporary echoes

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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