Discovering the Chinese in Britain

Photograph – The Chinese community in Limehouse, London Docklands c/o Tower Hamlet Library and Archives.

The Chinese have been long overlooked in British history, but a new exhibition called “Chinese and British” at the British Library reveals a rich seem of ‘hidden’ heritage.

As a teenager my parents made friends with newly arrived Hong Kong immigrants who ran the local Chinese takeaway in Manchester. It was my first experience of Chinese food, language and culture.

Since then, I’ve followed the stories of the Chinese in Britain. Here are the places where you can you discover the intriguing tales of the early Chinese community and its history.

London’s Earliest Chinese Visitors

Photographs – Portrait of Tan-Che-Qua – Hunterian Museum; early Chinese arrivals; and Shen Fuzong by Sir Godfrey Kneller c/o Royal Collection Trust.

The first Chinese visitors to Britain arrived in the late 1600s – they were mainly individual scholars, artisans or merchants. The sighting of Chinese people on English streets was incredibly rare.

Shen Fuzong was the first well known Chinese individual to visit in 1687 on his tour of Europe. He spent time in London and several weeks at Oxford’s Bodleian Library helping catalogue Chinese books.

Shen met with King James II who commissioned a portrait of him which now hangs in Windsor Castle. The fascinating letters sent by Shen to the British oriental scholar, Thomas Hyde, can be seen in the British Library.

The artist Tan-Che-Qua visited London between 1769-1772 and ran a successful business producing clay sculptures. Tan moved in elite circles and even met King George III. The Museum of London features one of his sculptures whilst his portrait is held by the Hunterian Museum (not currently on display).

What to See: The “Chinese and British” exhibition is at the British Library in London until 23 April, 2023. It provides a good overview of the history of the Chinese in Britain from early visitors to modern times. Admission is free.

Chinese Liverpool – The First Chinatown

This may surprise you but Liverpool was home to the first Chinatown in Europe. It grew up in the 1840s when there was an influx of Chinese seafarers to its docks as trade boomed between East and West.

The early Chinese seafarers lived in boarding houses near the docks around Great George Square and Pitt Street.

By 1906 there were 49 Chinese laundries, 13 boarding houses and seven shops kept by members of the Chinese community.

Sadly there are few of the original buildings left today due to slum clearance and bombing during World War Two.

Photograph: Sailors’ Home sign; The Nook pub – the Chinese ‘local’ in Liverpool in 1940; and
Liverpool ‘s modern Chinatown Gateway.

Alfred Holt founded the Ocean Steam Company (the Blue Funnel Line) in Liverpool in 1865 and ran the first direct steam ship to China. The Blue Funnel Line employed hundreds of Chinese seamen, some of whom settled in Liverpool. Its ships mainly carried goods such as silk and Chinese tea.

By 1891 Liverpool had the largest Chinese quarter in Europe, and their presence grew over the next few decades. My grandfather talked about seeing well-dressed Chinese sailors in the 1920s when he worked down by the docks.

Today you can see the old Blue Funnel Shipping Office – which is marked by a blue plaque – above the New Capital Chinese restaurant on Nelson Street in Chinatown. Across the road was the Southern Sky club, now long gone, where the seamen played mah-jong and gambled in the basement during their time on dry land.

“Keep my funnels tall and blue – and look after my China men” says the quote from the Victorian magnate on the blue plaque. But the sentiment was to prove a false dawn for the Chinese sailors many years later.

By the Second World War around 15,000- 20,000 Chinese seafarers had made their home in Liverpool and some married English women. Many risked and lost their lives serving in the Merchant Navy during World War Two.

After the war, the British government forcibly repatriated large numbers of the Chinese seamen. It was a shameful act of betrayal. Their families in Liverpool weren’t told what had happened to them and were left bereft and abandoned.

Recently there have been attempts to make amends for this terrible injustice including the creation of memorials, monuments and plaques to celebrate the contribution of the Chinese to Liverpool’s history.

Photographs: Memorials to the Chinese merchant seamen; and Chinese seaman being trained to use defensive weapons at the Gunnery School in Liverpool c/o Imperial War Museum.

Take a trip to Liverpool and walk along the Pier Head where there’s the recently erected monument to the Chinese merchant seamen and a plaque commemorating those who lost their lives in World War Two.

Another good place to explore Liverpool’s Chinese history is at the Museum of Liverpool on the waterfront close to the Pier Head.

There are exhibits reflecting the lives of the Chinese in Liverpool including the early seafarers and later migrants.

Photographs: Liverpool Docks in 1928; and documents from Chinese migrants working in Liverpool.

Once you’ve completed your tour of the Pier Head, head down the main ‘Dock Road’ (Wapping) to Chinatown, about 15 minutes walk. It’s not far from Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral.

The original Chinese community lived in the streets along this trawl and in the neighbourhood around Pitt Street and Greenville Street.

Pitt Street was the location of the first Chinese restaurant in Liverpool, serving seamen working for the Blue Funnel Line.

Many of the old Seamen’s lodgings were strung along the periphery of today’s neighbourhood including the Chinese Seamen’s Mission at 10 Great George Square which was once packed with 150 Chinese men.

Nearby Great George Square was home to ‘The Far East’ restaurant, the first Chinese serving food for English people in the early 1950s. My aunt remembers the “exotic’ experience of eating there with her advertising agency bosses.

During World War Two, many buildings were bombed or demolished especially those close to the docks. Some Chinese families moved into the new tenements in Kent Street, Pitt Street and Upper Frederick Street.

Watch – Actor David Yip returns to Liverpool for a tour of the old Chinese streets and the docks in 1981.

During the 1970s Nelson Street became the new hub of Chinatown and the Chinese businesses extended into Berry Street, Duke Street and Upper Pitt Street.

The main heart of Liverpool’s Chinatown today remains Nelson Street with its mix of restaurants and Chinese community buildings. It’s one of the most interesting Chinatowns in Britain.

It’s well worth exploring this area on foot and soaking up the oriental atmosphere. Even the street furniture has its own distinctive Chinese style. Don’t forget to treat yourself to a Chinese meal!

Notable landmarks include the Chinese Friendship Arch, the largest to be built outside of mainland China. Erected on Nelson Street in 2000, it was shipped piece-by-piece in five, huge containers from Shanghai, Liverpool’s twin city.

The Arch is made of marble and wood, and features 200 hand painted dragons. It’s a magnificent sight with its bold red and gold decorations.

There are a number of interesting historic Chinese buildings in Chinatown including the See Yep Association and the Chinese Gospel Mission which was set up in 1956.

Look out for street names and signs in Chinese including Knight Street, Griffiths Street, Wood Street, Roscoe Lane and Berry Street. There’s a great Chinese flavour to many of these streets even today.

London’s Limehouse – Chinese Seafarers

Limehouse was the original Chinese quarter in London and grew up after the influx of seafarers. It became one of the capital’s earliest multi-cultural communities.

Some Chinese sailors jumped ship and settled in the area, opening lodging houses, stores, cafes, association halls, and laundries to cater for transient seamen and labourers. 

There were two main Chinese enclaves – the seamen from Shanghai tended to gravitate to Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street. These streets are easily found today.

Those from Canton and Southern China lived on the other side of the West India Dock Road on Limehouse Causeway, a maze of narrow alleyways and lanes. Sadly, these old streets have been largely demolished.

Limehouse‘s Chinese community reached its peak in the 1930s with around 5,000 residents, many of whom were sailors.

The lack of English speaking Chinese workers led to some hostility from British seamen and reinforced the migrants’ cultural segregation. Myths were created about gambling houses, opium dens, prostitution and criminal gangs.

These were perpetuated by sensationalist Fu Manchu novels, Thomas Burke’s “Limehouse Nights” and ‘opium’ crime movies. Most of these myths were born out of ignorance and a fear of the so-called “Yellow Peril”.

Today there is little evidence of the early Chinese locations unless you look very carefully so you’ll have to use your imagination. Why not become a ‘history detective’?

Photographs: Limehouse street destroyed in the Blitz c/o Imperial War Museum; and the Chinese quarter on Limehouse Causeway c/o Tower Hamlets Library and Archives.

Limehouse suffered heavy bombing during the Second World War, and little remains of the original Chinese areas.

But today’s modern housing estates show plenty of evidence of their earlier Chinese connections. Many streets have been named after the original roads including Pekin Street, Amoy Place, and Canton Street.

Start your walk around Limehouse at Westferry Dockland Light Rail Station. Outside the station is a Chinese dragon sculpture on a fancy lamp post.

Cross the main road into Pennyfields and walk towards the modern shopping development where there is a plaque celebrating the Chinese community.

Take a look around the surrounding residential streets, many of which bear old Chinese names such as “Ming Street’.

The Chun Yee Society on 50 East India Dock Road is one of the few visible buildings left from the original Chinese quarter. It was set up in 1906 as a Chinese Sailors’ Shelter and is now run as a community building.

Much further along is one of the earliest British Chinese takeaways at 102 Salmon Lane, now called ‘Local Friends’.

Travel agent Thomas Cook used to organise tours of this area for “daring visitors” in the 1920s, fuelled by Thomas Burke’s sensationalist book “Limehouse Nights”. There is little sign of anything oriental today.

Photo – Original Pennyfields Chinese quarter at Limehouse and the area today.

It’s still worth exploring the Limehouse Basin and Causeway area despite the loss of much of its original character.

Chinese boarding-houses, shops and cafes once existed side by side with English working-class families and a multinational population catering for sailors from dozens of different nations.

Once it was a hive of commercial activity, but large parts of The Causeway and its maze of alleyways populated by Chinese businesses and seamen’s lodgings were demolished in 1934.

Not far from here was the ‘Strangers’ Home’ on the north side of West India Dock Road which once provided temporary accommodation for Chinese seamen. Other sailors “passing through” lodged at boarding houses like the King’s Lodging House at 38 Pennyfields which provided 43 beds. It’s now a block of modern flats.

“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”.

George Sims – 1905 Report into Chinese Limehouse

Limehouse’s riverfront is much changed today from its industrial past. It comprises a marina, smart housing and commercial developments.

One of the frustrating things about exploring this area is that you have to ‘follow your nose’ because they are no signposted heritage trails charting the history of the Chinese community. Occasional guided walks are advertised but these are largely ‘one-off’ events.

I’d suggest devising your own walking tour. The book Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown by John Seed provides a fascinating insight into what the area once looked like. It’s easy to map his descriptions onto today’s streets.

Chop Suey and Chips – London’s Chinatown

London is a great place for Chinese restaurants with the choice ranging from street food and takeaways to top end eateries and Michelin starred restaurants. But Chinese food was rarely seen in Britain until the 1950s.

The first Chinese restaurant in Britain is thought to have been either The Cathay in Glasshouse Street, Piccadilly or Maxim’s in Soho. Both opened in 1908 to a largely wealthy London clientele. 

Maxim’s was owned by Chung Koon, who had worked as a cook on the Red Funnel Line ferry. Its most popular dish was sweet and sour pork. But Chinese food still remained a niche cuisine for most people.

By the late 1940s and 50s Chinatown was emerging focused on Soho which was to become the heart of the Chinese community in London. Restaurants like Ley-On’s, Choy’s, Jacksing, Hong Kong and Choy’s clustered around Wardour Street, Dean Street and Greek Street.

Their menus were ‘Anglicised’ to cater for western tastes, and included ‘pseudo’ Chinese dishes like chop suey.

Watch: “Alfies’ Dinner (1945) c/o British Pathe

Ley-On’s Chinese restaurant at 91 Wardour Street was run by a Chinese actor who had parts in several movies.

Ley-On was born in Canton in 1890 and settled in London, appearing in a number of films including  small roles in the British film  The Beachcomber (1938) and Powell & Pressburger’s 49th Parallel as “the eskimo”!

The green, golden and red decorated walls were covered in autographed photos of Hollywood stars, and the eaterie attracted famous actors and the aristocracy of the day.

Sadly the restaurant closed in the mid-1990s (having later moved to 56 Wardour Street) and the original building is now a slot machines joint called Las Vegas.

An archive film called “Alfie’s Diner” gives a flavour of what the restaurant was like from a ‘cute’ British point of view.

It wasn’t until into the Post-War period that Chinese food took off properly. Charismatic Kenneth Lo – a former diplomat at the Chinese consulate in Liverpool – was one of the pioneers.

Lo published a series of Chinese cookery books and appeared on British TV, the first star of Chinese food programmes in the media. He was keen to promote authentic Chinese dishes and a wider range of ingredients.

He appeared on the BBC’s “Pebble Mill at One”, cooking with a wok in one hand and a cigarette in the other!

Watch: Kenneth Lo’s story

Kenneth Lo also opened the Memories of China restaurant in Belgravia, London, far from what was to become Chinatown.

It became a magnet for the rich and famous including stars like Mick Jagger, Princess Margaret and The Beatles in the 1960s. 

It’s still there today together with the old black and white photos of the famous who frequented the restaurant. I can strongly recommend a trip to Belgravia to taste the food!

Photograph – Kenneth Lo’ s Memories of China restaurant – Belgravia, London.

In 1973 Hong Kong immigrant William Poon opened his first restaurant in Lisle Street, London. This was followed by six further restaurants.

Poon used the menu A,B, C and D system to help British people navigate the Chinese dishes. Other restaurants followed this trend.

Chinese restaurants also grew in numbers across Britain including Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, many with a focus on their Chinatowns.

Kam Ling Chinese restaurant Birmingham 1960s
Kam Ling Chinese – Birmingham 1960s

Chop Suey and Chips” – Butlin’s Holiday Camps

In the late 1950s Billy Butlin introduced Chinese chop suey and chips to his holiday camp at Clacton as a novelty.

He went on to open Chinese kitchen in every Butlins Holiday Camp with a basic menu of Chicken Chop Suey and Chips as one of the standard offers. It was a huge success.

By the 1960s and 1970s Chinese food was becoming more widely recognised in Britain. Vesta introduced ‘cook in’ oriental meals – the Chow Mein with crisp noodles was my favourite home cookery dish!

The First Chinese Takeaways

Today we take Chinese takeaways for granted but they are a comparatively new phenomenon dating largely from the 1960s and 70s.

The first Chinese takeaway in Britain is thought to have been The Lotus House opened by John Koon in London’s Queensway in 1958.

The restaurant was such a success that customers who couldn’t get a table asked if they could take a ‘takeaway’ home. The rest is history…

Photographs: Model of Ming’s takeaway by Polin Law; and Mrs Kwok and her Wythenshawe takeaway in the 1980s c/o Simon Buckley

‘Chinglish’ was a term coined to describe the ‘mash up’ of Chinese and English food which became popular with English people.

Many ‘Chinese’ dishes such as crispy aromatic duck, sweet and sour chicken, chop suey, lemon chicken and chicken with cashew nuts weren’t authentic dishes. They were concocted to suit British tastes.

A new generation of Chinatowns grew up following the increase in Britain’s Chinese population in Britain due to refugees coming from Hong Kong. Chinese takeaways boomed across Britain.

Later, the chef Ken Hom popularised Chinese cooking on TV, encouraging British people to try a greater range of authentic dishes in the 1980s. Everyone went out and bought a wok – I still have mine.

“If you look at the food on the table of Chinese people in a Chinese restaurant, you will notice how different the dishes are compared those ordered by Brits who are not Chinese. Most dishes that appear on their table are usually avoided by the Chinese and are not found in China. 

“Egg Fried Rice – when I first arrived in the UK and witnessed this dish ordered and consumed, I nearly choked! This is a British invention to accompany Chinese dishes. Fried rice, like chow mein, is meant to be eaten alone. Egg fried rice has two things in it that usually clash with Chinese dishes – egg and lots of oil.” 

Ken Hom – Chef

Today there are more than 2,000 Chinese takeaways in Britain, a testament to our ongoing love affair with this style of cuisine.

And there’s more good news – we’re eating a greater range of authentic Chinese dishes than ever before. But I have to admit that I still love my ‘Chinglish’ crispy, aromatic duck and pancakes!

Remembering Chinese Laundries

Photograph – Ying Fong Chan Hand laundry – Manchester – 1970s – c/o Nick Hedges Photography

If you thought it’s hard finding evidence of early Chinese restaurants ‘on the ground’, then original Chinese laundries are even harder to locate. Most have long closed and their buildings have been repurposed for other uses.

Chinese laundries started to appear in the late 19th Century with the increased number of seafarers coming to British ports.

Running a laundry became a good alternative to life at sea for Chinese sailors who wanted to stay on dry land in the 1900s. It was a simple business to set up and required only basic English language skills.

It’s thought that the first Chinese laundry to be opened was in Holland Park, London around 1877.

Photographs – Laundry HQ – Amoy Place, Limehouse, London.

By the early 1900s Chinese laundries were multiplying in numbers with several in Limehouse – Amoy Place was a centre of the local Chinese laundry trade.

The laundries are long gone, but the pedestrian alley remains. Close your eyes and imagine the sights and smells – and the wafting steam coming from the laundry premises.

In 1940, an oil bomb fell on Amoy Place, destroying a number of buildings along the northern end of the alley. Today there are just a few old buildings and some of the old cobbles under the modern tarmac.

Photographs – The Chinese laundry at Caster Street, Limehouse and map of Chinese area around Pennyfields – 1920s.

During the Depression when there was high unemployment, competition for jobs and housing shortages leading to racial tensions in some Chinese areas.

There was a racially motivated attack on a Chinese laundry in Poplar, London in 1919 – and 33 laundries were targeted by rioters in Cardiff. Most of the laundries in Cardiff were on Bute Street, Tiger Bay. 

Despite sporadic hostility, Chinese laundries continued to expand with over 500 businesses operating by 1931. The advent of the electric washing machine and the rise of modern laundrettes led to their sudden decline in the 1950s.

Today, hardly any examples of the original laundries remain – many have been converted to other uses including restaurants. Good luck trying to find an authentic original laundry!

Chinatown and Chinese New Year

Chinatowns have sprung up across Britain over the last 100 years as the Chinese community has grown in numbers. These are some of the best places to enjoy authentic Chinese culture, food and customs.

There are sizeable Chinatowns in several British cities including London, Liverpool, Newcastle, Birmingham and Cardiff. Go and seek out your local Chinatown and its calendar of cultural events.

Chinese New Year is the best time of year to celebrate the community’s culture when the dragons come out on the streets together with the firecrackers, drummers, swordsmen and dancers.

Manchester’s Chinatown is the second largest in the UK and boasts an ornate archway. The first Chinese restaurant in the city, Ping Hong, opened on Oxford Street in 1948. Other businesses followed including restaurants, Chinese medicine shops, and Chinese supermarkets. Today it’s a thriving quarter of the city.

Manchester hosts the UK Chinese Dragon Race in which 40 dragon boat racing teams compete for the championship.

Liverpool’s Chinese cemeteries

Photographs: Everton cemetery in Liverpool c/o See Yep Association Liverpool.

I’ve often wondered how the British Chinese bury their dead so I was surprised to discover that there are dedicated sites for them at the Everton and Anfield cemeteries in Liverpool.

As I’ve already mentioned, Liverpool was home to Europe’s biggest Chinese population in the 1800s so it’s perhaps unsurprising that dedicated burial areas were laid out for them.

In Liverpool, the See Yep Association organises visits to these two cemeteries annually at the Qing Ming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Festival) when relatives can pay their respect to their ancestors and Chinese compatriots.

They use this festival to pray to their ancestors at their graves, sweep their tombs, lay flowers, offer food and tea, and burn candles/joss sticks.

It’s worth a trip to these cemeteries to see the Chinese headstones and their inscriptions. Anybody can walk around the Chinese graves to read the bi-lingual descriptions.

Chinese Football Hero

Photographs – Frank Soo cigarette card; Soo’s family residence; and playing for Stoke City c/o Frank Soo Foundation.

I always remember my Dad talking about Frank Soo as if he was some kind of sporting god, a true football icon.

Hong Y ‘Frank’ Soo was the first non-white footballer to play for England. He played professionally for Leicester City, Stoke City and Luton Town.

Now known as “football’s forgotten man”, he was renowned for his slinky soccer skills – and for being very debonair with his stylish looks and Brylcreamed hair.

Frank was born in 1914 in Derbyshire to a Chinese father, Quan Soo, and an English mother.  Later the family moved to 10 Town Row, Liverpool where Frank’s family ran a laundry business in West Derby, not far the docks.

Photographs – Frank Soo in RAF attire with famous footabll names; Frank Soo Street in Stoke; and Soo in RAF uniform c/o Frank Soo Foundation.

Soo fine-tuned his footballing skills in Liverpool but famously played for Stoke City who still celebrate their star player. There’s even a street near the footy ground named after him.

Frank also served in the RAF during World War Two and captained their football team. Frank later went on to manage the Norwegian national football team. Dare I wonder what would have happened if he’d ever managed England?

Discover more about Frank Soo’s career on the Foundation website and at the National Football Museum in Manchester.

Checklist – Where to Find the Chinese

  • The “Chinese and British” exhibition is at the British Library in London until 23 April, 2023. Free.
  • Liverpool attractions – Chinatown, Museum of Liverpool and Pier Head Monuments. Everton Cemetery.
  • London – Limehouse, Chinatown and the British Library. British Museum and V&A – Chinese history.
  • National Football Museum, Manchester – Frank Soo exhibits.
  • Belgravia, London – Kenneth Lo’s Memories of China restaurant.
  • Newcastle – Chinatown is focused on Stowell Street in the city centre.
  • Birmingham – Chinatown – near New Street Station.
  • Manchester – Chinatown. Hosts the biggest Chinese Dragon Race – 17-23 June 2023 – Media City plus cultural performances, exhibitions and Chinese food.
  • Chinese New Year –  the Year of the Dragon – falls on 10 February, 2024. Look out for celebrations.

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