Telling Chinatown’s Stories

Suzanne Frost

There is more to be found in Chinatown than food! Of course every Londoner has ended up somewhere around Gerrard Street at some point after a night out in Soho, in need of some cheap and hearty food. But did you ever dig a bit deeper or think a little more about how and why there is a Chinese quarter at the heart of London, and what its significance is for the city?

Chinatown is struggling and changing. Rents that used to be cheap are rising, and the traditional Cantonese shops and restaurants are increasingly replaced by bubble tea, hot pot places and fancy doughnut shops. Freya Aitkin-Turff, CEO of the China Exchange, who recently went on a research trip studying Chinatowns around the world, believes one of the problems is that the area has no real tourist offering apart from taking a picture of the decorated gates and the glazed ducks in the shop windows. “Chinatown in San Francisco for example has 15 different tours, a museum and galleries to honour its heritage and history. Just celebrating Chinese New Year once a year is not enough!”

That is why the China Exchange is launching Chinatown Stories, the first walking tour through the area. It is community-led, and hopes to create a ripple effect supporting local businesses and restaurants as well as 3 local charities. The 2.5 hour long tours will be delivered by a passionate group of ‘History Champions’, volunteers who have undergone intensive training to prepare for their roles as tour guides. The diverse group of 10 champions come from 7 different countries and speak 19 languages between them. They are students, city workers or retired Londoners who each have their own connection to Chinatown, and hence fill their tours, which all follow a similar basic route, with their own personal stories and memories.

The tours will be small and personal, no more than 15 people - because we can all agree that Chinatown won’t profit from huge gangs of tourists clomping after a guide with an annoying umbrella held up – and will cover Chinatowns history from ca. 1500 to the present day. Every tour will culminate in a traditional sharing family style lunch at a round table, because while food isn’t the only reason to come here, it sure is a damn good one!

In the beginning, around 1500, the area was abbey land, where the monks of the Convent of Abingdon managed a leper hospital in St Giles in the field. When Henry VIII changed religion to get rid of his first wife, he took the land off the church and turned it into a royal hunting ground. His hunting cry is supposed to be the namesake for the area, Soho!
Later it became a military training ground, before the Great Fire of London destroyed everything in 1666. A certain Charles Gerrard, 1st Earl of Macclesfield, acquired the land for £500 and developed the area. By 1685 it was completely rebuilt and turned into a fashionable district for noblemen and the gentry. The affordable rents also attracted artists and soon immigrants – French Huguenots escaping religious genocide, aristocrats running from the French revolution, then French communists. Later followed Italians, Germans and Russian Jews. For many immigrants, Soho was their first taste of Britain, for the British it is often their first taste of something foreign and exotic. This dynamic remains today.


Today’s Chinatown is made up of 9 streets and 4 gates. Gerrard Street is the main artery of the area and many hidden commemorative plaques along the street speak of the hidden histories from long before. Charles Dicken’s uncle lived in number 9 Gerrard Street. Doctor Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first dictionary, formed a literary club at the Turk's Head Inn in Gerrard Street. One of his pupils was David Garrick, star of the stage and namesake of the Garrick theatre. Doctor Johnson loved Chinese Tea and dreamed of one day walking the Great Wall of China. He never did, but he loved coming to the coffeehouse at the corner of Gerrard Way for conversation. Apart from philosophizing, the coffeehouses also served as breeding grounds for gambling and speculation. A certain Isaac Newton is said to have lost a lot of money in Soho.


The area also has a decidedly seedy history with a notorious reputation for drugs, prostitution and police raids. With its close connection to the theatres of the West End, Soho attracted artists, actresses, marginalised people and the demi monde. In 1920, Loon Fung Supermarket was a glamorous nightclub. In 1959, Ronnie Scott opened the original Jazz Club in number 39 Gerrard Street. In the 60s, the Flamingo Club on Wardour Street was the first amplified stage in the UK and brought Rock’n’Roll to Soho.

The first Chinese people actually arrived in 1681 when civil war was raging in China and refugees were looking for new opportunities. Many of them were seamen and first settled around Limehouse next to the docks for work. However, Limehouse, as a strategic target, was heavily bombed during WW2 and the Chinese community moved to Soho where rents were still cheap. The oldest community is Cantonese but nowadays more and more Sichuan and mainland restaurants are established along with Vietnamese, Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine on offer. A single Pizza Express branch is also in the area but this one is actually the original one from 1960.

Recently, Chinatown has gained more high-end restaurants due to the increasing rates and gentrification, so it may become known for fine cuisine soon, rather then a quick bite after a long Soho night. Fact is that Chinatown has always been changing and the circle of thriving – diving - reinventing and surviving is part of its DNA. The gingko trees that frame the ceremonial gates are still young. They are a symbol of strength, hope and peace and will watch over Chinatown for many years to come.
Chinatown Stories walking tours will run from 16 July – 8 September. Tickets are £27 including a family style lunch. Tours can be booked through Airbnb Experience and China Exchange. Tours are in English but can also be arranged in Cantonese and Mandarin for groups of 2 or more.

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