Chinatown Stories 唐人街故事

Anne Witchard

Revision Date: Thursday, 03 October 2013


If people today remember that London’s Chinatown was once down in Limehouse it is more than likely because of Dr Fu Manchu, the evil genius whose description as ‘the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man’ has been endlessly recycled in the movies, tv series, and pulp paperbacks that for decades have had him plotting global domination from his labyinthine lair, deep in the mazy dockside streets of a fog-bound East End. It is of course an understatement to say that the mythology of Dr Fu Manchu and his association with Chinese Limehouse was not a positive one for London’s Chinese community. The Chinese writer Lao She experienced the effects of Sinophobic popular culture at first hand when he came to London in the 1920s to teach at the School of Oriental Studies. In his novel Mr Ma and Son (1926) he describes in no uncertain terms the situation endured by Chinese people in London, laying the blame squarely on the popular media:

The Chinese living in London can probably be divided into two classes: workmen and students. The workmen mostly live in East London, in the Chinatown that brings so much ignominy to the name of China. Those Germans, Frenchmen and Americans who lack the money for a journey to the Orient always come and take a trip to Chinatown for a nose round in quest of material for novels, travelogues or news items … If there were no more than twenty Chinese dwelling in Chinatown, the accounts of the sensation seekers would without fail magnify their number to five thousand. And … every one of those five thousand yellow-faced demons will smoke opium, smuggle arms, commit murder … Authors of novels, playwrights and screen-scenario writers are prompt to base their pictures of the Chinese upon such rumours and reports. Then all who see the play, watch the film or read the novel … firmly imprint these quite unfounded pictures upon their memories. Thus are the Chinese transformed into the most sinister, most foul, most loathsome and most degraded two-legged beasts on earth.

Lao She aimed to counteract this propaganda with Mr Ma and Son. The novel is a must-read for anyone who wants a picture of how life actually was from a Chinese rather than the purely speculative perspective of writers like Sax Rohmer and Thomas Burke, both of whom subsequently admitted to having no familiarity with the Chinese in London whatsoever. While Burke’s salacious tales of forbidden love, Limehouse Nights: Tales of Chinatown (1916), are now largely forgotten, Lao She would surely be disappointed if he were to see the way resonances of the period’s mind-set have persisted thanks to the tenacious hold of Rohmer’s creation on the Western cultural imaginary. Along with those other revenants of fin-de-siècle gothic fiction, Count Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dr Fu Manchu is the product of a set of social panics and fervid paranoias that press similar trigger spots at our own turn-of-the-century.

Western fears of a ‘yellow’ invasion started in the 1880s with press manipulation in the United States about the so-called ‘invasion’ of the white-dominated labour market. It was stirred up for various ends by politicians, religious fundamentalists and labour activists, intensifying prejudice against the ‘heathen Chinaman’: ‘He pilfers we are told; he lies, he is dirty, he smokes opium, is full of bestial devices – a pagan, and what is far more important yellow! All his sins are to be pardoned but the last’.i The perilous attributes of ‘yellowness’ would pervade the period well into the new century. As it began to escalate in Britain during the early twentieth century, the discourse of a Yellow Peril was bound up with fears of imperial decline, urban blight and female immorality. Literary versions of Chinatown vividly described a moral barrier between decency and degeneracy.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 the fact of relations between Chinese men and white women in London's East End became an issue that gripped the country. Sax Rohmer, born Arthur Sarsfield Ward in Birmingham in 1883, was trying his hand as a Fleet Street journalist just before the outbreak of World War I. It struck the young writer that the small community of Chinese seamen who lodged in the riverside streets down by the West India docks might be an ideal scapegoat for this raft of middle-class moral concern. The progression of war would intensify the idea of a moral Yellow Peril. In Limehouse the ‘problem’ of interracial alliances was accounted for, not as it conceivably might have been by the almost total dearth of Chinese women, but by the susceptibility of a certain type of English woman to ‘Oriental vice’. Hysterical appeals were made to the Home Office to ‘do something about giddy white girls fascinated by the yellow man. At a time of growing demand for female emancipation, any visible independence of young women was targeted as tantamount to racial betrayal. As Marek Kohn has shown in his book Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground, in continually re-telling stories of imperiled actresses, typists, and shop girls, the type generally designated ‘flappers’, a patriarchal narrative asserted that these young women, by forfeiting their dependence, endangered not only themselves but their country.

Sax Rohmer based his novel Dope: A Tale of Chinatown (1919) on the case of Billie Carleton, a Musical Comedy starlet who was found dead in her Savoy suite after the Armistice Night Victory Ball at the Albert Hall. She had overdosed on a cocktail of drugs including cocaine supplied by the Scottish wife of a Limehouse Chinese. An equally high-profile fatality would be the catalyst for Rohmer’s Yellow Shadows (1925). This time a young nightclub hostess, Freda Kempton, was found dead in her Paddington flat from cocaine poisoning. A Chinese restaurateur, known in the West End as Brilliant Chang, was arraigned. The newspapers were not slow in drawing damning links between the dapper Chang who appeared to have a finger in many pies and the fictitious Fu Manchu. In Yellow Shadows Rohmer would complete this pernicious circuit of life and art - barely disguising Brilliant Chang as shadowy villain, Burma Chang, ‘the richest man in Chinatown’.

By the time Rohmer published Yellow Shadows in 1925, the fact that Chinese Limehouse was permantly enshrouded in yellow fog had been established chiefly by him - in seven novels of London’s Yellow Peril, only three of which in fact featured Dr Fu Manchu. In the opening chapter of Yellow Shadows the last train from Blackwall to Fenchurch Street is ‘yellowly’ held up by ‘a most formidable bank of fog on the very borders of Chinatown’ thereby allowing ‘gruesome drama’ to intrude upon the life of aspiring playwright, Bernard Hope. While Rohmer boosted the notoriety of Limehouse by making it the headquarters of his evil genius, Dr Fu Manchu, from whence he masterminded international white slavery and drug-trafficking, Thomas Burke's best-selling collection of Chinatown love stories, Limehouse Nights caused a sensation because of his misappropriation of the underworld of establishment concern: ‘In place of the steady, equalised light which he should have thrown on that pestiferous spot off the West India Dock Road’ protested the Times Literary Supplement, ‘he has been content ... with flashes of limelight and fireworks.’ The American movie director, D. W. Griffith paid one thousand pounds for the film rights to Limehouse Nights and it is largely due to Hollywood that Limehouse would make so profound an impression on the twentieth-century imagination. London's forbidding dockside streets, dingy opium dens and shady gambling parlours, are vividly realised in Griffith's adaptation of Burke’s story 'The Chink and the Child', titled Broken Blossoms (1919). The film's reputation as a masterpiece of early cinema set a celluloid precedent for the iconic imagery of Chinese Limehouse.

Whilst Burke's representation of London's Chinatown is symptomatic of the same social concerns which produced Rohmer's demonised ‘Chinaman’, Limehouse Nights displays what seems in the light of its day, an unusual racial tolerance. The book's blend of shocking realism with lyrical romance flew in the face of consensual thought and middle-class taboo. Whereas for Rohmer the alien element is presented as undesirable and operates as a byword for all that is sinister and threatening, Burke paints a picturesque Limehouse: ‘There was the blue moon of the Orient. There, for the bold, were the sharp knives, and there, for those who would patiently seek, was the lamp of young Aladdin.’ Burke’s version of Limehouse indeed suggests ‘limelight and fireworks’ of Victorian Grand Pantomime, the tinsel glamour of Edwardian "Chinese" musical comedy and the gaudy illustrations of popular editions of The Arabian Nights.

Early-twentieth-century obsessions with Chinatown then, were the product of an overdetermined set of factors; ranging from eighteenth-century Sinophilia and the passion for chinoiserie to the demonising of China in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821); from the perennial appeal of Aladdin on the pantomime stage to the Victorian mythologising of the East End opium den in Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Between Sax Rohmer's thrillers and Thomas Burke's Limehouse love stories, the Victorian narrative tradition of dockside Limehouse as a place where gentlemen went sometimes to smoke opium, developed into a lurid literature of yellow men, white girls, sex and dope.


i Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, A Record of Travel in English Speaking Countries (1885), pp.186-7, cited in William Purviance Fenn, Ah Sin And His Brethren in American Literature, p 16.


CTSAnne received her BA in English at the University of North London (1997) and PhD in English at Birkbeck College, University of London (2003).  She lectures in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature and culture at the University of Westminster, module leader for the Victorians (BA) and London Vortex (MA), and also teaches undergraduate modules, Modernism and the Early Twentieth Century, The Modernist Muse: Women in the Artist’s Studio, and Reading Gothic.  Her research and teaching interests are in the Fin de Siècle, London Studies, China Studies, Modernism and the Gothic. She is currently Principal Investigator for AHRC Research Development Network Grant: Translating Cultures 2012-2013 for project China in Britain: Myths and Realities.