In this section we shall bring you to walk around the Chinatowns in Limehouse, Liverpool and Soho London. Please close your eyes, use your imagination, and follow our footsteps.
Scripted by Chungwen Li
Narrated by Kar-Hei Lam
Produced by Aubrey Ko
Please listen to the Audio Archive
Limehouse Historical Audio Tour, 30 January 2010, Saturday morning nearly 10 o’clock. A fine but bitterly cold day.
First stop, Limehouse Basin, or Regent’s Canal Dock as it was originally known. Facing the dock, now is full of leisure boats and yachts; and the surrounding are built with luxury apartments, could hardly imagine what it was like in the 19th century. However, from the information board provided by the British Waterways London, I am now standing on the edge of Bergen and Medland Wharves where timber, tea, fruit and ice were once unloaded.
Walking through the newly built apartments to Narrow Street, across the dock gate, it has the name of “Limehouse Marina” on it, in white big characters. Narrow Street, which runs along the back of the Thames wharves, lead me to the Grapes, a local pub well-known to Charles Dickens and was featured in one of his novels. A Blue round plaque with white characters attached to the wall claiming it was built in 1583.
Opposite is Ropemakers’ Fields, there is a 2-metre high sculpture, a herring gull with rope loosely circle under its feet. Many ropes were required for the shipping businesses in those days.
Following the Thames Path National Trail, I arrive at the Cantonese Quarter. The early Chinese immigrants settled around Gill Street and Limehouse Causeway area, now only council flats around Gill Street.
Continue my journey to Westferry Dockland Light Rail Station. A dragon sculpture in curled form looked upon the sky looking like a lamppost, with a plaque, Dragons’ Gate, it said. “The Dragon is an ancient Chinese symbol of good fortune, providing you understand it and treat it with respect! This work celebrates the first and oldest ‘Chinatown’ in Britain that existed around Limehouse and Pennyfields. The dragon / serpent is also a potent symbol across all continents and in all the major cultures of the world; from the ancient Babylonians to the most popular fairytales, myths and computer games of today. Dragons represent power. In cyclical form, biting each other’s tails, they embody the power of unity and renewal. The Year of the Dragons gives birth to the new millennium.”
Across the busy road, it is Pennyfields. Look around, not able to find an official sign post of Pennyfields. Walking along the council flats, there is another round stainless steel plaque attached to the wall. It looks like a steering wheel with a ship in the centre, another colourful round picture is on top of the ship. On the edge of the round plate, it engraved: “Heritage Trail, China Town Pennyfields. In the 1880’s immigrant Chinese began to settle in Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway, where a small China Town sprang up in 1901, the first Chinese laundry opened in Poplar.” The colour round picture in the centre has a light blue background; 3 lanterns, a dragon, a Buddha head, a sign of yin yang, a bowl of rice with a pair of chopsticks, and with some blue waves underneath. There is also a symbol in the picture that I am not able to recognise, should be related to Buddhism.
Shanghai Quarter. The early Shanghaieses settled around the area of Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street. Interestingly Ming Street has an old wooden street sign, and it was underneath a modern street sign. In the past, this was the largest shipping centre in the world, now has become the largest financial hub in Europe. Under the same sky, not a trace of shipping business is found.
A number of streets are named after the origins of the past Chinese communities – Mandarin Street, Pekin Street, Nankin Street, Canton Street and Amoy Place. They had their own settlement around this area. And now it is council estates, I wonder how the local residents feel about the street names.
Chun Yee Society, 50 East India Dock Road, on the corner at Birchfields Street. It was established in 1906, and was a Chinese sailors shelter and old Sunday school. Apart from the Chinese restaurants, this is one of the few reminders of the many previous Chinese residents.
A long walk to Salmon Lane, number 102, a Chinese take-away named “Local Friends”, was the first Chinese take-away in the U.K. till now. It does not have a Chinese name like most others Chinese takeaway do; it stands on the street quietly watching passengers come and go in different decades.
This is the end of the Limehouse Historical Audio Tour.