Written by Freya Aitken-Turff
London’s Chinatown has been preparing for the change in Covid19 restrictions that came into place on 12 April. Across England, we are now able to eat outside. This holds the potential to breathe some life into London’s Chinatown after over a year of devastating uncertainty and commercial pressure. However, the potential return of visitors also comes with concerns of increasing racism and violence towards people and businesses of East and South East Asian (ESEA) heritage. Questions of safety do not simply focus on the face masks and hand sanitisers of Covid-19, but also on the physical safety of visitors, suppliers and employees. Last week, I handed our personal security alarms to China Exchange volunteers carrying out street side research in our neighbourhood. I asked them to walk in pairs. I do not want to add to their existing fears, but I also do not want to jeopardise their public safety. This is the ‘new normal’ in our daily Chinatown lives.
Our neighbourhood was used as the backdrop for early reports on a viral outbreak in Wuhan. Unable to travel to China, national media outlets descended for outdoor broadcasts shot with a backdrop in this distinctly ‘Chinese’ setting some 7,000 miles away from the emerging pandemic. Footfall fell dramatically for two months before the official start of lockdown in late March 2020, while no discernible difference was felt in the neighbouring areas of Covent Garden, Leicester Square or wider Soho. And then the first lockdown began. The barrage of anti-Chinese sentiment whipped up through the incendiary and insensitive comments of political leaders did nothing to improve the situation.
The Chinatown area – nine streets of London’s West End marked out with bilingual street signs, red lampposts, gates of welcome and stone lions – shapes and is shaped by the UK’s ESEA communities. Like many Chinatowns around the world, its origins lie in Chinese entrepreneurs who wished to create a feeling of safety by working together in an otherwise hostile environment. Its evolution to a formal branded urban space connects the influences of national and local ideas on multiculturalism, the businesses, their investors and owners, the local authority, the prospect of a larger tourist industry and the area’s landlords. This does not mean that the identity and meaning created within Chinatown is uniform or uniformly positive – for many, it evokes complicated feelings about otherness and exotification (either by ESEA people themselves or by non-ESEA led organisations that profit from the area). For others, it is a place of belonging or contested belonging – somewhere to feel comfortable, at home and included. Many assume the area has a large residential population. It does not – not only due to the eye watering costs of living in London’s Zone 1, but also because the Georgian buildings were not all designed as places for people to live. The area is often used as shorthand for UK-China relations – just this week I saw an event about UK-China property investment advertised with an image of the imposing and majestic gate of welcome on Wardour Street. It is used to reflect all layers of Chineseness, all generations of ESEA diaspora experience reflected through the catch-all term ‘The Chinese Community’. And it is a marketers dream for all things ‘authentic’. It is also a place for food. And a ‘must see’ tourist destination. We expect a lot from these nine streets, don’t you think?
Pre-pandemic, Chinatown was already undergoing rapid change. This inspired my 2017 Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship research into global Chinatowns. An area that had previously been the way station for working class immigrants and immigrant entrepreneurs now has different economic priorities. Chain restaurants and fast-food outlets have now moved into the area; long running family businesses have closed as the children of those families have trained in other professions and no longer choose to run restaurants or small shops. The area is known for buffet-style Chinese restaurants and specialist supermarkets. Beneath this exterior lies an entrepreneurial community, grassroots advisory services and a community centre. The area’s retail mix is now firmly anchored in food businesses and fast food now represents a substantial proportion of what is available. There remain bastions of the area’s former identity as a focal point for other elements of culture rather than only food culture – notably Guanghwa Bookshop offering Chinese literature and cultural products since 1971 and Pang’s Printing Company, the UK’s first Chinese printing shop – but without someone highlighting these elements, they are not easy to find by oneself.
Community services, largely hidden from the image of the area created by its marketing account (funded and operated by the majority landlord in the neighbourhood), are under pressure. Demand for services has increased; anti-Asian hate incidents, crimes and racism have created more urgent need that the sector has met with admirable creativity and speed, but adds practical and financial pressures to already under-resourced services. There remain people who need these services for simple day-to-day activities (paying bills, translating a letter from a GP, understanding vaccine information) and that is before we talk about any of the other roles that community organisations serve.
The area’s history is poorly documented and poorly understood. While developing the area’s community led walking tours, China Exchange gathered hundreds of pages of evidence of the people, businesses and social context of this part of London from the 1500s to around 1960. If you walk through Chinatown, you will notice more than 11 heritage plaques in the area (nine streets, remember). These show some of the fascinating stories and people who shaped this urban space. You will also perhaps notice that not one of these plaques mentions ESEA history or a Chinese person’s name. This inspired the work of China Exchange to document how Chinatown became Chinatown. Our Making of Chinatown oral history project and exhibition made a tiny but significant contribution in building understanding. The homogenised Chineseness of Chinatown is capitalised in every way. The ever-changing Chineseness associated with the people who work in or use the area is harder to derive economic value from but largely because it is difficult to pinpoint something fluid. The area’s ESEA history is not yet visible enough to be acknowledged, celebrated or appreciated by the area’s vast number of tourists and visitors. Standard visitor data is not available to our small charity at a rate that we can afford, however, our own experiment (counting people passing our doorway at 15 minute intervals between 11am-8pm for six weeks) showed that an average of 450 people pass by every 15 minutes between these times. That is a lot of visitors! We want those people to have the opportunity to recognise the history of the area. We are crowdfunding to secure the first permanent public display of ESEA heritage in London’s Chinatown. Why? Because we expect more from these nine streets.
Freya Aitken-Turff has been the CEO of China Exchange since 2015. The Chinatown-based UK registered charity focuses on creating opportunities for people to learn more about China, Chinese culture and London’s Chinatown. Alongside work dedicated to exploring contemporary China and Chinese culture, Freya was awarded a Fellowship by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust in 2017 to research the future prospects of global Chinatowns and she is the co-author of Chinatown Stories published by Unbound.
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