London’s Chinatown

In our wandering in the Soho area we accidentally stumbled upon Chinatown. Chinatown is located on Gerrard Street between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square. We spent little time here but just long enough to look around and get a feel. Early in the morning, there were few people but I quickly got the impression that Chinatown can be quite busy during the day.

Chinatown has a typical British History. Settlement in this area can be traced back to the Great Fire of London in 1666, like most of London’s core. Before the fire this area (along with Soho) was known as St. Martin’s Field. With the Great Fire, 13,000 homes were destroyed and over 100,000 of London’s rich were rendered homeless. Soho and the current Chinatown area were eyed as locations for the construction of luxurious buildings, because of their proximity to the royal residences. Unfortunately, the rich didn’t stay very long and by the mid-1700s the area became rundown.

During this time Gerrard Street became the home for waves of immigrant communities: the French Huguenots, Italians and Jewish. In the 1700s, Chinese also arrived as migrant workers employed by the East India Company. Initially they chose to settle in the dock areas (Limehouse) and ran small shops and cafes that catered to Chinese seamen; and, in Limehouse the remained until WW2 when the docks and subsequent areas were destroyed during the blitz on London.

After the war times were difficult for the Chinese: Chinatown was destroyed, it was difficult for non-British seamen to get work at British ports, and the surprise appearance of washing machines wiped out the Chinese laundry industry. So, by the 1950s, the Chinese in London were looking for new homes, new professions, and a place where they could build a community. Chinese restaurants began to crop up on Gerrard Street where property was cheap. This quickly grew into Chinatown and served the demand for Chinese cuisine created by soldiers returning from the war in the Far East.

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