Blog: Chinatown is for life, not just for Chinese New Year

Published: 16 Feb 2018

Blog: Chinatown is for life, not just for Chinese New Year

Happy Chinese New Year! 新年快乐!Last night, the world welcomed the Year of the Dog. For many people, the Spring Festival is the reason for an annual visit to their local Chinatown to enjoy colourful and noisy celebrations. Revellers who come to London for this Sunday’s Trafalgar Square celebrations will see our capital’s Chinatown at its best. What the annual Chinese New Year visitor may not see is that London’s Chinatown is changing rapidly and the impact this has on this special area.

Based in Soho, central London, Chinatown occupies nine streets between Leicester Square, Piccadilly and Covent Garden. The area became a precinct for the Chinese community in the 1950s and 60s. A combination of factors – bomb damage in the city’s first Chinese conurbation in Limehouse, a larger number of migrants arriving from Hong Kong that decade, and low rents and short term leases available in the less-than-desirable area of South Soho – saw a largely Cantonese community move to Gerrard Street. At the same time, foreign food became fashionable and Londoners started to enjoy Chinese cuisine. Restaurants flourished. The area developed goods and services to support the Chinese community and – in the 1980s – investment was made to install iconic stone lions and gates, the staple features of Chinatowns the world over. A tourist destination was born!

Troubled times

San Francisco Chinatown

Today, rising business rates and central London rents make this a demanding and competitive place to do business. Families have moved out of the area and chain restaurants and larger-scale brands are starting to feature, alongside restaurants serving a wide range of cuisines in addition to the Chinese food for which the area is known. With a few exceptions, the non-food businesses that reflect the area’s Chinese heritage have closed. Tourists still come; there is little to decode what they experience when they get here or to keep them here past mealtimes and a few photos beside the Chinese gates.

“Businesses that reflect the area’s heritage have closed. Tourists still come but there is little to keep them here past mealtimes”

This means that our area is having something of an identity crisis: should London’s Chinatown do more to service tourists, cater for the specific needs of the British-born Chinese community, or focus on the visiting mainland Chinese community? Is Chinatown for commerce, for social support structures, for culture - or no longer relevant? What is Chinatown’s contemporary purpose and how can it best serve that role?

A global issue

These questions, it turns out, are not unique to London; throughout the world, Chinatowns developed in districts that were once undesirable and have since become prime city real estate. The shared perception is that Chinatowns are under threat of losing ‘heart’ or ‘soul’ and change is threatening to many. Through my 2017 Fellowship, I explored how other communities were addressing these situations in San Francisco (pictured above), Vancouver, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

“The Chinatowns I visited had found ways to serve as the focal point for Chinese communities and as a cultural translation point for others. There is much for London and other UK Chinatowns to learn”

I learned how other Chinatowns preserve their heritage in terms of their physical structures and architecture, and their intangible culture. The Chinatowns I visited had found ways to serve as the focal point for the Chinese communities, act as a cultural translation point to help people understand more about Chinese languages and cultures, and provide ways of commemorating their early Chinese migrants’ struggle for survival and recognition in society. There is much potential for London, and other UK Chinatowns, to learn from these examples.

Chinese New Year is full of symbolism for growth, prosperity and good fortune. My hope for the Year of the Dog is that I can use my Fellowship observations to tend to some new shoots of growth in London’s Chinatown.

Freya Aitken-Turff is CEO of China Exchange, a charity in London’s Chinatown that encourages people to come to the area for more than just food and to learn more about China’s influence on the world. Her Fellowship report will be published later this year. her Fellowship was supported by The Linbury Trust.

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