Blog: Raising Chinatown’s cultural heritage

Published: 30 Dec 2019

Blog: Raising Chinatown’s cultural heritage

When local communities change, their stories risk being lost.

Last week, a family-run noodle factory in London’s Chinatown was due to close its doors for the last time. The factory has provided ho fun, cheung fun and steamed buns from a narrow building in Dansey Place for 40 years. The building is being repurposed into an electricity substation, necessary to support the needs of the area.

 "The buildings in Chinatown drip with history."

A stroll through London’s Chinatown shows the rich history of the area with heritage plaques in abundance – the first Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, the founding of the Magic Circle, even the premises where the parts were manufactured for John Logie Baird’s first television set. The buildings drip with history. However, a casual stroll will not reveal any Chinese voices, histories or migration stories. We know the area to be Chinatown, but it is harder to see how and why it became Chinatown – who came here? Why? And what made this area 'theirs'? The closure of the noodle factory highlights the urgency of showing the value of recording stories – particularly migrants’ stories that reflect the development of distinct ethnic precincts with identities that help to make sense of the world.

Before the factory was due to close, I visited and heard more about the factory family’s experience. I asked whether they would work with the local cultural organisation China Exchange that I lead, to capture and archive their story and thereby increase understanding of how London’s Chinatown came to be. This work was fuelled by my 2017 Churchill Fellowship, which explored how Chinatowns around the world have responded to the rapid changes faced by these communities. In San Francisco, Vancouver, Singapore and Penang , I saw how heritage was gathered, promoted and celebrated, and I was inspired to bring these practices to London. Since then, China Exchange has started community-led walking tours and run a large scale heritage-gathering project and exhibition on The Making of Chinatown. The exhibition will be on tour in London from January 2020, thanks to support from the Linbury Trust.

The more work we do, the more stories we uncover - and the more people trust us to work with them and their families to demonstrate the value of their experiences. At the same time, the pace of urban change increases. There’s a strong sense that, if we don’t double our efforts now, the heritage of the people who formed Chinatown will be lost. There is also work for us to do in showing new migration patterns into Chinatown, and building public understanding of how heritage and history can be presented to celebrate the ever-diverse community in this special part of London. To this end, a colleague and I are writing a book to document such stories and fill the void of books dedicated to London’s Chinatown.

At the eleventh hour, the factory owners received word that the development work could not begin immediately. While new terms are agreed, they will remain open.
During my visit, the family had showed me an industrial mixer churning a huge vat of dough for the coming day’s bao, a steamed Chinese bun. The dough is made from a starter, which is fed each afternoon for the next day’s production. The same starter has been used to make the buns since the factory opened – absorbing elements from its environment each day to grow in character and flavour. “What would happen to the starter when they closed?” I asked. It would be thrown away.

A tub of the starter dough has come home with me. It is a living piece of cultural heritage from London’s Chinatown - and a tangible reminder for us to rise and care for Chinatown’s history alongside its future.

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