Chinatown Stories

By Freya Aitken-Turff and Xiao Ma

The rich history of London’s most iconic cultural district

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Bring Chinatown Home

We feel a very strong sense of duty to record and share the untold human stories of Chinatown. This is only getting stronger.

During lockdown, a PR campaign, #BringingChinatownHome, was launched by Chinatown London (a website and social media accounts funded and run by the area’s majority landlord) with a strong focus on the rich food cultures in Chinatown.

The next campaign from the London Chinatown PR machine is #LoveChinatown. As part of this, we were invited to sign a lantern on behalf of China Exchange, the Chinatown-based charity where we work, to send our good wishes to the area. Our lantern will soon be hung with others over Newport Place. We decorated it with a motif suggested by a lady who attended a workshop we held in the Spring – butterflies bursting from lanterns – to represent the transformation that she hoped would or could from old and sometimes tired representations of Chinatown.

While the two of us don’t need a hashtag to show our love for Chinatown, we welcomed the chance to spend some time (and money) together in the area. It gave us a moment to consider what things we want to preserve and share beyond its physical space. What are the stories we want to bring home? Undoubtedly, food has held a significant role in Chinatown’s history. For much of the #BringingChinatownHome campaign, social media posts shared mouth-watering pictures of the dishes people were creating at home. For our own part, we hosted a Chinatown dinner via Zoom and encouraged people to re-create the flavours they were missing in their own kitchens or from local takeaways. Food creates vivid memories and connections. It can transport us to other places and times in our lives. Most visitors scratch the surface of London Chinatown’s heritage through food and for most of us, this is how we first view the neighbourhood. But we know there’s more. Through interviews with a wide range of people who have worked in or often visited Chinatown since the 1950s, we know this neighbourhood is associated with the positive stories of hard-working Chinese catering business owners and workers creating an iconic London cultural district. The less shared stories include conflicting memories of Britain’s racist history, cultural marginalisation and ethnic survival. How do we take this beyond publicity campaigns and hashtags? These stories deserve to be shared and we also want to bring them home to you.

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