“Chang dispensed Chinese delicacies and the drugs and vices of the Orient,” reported The Pictorial News in 1922. “He demanded payment for his drugs in kind.” The rag went on to further advise its women readers, “who retained sufficient decency and pride of race”, that they turn down “this fellow with lips thin and cruel, tightly drawn across even yellow teeth.”
So who was this demon, this embodiment of the “Yellow Peril”, that so seized London in the 1920s? He was indeed the first society drug dealer. Billy ‘Brilliant’ Chang - whose surname is used as slang for cocaine to this day – was an acquaintance of stars and socialites throughout the decade. He dressed in spats, astrakhan-collared overcoats and pinstripe trousers. He was suave, fast and amicable. He was exotic funny and Chinese. And for a time he was the West End’s chief purveyor of cocaine. Of course, this irrational fear of all things Oriental was hardly new. In 1918 the press had been whipped into a frenzy after a popular young and beautiful actress called Billie Carleton was found dead in her bed after starring at the Victory Ball at the Albert Hall.
At her bedside in her Savoy Hotel suite a gold box was found containing cocaine given to her by Reggie de Veulle, a well-known costume designer of the day. He had bought the drug from a Scottish woman called Ada and her Chinese husband, Lau Ping You, who both lived on the Limehouse Causeway, London’s original Chinatown.
The normally staid Times reported that both de Veulle and Carleton “had been at an all-night ‘orgy’ in a Mayfair flat where the women wore flimsy nighties and the men silk pyjamas while smoking opium.”
Ada and de Veulle were sentenced to five and eight month’s hard labour, respectively (the prosecution attempted to paint de Veulle in the worst possible light, describing him as “somewhat foreign in appearance and accent, with an effeminate face and mincing little smile…”), while Lau Ping You escaped with a £10 fine.
Consequently, the death of a beautiful white girl from an overdose of drugs combined with the participation of a Chinese man created what was to become the first big drug scandal of the 20th century. The press whisked themselves into an uncommon frenzy and The Pictorial News ran a series of pieces about the East End of London, Limehouse and what they described as the encroaching “Yellow Peril.” In reality the Yellow Peril was actually a small, relatively law-abiding Chinese community, which had been based around the Limehouse docks area from the beginning of the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century two separate communities emerged: the Chinese from Shanghai, who were based around Pennyfields and Ming Street (between the present Westferry and Poplar DLR stations) and the immigrants from Southern China and Canton, who lived around Gill Street and the Limehouse Causeway. By 1911 the whole area had started to be called Chinatown by the rest of London. At the time the area had a bad reputation as it wasn’t just the gutter press who had it in for the Chinese. Writers, novelists and even filmmakers were accountable for greatly exaggerating the danger and immorality of the area. HV Morton, the famous travel essayist and journalist, wrote about Limehouse in his book, The Nights of London, in 1926:
“The squalor of Limehouse is that strange squalor of the East which seems to conceal vicious splendor. There is an air of something unrevealed in those narrow streets of shuttered houses, each one of which appears to be hugging its own dreadful little secret… you might open a filthy door and find yourself in a palace sweet with joss-sticks, where queer things happen in a mist of smoke…The silence grips you, almost persuading you that behind it is something which you are always on the verge of discovering; some mystery of vice or of beauty, or of terror and cruelty.”
Of course the reality was that the Chinese community liked to gamble and smoke opium. This was bad enough, but it was the mortal fear of interracial sexual relations (which the drug-taking seemed to facilitate) that terrified the newspaper editors of the era.
“White Girls Hypnotised by Yellow Men,” screamed the Evening News, adding that it was the God-given duty “of every Englishman and Englishwoman to know the truth about the degradation of young white girls”. Substandard writers leapt on the bandwagon ad nauseam. Thomas Burke, writing for a lacklustre readership that lapped up his work, wrote a number of “sordid and morbid” short stories and newspaper articles about the Limehouse Chinatown.
One of his stories, The Chink and the Child, from a collection entitled Limehouse Nights, was actually made into a successful film called Broken Blossoms by the equally racist DW Griffiths and starred Lillian Gish. Another opportunist was former journalist Sax Rohmer, who used his questionable knowledge of Limehouse to write the incredibly successful Fu Manchu novels about a depraved Chinese man whose evil empire was based, improbably, in the slums of Limehouse. “Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan,” wrote Rohmer, “a close-shaven skull, and long magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present…Imagine that awful being and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
Indeed the man who was rumoured to have inspired Fu Manchu was Billie Brilliant Chang. At the fulcrum of all the furore, Chang, a former contractor in Limehouse, initially ran a restaurant in the area called Shanghai, which was synonymous with extreme hedonistic excess.
The establishment attracted all manner of groovy, upper-class socialites who wanted to sniff on the coca that Chang had appropriated from the many chemists who still had it in their back rooms (it was only made illegal in 1920 so there was still plenty about), smoke some opium and taste the seamier side of life.
Eminently successful, Chang moved his restaurant to Regent Street where he became even more notorious for peddling drugs and seducing young white upper crust women - whose parents were understandably livid. The papers couldn’t get enough of him and the police were constantly on his back, but he delighted in winding them up, safe in the knowledge that his enterprise was administered with caution.
And after all, there was no law that decreed that a Chinese man could not have sex with a white girl, no matter how long his moustache. And so Chang continued plying the chicks – which included gorgeous West End showgirls - with pharmaceutical-grade cocaine. Unfortunately for Chang, things were about to take a turn for the worse. After a young dancer, Freda Kempton, died of a cocaine overdose in 1922, it was discovered that she had been with Chang on the night of her death. Pulled in for questioning, he said: “She was a friend of mine. But I know nothing about the cocaine. It is all a mystery to me.” With no evidence to suggest he was guilty of the crime, he was released and shortly after opened the Palm Court Club in Gerrard Street, Soho, thus becoming the first Chinese man to open a business in what was to become the centre of the Chinatown we know today.
Indeed Gerrard Street, with its maze of underground tunnels that lead to Great Newport Street, became a haven for drug dealers. The 43 Club at number 43 was especially notorious. Ran by Irishwoman Kate Meyrick, it dodged the draconian licensing laws, sold alcohol all night and, due to a secret escape route to Newport Place (which still exists), was favoured by dealers such as Chang and heroin kingpin Eddie Manning. Socialites who patronised the place included painter Augustus John, novelist Aldous Huxley, and Stephen Tennant (the inspiration for Cedric Hampton in Nancy Mitford’s Love in A Cold Climate and Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited).
Regular patron, actress Tallulah Bankhead, who readily admitted to a penchant for cocaine, described the club as “useful for early breakfasts”, breakfast time for her being “about 10pm”.
As for Chang (who was estimated to control 40 per cent of London’s cocaine trade), he was harried by the police to the point of persecution. He sold the Palm Court and moved back to Limehouse where he opened the Shanghai Restaurant. His flat was at 13 Limehouse Causeway (coincidentally just four doors away from where Mr and Mrs Lau Ping You lived) and it was here in 1924 that his luck finally ran out. The police had already raided his Limehouse flat twice, and although they found no drugs, on one occasion they found two chorus girls in his bed. On the third attempt they came armed with the evidence from a drug-addicted actress called Violet Payne. Finding a wrap of cocaine behind a loose wooden board, they arrested Chang. During the trial the press had a field day. The World Pictorial News wrote: “Sometimes one girl alone went with Chang to learn the mysteries of that intoxicatingly beautiful den of iniquity above the restaurant. At other times half-a-dozen drug-frenzied women together joined him in wild orgies.” At his trial the judge told him, “It is you and men like you who are corrupting the womanhood of this country”, and sentenced him to fourteen months in prison, after which he was deported. The Empire News wrote, “Mothers would be well advised to keep their daughters as far away as they can from Chinese laundries and other places where the yellow men congregate.” These words seem to have come directly from a Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel that in they fed off the massive anti-Chinese sentiment that filled the tabloid pages of the day. Blamed for every drug that entered the capital, accused of white slavery, and harried to virtual extinction, the Chinese and their Limehouse were swept away. As for Chang, the Daily Telegraph reported a few years later that he had gone “blind and ended his days, not in luxury and rich silks, but as a sightless worker in a little kitchen garden.”
The cause or whereabouts of his death remain unknown.
Join 407 other awesome people who subscribe to new posts on this blog.