Search is on to trace East End’s original Chinatown

LECTURER Loo Yat Ming is pounding what were once the dingy, cobbled streets of Limehouse that echoed to the sounds of spice traders, Chinese seamen from the docks and craftsmen selling their wares in the run-down waterfront district.

He is on a mission to retrace the rich, ancestral heritage of London’s original ‘Chinatown’ which has all but vanished from the East End.

Yat Ming takes visitors on walking tours to find landmarks like London’s first Chinese restaurant along the West India Dock Road that have long vanished over the decades. Some tours he gives in Cantonese or Mandarin, invoking an authentic spirit from the past.

His labour of love is to record what was once a flourishing enclave of the Far East, now rudely replaced by the gleaming shadow of Canary Wharf, while the evocative smoking steam-engines rattling along the old Fenchurch-Blackwall Railway viaduct has been shunted off track by gleaming, driverless DLR trains.

But he hopes it is not too late to trace remnants of the community now long-since moved away, or even to find East Enders who remember them.

“I want to record all the memories of that first Chinatown,” he says. “There are a half-a-million Chinese descendants in Britain today, many with family routes in Limehouse. We know so little about life in the original Chinatown.”

He clutches a wedge of old black-and-white photos taken between the 1890s and 1920s of places like Foon’s emporium at 57 Pennyfields, Chong Chus’ restaurant in Limehouse Causeway and the Chinese laundry on the corner of Castor Street, walking the streets looking for clues to the Oriental presence a century ago.

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It’s a struggle. The narrow thoroughfares are replaced today by sweeping dual-carriageways, the run-down terraces huddled along Castor Lane and Three Colt Street long since swept away by tower blocks, supermarkets and offices.

Dr Loo, an urban historian at University College, has a grant from the Lottery Heritage Fund for his Islington Chinese Association project.

“The original Chinese settlement slowly vanished after the 1940s,” he explains. “But the record and history of the place and the Chinese ‘diaspora’ remained under-researched and under-represented.”

So his 14-month project aims to trace, record, preserve and celebrate the history of the Chinese immigration to Limehouse with stories and memories from the 19th century to the 1960s.

The oral histories will be sent to the Bancroft Archive at Mile End later this year and be available to the public.

A ‘Limehouse Chinatown’ exhibition is also on the cards to celebrate this colourful chapter in the East End’s history.

The project needs historical items such as personal notes and photographs of early Chinese immigrant settlers.

Dr Loo is appealing for anyone with memories or volunteers to help collate oral histories to contact the Islington Chinese Association: 21 Hatchard Road, N19 4NG. Phone 020 7263 5986 or