This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
London's property developers clearly don't give a shit about popularity contests. In the past few months they've really done all they can to make the city think of them as 2D caricatures of unscrupulous, short-sighted scumbags: they've had families evicted to make way for luxury flats nobody's going to live in, they've demolished a popular local pub without permission, and they've continued ridding Soho of everything that once made it a sanctuary of cultural significance within the bland assemblage of chain stores and office space that is the rest of W1.
Now, Chinatown is also under threat; rising rents in the West End could lead to the closure of many of the restaurants and shops in the area within the next few years. The Evening Standard reports that the owners of Loon Tan on Gerrard Street have seen their rent rise from £160,000 to £312,000 ($240,000 to $467,000) in the last five years, and that betting shops and fast food restaurants—businesses with high turnovers—are waiting in the wings like greasy-fingered vultures ready to pounce.
Meanwhile, according to the same report, landlords Shaftsbury PLC saw profits rise by nearly 50 percent in the six months to the end of March last year. I contacted their PR firm to ask for comment on the issue but had received no reply at the time of this writing.
Chinatown nestles between Soho and the tacky tourist-trap bars of Leicester Square. A stroll down Gerrard Street and the alleys that surround it reveals a vibrant glut of inexpensive, sometimes garish, tasty restaurants that are open super-late. There are also busy supermarkets, Chinese medicine stores, "massage" parlors with flashing Mandarin in LED lights, mobile phone unlocking shacks, and dim red doorways with "model upstairs" signs tacked to the walls. All human life can be found here: as well as being the center for London's Chinese population there are also out-of-towners ogling street performers, guilty businessmen scarfing early-hours dim sum with their covert office girlfriends, and trans women picking up dried lily bulbs and sliced bamboo. It is a fabulously diverse, gloriously shabby district that many of us love.
Predictably, all of this is now under threat. With the horrific examples of "placemaking" we have seen in other parts of London, most recently the much-maligned changes proposed to Portobello Road, where developers plan to "enable a cultural, community and artisan retail destination," one can only imagine what will become of Chinatown if it falls prey to the same late-capitalist drive toward pristine but dull mediocrity.
Photographer and oral historian Mike Tsang—whose recent exhibition Between East and West at the LSE explored the heritage and identity of the British Chinese through portraits, archival imagery, and interviews—told me that "Chinatown in Soho has been the epicenter of Chinese culture in London since it moved there from Limehouse in the 20th century."
For more on housing and gentrification in London, watch our doc Regeneration Game:
Limehouse was the first settling place for the Chinese in London, many of whom were sailors employed by the East India Company. Some chose to stay, opening businesses, and the area quickly gained a seamy reputation for opium and gambling dens—a reputation fueled by lurid newspaper reports and novels like Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Many of these narratives were exaggerated for literary effect in a vaguely xenophobic way, as documented in Christopher Frayling's fascinating 2014 book The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu and The Rise of Chinaphobia. But severe bombing in the Second World War, coupled with new regulations that made it tough for non-English seamen to get work, caused many of the settlers to make the move across town to Soho in the 1950s, where rents were still low.
The area where Chinatown currently sits has its own colorful history. Gerrard Street was once a center for writers, artists, and intellectuals who would gather together in the Turk's Head pub to get smashed and talk politics, while neighboring Newport Market developed a reputation for seedy criminality. Waves of immigrants—Jewish, Italian, and Maltese—came through, and the area became known for its vibrant nightlife and tasty foreign cuisine. With a market fueled by soldiers returning from service in Asia with an appetite for Chinese food, many of the new arrivals opened restaurants to great success. Soon the area was thriving.
I asked Mike Tsang about the importance of the current Chinatown to the Chinese community in London.
"It's been a bellwether for successive waves of migration—the Cantonese first from the 1950s to 60s, then Malaysian and Singaporean mainly. Now most immigrants are from the Chinese mainland, mirroring the economic development of these countries.
"From the massively-attended Chinese New Year celebrations each year to the restaurants, it's many British people's first taste of Chinese culture. I think having a hub for our culture in Chinatown is especially important, as Chinese people tend not to have a predominant religion, so there's no communal meeting point such as temples for Hindus, mosques for Muslims, or synagogues for Jews. In a way you could say food is our religion—the thing that brings us together. Certainly many of my favorite memories growing up were round a dinner table."
Jay Rayner, Observer food critic and novelist, recently decried gentrification "ripping the heart out of communities" like Chinatown, and called for a "responsibility to community." Many feel the same way, but Rayner (and I) are white English men. I asked Tsang what the impact on the Chinese community would be if Chinatown were to disappear.
"In Between East and West I interviewed an adoptee, Lucy Sheen, who was ethnically Chinese but raised by white parents. She recalls a memory of first visiting Chinatown on her own as a teenager and how important that visit was to her discovering her heritage," he replied. "Without Chinatown we would lose that cohesiveness. All other major cities have a Chinatown, and I think it's as much a part of London heritage as it is Chinese."
In 2003, the City of Westminster released an "action plan" they called "Working for the Future of Chinatown" in which they acknowledged its "distinct culture, cuisine, and character" and said that "the City Council is resolute in protecting Chinatown as a unique area." They even spoke of "redesignating Chinatown as its own Conservation Area." Let's hope that this attitude still prevails and something can be done to preserve the district and stem the tide of bland that currently seems to be engulfing the UK's capital.
Mike Tsang's "Between East and West" project can be viewed here.