Thomas Duffy explores how growing pressures are changing Chinatown’s identity
Chinatown. To some, a reminder of home, a place where you can be with people like you. To others, a bright spectacle, with ornate architecture, and a festive air. Chinatown has always functioned as a home away from home, a refuge for people who travelled across a continent to search for opportunities, from sailors to students. However, the area’s traditional role is being transformed, towards one of consumerism and appropriation.
Chinatowns have a colourful history, with the first Chinatown in the western world in San Francisco. Chinese workers came to San Francisco seeking wealth in the California gold rush of 1849 or to escape the political turmoil of the Opium Wars. However, these immigrants were faced with racism and violence, and were only allowed to live in certain areas of the city, enforced by local by-laws.
As a result, Chinese immigrants formed a parallel civil society, providing social support and services, a sense of community, and a place to practice the cultural norms and ways of living the migrants had brought with them. The surrounding Western society branded the foreign land as “Chinatown”, an inherent reinforcement of the “us” versus “them” mentality.
London’s Chinatown, with its grand Oriental arch, has served London’s ethnic Chinese population since the 1960s, providing a taste of home, a place to carry out traditions and to celebrate holidays.
While Chinese migration is not treated with such fervour and revilement nowadays, there still exists an “us” versus “them” mentality. Tourists, mainly Westerners, gazing on Chinatown with a sense of wonder and intrigue, but at the same time, holding it at arm’s length, like it’s something cutesy and decorative and devoid of symbolism, like it’s the “other”.
As someone who moved to the UK to study, Chinatown is an invaluable place for me and my friends from Hong Kong and much of Asia. However, Chinatown has faced several threats to its role of catering to London’s Chinese community, most noticeably, growing rent prices and the rising influx of tourism to London.
Chinatown’s prime location in London makes it practically unavoidable when visiting the West End, and that is reflected in the rent. However, in the late 1950s, the area where Chinatown is located now was seen as a derelict spill over from the raunchy, unsavoury sex trade happening in Soho. Despite this, opportunistic Chinese entrepreneurs took advantage of the low rents and property prices at the time, in a strategic position between the West End theatres and the nightlife of Soho, maximizing foot traffic through the area. However, Shoo cleaned up its act, and went through rapid gentrification in the 1980s, becoming a fashionable, more upmarket area. This drove up rents in the surrounding area, including Chinatown, an unforeseen issue for Chinese entrepreneurs.
The increasing rent has meant a growing struggle for small Chinese businesses and restaurants to survive. Some businesses lose the fight and are forced to close, replaced by non-Chinese owned businesses, as well as chain restaurants.
One tenant and owner of a Hong Kong-style cha caan teng, Jon Man, a British-born Chinese man, has seen his rent almost quadruple since 1997. In a Guardian article in 2015, he said that if his rent were to increase further, he and his restaurant wouldn’t be able to remain. Unfortunately, his restaurant has now become the site of a Japanese fusion restaurant, owned by an Englishman, also behind the Nobu and Busaba Eathai chains of restaurants.
The central location of Chinatown has meant that Chinatown always received heavy foot traffic, particularly from tourists. A growth of tourism to London has led to a growth in the role of appealing to tourists, commodifying Chinese culture, and diluting the “soul” of Chinatown.
Rather than serving authentic and varied food from one of the many regional cuisines in China or East Asia, instead food and experiences are sold that are for the Western palate. Chop suey? General Tso’s Chicken? Nowhere in China will you find dishes like that. However, with more and more Chinese students coming to study in universities in London, as well as the growth of tourism from China, there is now a push for the preservation and authenticity of Chinese culture and tastes. Previously, Cantonese cuisine was overrepresented in London, despite it only being one of the seven “great culinary traditions” in China. However, as more students from all over China come to London, there is a growing market for home comforts, creating a new demand for more authentic and diverse range of experiences, from all over China.
London’s Chinatown will continue to act as a beacon for Chinese tradition and tastes. But hopefully, in its struggle to make more profit and commodification, it doesn’t leave a bad taste in the Chinese community’s mouth.