I was at a funeral in Poplar last week, near the London Docklands. It’s the first time I have visited the Catholic church there, or wandered round the area.
This was the old ‘Chinatown’, before the Chinese moved to Soho in the 1950s and 1960s. I had no idea that the memory of the Chinese presence endures in the street names:
One friend who grew up here remembered a nearby Chinese restaurant owned by ‘Harry’. Another friend who grew up round the corner in Limehouse told me years ago about the wok maker who lived on his street when he was a child.
There are lots of ‘local history’ and ‘ethnic history’ type books about the Chinese experience in London, I just haven’t gone into them very deeply. There is, amazingly, a famous protestant pastor who ministered to the Chinese in the post-war period. His name? Pastor Stephen Wang! I’m not joking; I have a book about him – available here on Amazon.
There are personal connections for me in all this. My Chinese great-grandfather first came to the UK at the very end of the nineteenth century, and his route was through the Liverpool docks. But when his son, my father’s father, emigrated with his Chinese wife from Canton in the early 1930s, they arrived at the docks in London, went straight to Chinatown (i.e. Limehouse/Poplar) to stock up on Chinese supplies, and then travelled to Sheffield to set up the Chinese laundry that kept them in business for many years. Maybe they stayed with friends on Pekin Street or Canton Street or Nankin Street…
Whenever I meet an elderly person from Sheffield I ask them if they knew the Chinese laundry on Ecclesall Road in Sheffield, and it’s amazing how many remember having their shirts ironed or collars starched by my grandparents all those years ago.