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A History of London Chinatown

In the 1880s the Limehouse area of East London had developed into a small Chinese community, the earliest “Chinatown” with the Chinese focusing on the laundry business.  During the German air raids of World War II, the London Docklands were inevitably damaged due to their proximity to a sea fortress. This also brought huge damage to Limehouse and its “Chinatown”. As a result, some Chinese moved to Liverpool (the earliest Chinatown in Britain is located in Liverpool), while others returned to China.

London Chinatown as we know it today only began to take shape in the 1950s.  By 1950 there were approximately 2,000 Chinese in Britain and with the return of the British soldiers from the Far East, the market grew for Chinese cuisine creating favourable conditions for a Chinese restaurant industry to take hold.

London Chinatown began as a few Chinese restaurants and grocery stores in Gerrard Street. In the very beginning, Gerrard Street and Lisle Street were filled with small shops and stalls owned by locals (non-Chinese).  Attracted by the cheap rents and short leases in and around Gerrard Street, other Chinese trades began to prosper.  By 1965, there were 20 Chinese restaurants and three stalls in Gerrard Street. 

Today, in 2010, London Chinatown is made up of Gerrard Street, Lisle Street, Wardour Street, Newport Place and Shaftesbury Avenue and is nestled in the busy centre of London between Soho, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden.  There are over 220 businesses in London Chinatown of which approximately 180 are Chinese businesses ranging from restaurants, cafes, cake shops, bookshops, grocery stores, travel agents, banks and money transfer businesses, mobile phone shops, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, doctors, dentists, beauty salons, newsagents, solicitors and accountants.

For those Chinese who moved to Britain in the early days, the old adage was always: “Earn enough then head home”. Therefore, they seldom cared about UK current affairs. When they faced personal problems they could not resolve, they rarely knew where to turn. 

There was a need for greater co-operation to facilitate the needs and wants of the community, in August 1978, the London Chinatown Chinese Association (LCCA) was founded.  It forged stronger links with Westminster City Council, the Police and the community outside Soho.  Originally, the LCCA served both the business and community of the Chinese living and working within Chinatown.  However, in 1979 the LCCA established the Chinese Community Centre to deal with community issues.

Today, the LCCA is a not for profit organisation.  Its stated aims were and still are to enhance the area, improve the quality of life of the Chinatown community by responding to the needs of business and residents in London Chinatown as well as the many people who visit the area every year by working closely with partner organisations such as Westminster City Council, the Metropolitan Police, Prince’s Charities Foundation China and the Mayor of London as well as the Chinese Embassy.

The LCCA organises events to promote London Chinatown and to attract more visitors to the area.  Since the 1980s it has organized the annual Chinese New Year celebrations in Chinatown and since 2002, the event has been held in Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and London Chinatown.  The event has grown from being a small community event to a major free public event that attracts Chinese people, Londoners and tourists to London.  The event attracts over 300,000 people and has become an established London-wide event.  It is a great advert for the Chinese community and Chinese culture.  It also brings together the diverse Chinese population* in London and worldwide.

Besides organising the annual Chinese New Year celebrations, the LCCA has also organised fund raising events for the Qinghai Earthquake (2010), Taiwanese Typhoon Appeal (2009) and the Sichuan Earthquake (2008).  The LCCA is now raising funds to build a new Chinese gate on Wardour Street and to maintain Chinatown’s unique character.  There are aspirations for a Chinese cultural centre in Chinatown itself subject to funding and securing a suitable property.

*the Chinese population in the UK – the original Overseas Chinese came from Hong Kong (New Territories) and Guangdong Province in (Southern) China.  We now have British born Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, Mainland Chinese, Malaysian Chinese, Taiwanese Chinese, Singaporean Chinese as well as people of mixed Chinese race.  The current exact numbers of Chinese in the UK is difficult to quantify exactly but current estimates (circa 2006) are that there are over 400,000 Chinese in the UK of which 100,000 live in London.