What's On: Rediscovering the forgotten Chinese community of Limehouse



By Lucia Blash

Mention Chinatown to most Londoners and the likelihood of them conjuring up images of the lanterns of Gerrard Street is high.

However, long before this thriving quarter emerged, another Chinatown existed, boasting the highest concentration of Chinese in the UK.

In the late 19th century until the early 1950s, Limehouse was home to the original Chinatown, a community, largely drawn from the Chinese sailors who came on cargo ships into the docks and stayed to make a new life.

To meet the needs of the new émigré community cafes, shops, lodging houses, tobacconists, post-offices and banks sprang up.

"If you go around the area now there's nothing to see," said Yellow Earth artistic director Kumiko Mendl, who is staging a new play, written by Jeremy Tiang, based on this community.

"There's one sign that says Ming Street otherwise all the road names have changed and the buildings are long demolished. It's as though the place never existed. It's rather sad."

The Last Days Of Limehouse is being staged at Limehouse Town Hall and will take the audience on a fascinating trip back in time.

A promenade production, the audience will walk through the historic Town Hall setting, with its myriad corridors, peeling paint and 1950s fading interiors, while the story of Limehouse Chinatown is played out around them.

The play starts in Limehouse in 1958 when the council is planning to bulldoze the last remnants of Limehouse Chinatown.

As the community decides what to do, a former Limehouse resident returns from her new home in America to help save her heritage.

Yellow Earth's site specific production aims to explode the myths of opium dens and sinister gangs run by a Chinese "Moriarty" figure to reveal a place that was, for generations, simply home.

Kumiko said: "The original London Chinatown in Limehouse is relatively unknown today. It was fictionalised in the 1920s and 1930s, often portraying the area as seedy and immoral where opium dens were rife.

"There were elements of that but in the main this was a small area where honest, hard-working families lived and carried out their business.

"Our play starts at a council meeting in Limehouse in 1958 - which did actually take place. We imagine who those people were, wondering what they were doing with their lives and how they reacted to the news their homes were going to be demolished. It's a story about a community under threat."

With the announcement that ABP has signed a £1billion deal to transform the Royal Docks into a gateway for Chinese businesses it's also history coming full circle.
July 16-Aug 3, Limehouse Town Hall E14 7HA, £15, halfmoon.org.uk.

■ Special interactive family performances are available; and the British East Asian theatre company has produced an audio-guide that allows people to walk around Limehouse listening to characters from the play. Download from yellowearth.org