London’s first Chinatown


The Oriental Quarters

Between 1854 and 1856 many Chinese seamen were housed at the ‘Oriental Quarters’ by the riverside at Shadwell. They were off the High Street, near the present day Wapping Underground Station.Chinese gamblers in an opium den.
Chinese gamblers in an opium den. © NMM


The wedding procession of Canton Kitty and Achi.These Oriental Quarters were lodging houses frequently run by English women who often spoke Oriental languages. The women went by names such as Chinese Emma or Canton Kitty.

Chinese Emma ran a Chinese gambling house, where card games were held downstairs and the upstairs served as an opium room. About 20 Chinese men lived here. The proprietor was a Chinese man called Apoo from Amoy.

The wedding procession of Canton Kitty and Achi. © NMM


The China tea trade

Tea being unloaded at the London Docks from the Louden Castle.The China tea trade via Canton was resumed despite increased competition from India, which quickly surpassed China as the primary source of British tea. In December 1877 the Louden Castle discharged 40,000 packages of China tea at the London Docks.

Chinese seamen stranded in London were allowed to work in the docks and many were involved in unloading China tea.

Tea being unloaded at the London Docks from the Louden Castle. © NMM


The ‘Cutty Sark’ chinamen

Deck of the 'Cutty Sark' (under Captain Woodget).One of the best-known Chinese Lascars was James Robson. Robson had been found as a castaway baby and taken on board a British ship by the wife of the captain.

James was brought to London and grew up at Poplar. He became a seaman and cook on the Cutty Sark between 1885 and 1895. Another Chinese man who served on the Cutty Sark was Ah Sing Lee, a steward from Singapore. He was taken on at Shanghai in 1879 and discharged at London in 1880.

Deck of the Cutty Sark (under Captain Woodget). © NMM


Chinese sailors in the Royal Navy

The SS 'Almora'The 1881 British census that includes British vessels at sea contains a number of Chinese aboard Royal Navy vessels, such as the HMS Encounter, HMS Comus and HMS Sheldrake. There were also Chinese cooks, stewards and servants on board the HMS Mosquito and HMS Iron Duke.

The British India Steam Navigation Company (BISNC), with ships such as the SS Almora and the Blue Funnel Line brought more Chinese seamen to London, especially after 1890.

The SS Almora. © NMM


Amahs and wives

Sing Seng.By the 1850s there are occasional records of Chinese women arriving in Britain as the nurses or ‘Amahs’ to British missionaries who had served in China. One example is Sing Seng, who arrived in London in 1858 from Ningpo. After some time in London she returned to China in the service of a bishop to Hong Kong.

Though local sources suggest that by 1860 there were some Chinese men married to English women. Many lived at riverside settlements such as Deptford and Woolwich.

Most Chinese seamen lived to the north of the river. By 1880 the Chinese community was based in Limehouse and consisted mainly of Shanghai and Cantonese seamen who catered for the Chinese and Indians that arrived at the docks. In 1881, there were several Chinese seamen living in the boarding house of Mr M. Lamar at 14, Limehouse Court.

Sing Seng. © NMM


Two Chinese London communities

By 1890 there were two distinct communities:

  • The Chinese from Shanghai were settled around Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street  (presently the area between Westferry and Poplar DLR stations).
  • The Chinese from Canton and Southern China were settled around Gill Street and Limehouse Causeway.

The historian Sir Walter Besant put the Limehouse Chinese community at less then 100 people in 1891.

The Chinese Dragon sculptureIn 1901 there were more than 40 Chinese sailors aboard the Bulysses at the Royal Albert Docks:

  • 21 from Canton
  • 12 from Soochow
  • at least three from Hainan Island
  • one from Hong Kong.

By 1911 the area of Limehouse and Pennyfields was known as Chinatown. At Pennyfields there was a Christian Mission for the Chinese and a Confucian temple. At Limehouse Causeway there was the famous Ah Tack’s lodging house.

The Chinese Dragon sculpture marking the Chinatown at Limehouse. © NMM


Prejudice and hostility

There was much prejudice against the East End Chinese community, with much of it initiated by the writings of Thomas Burke and Arthur Henry Ward. Both of these men wrote about the Chinese community.

Burke and Ward exaggerated the Chinese community’s true size and made much mention of gambling, opium dens and ‘unholy things’ in the shadows.

Though there were some individuals involved in gambling and opium smoking, for the majority of Chinese people life was hard work in the docks. It was a struggle to find passage for the return voyage to the Far East.

The novelist Arnold Bennett, who visited the Limehouse Chinatown in April 1925, correctly remarked:

‘On the whole a rather flat night. Still we saw the facts. We saw no vice whatever. Inspector [of Police] gave the Chinese an exceedingly good character.’

20th-century Limehouse

Mandarin Street, Westferry, London.The rector at St Anne’s, Limehouse, estimated that at its peak after the First World War the local Chinese community never numbered more then 300 people.

At that time the community was still based around Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields. The area was marked with lodgings for seamen and restaurants.

These streets were heavily bombed during the Blitz. Now only their names remain to evoke the past community. There are names such as Canton Street, Mandarin Street, Pekin Street, Ming Street and Nankin Street.

Mandarin Street, Westferry, London. © NMM



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