Chinatown confidential

By | Entertainment
Photo © Ricky Leaver/LOOP IMAGES/Loop Images/Corbis

Chinatown hosts a fabulous Chinese New Year celebration; but its the area’s historical pop cultural associations — from Led Zeppelin to Agatha Christie — that make it exciting to explore year-round

The first day of the lunar month marks the start of the Chinese New Year. Also known as the ‘spring festival’ it may be the most important celebration in the Chinese calendar, symbolising the start of new life.

On 10th February, the year of the water snake begins. As the centre of London’s Chinese Community, Chinatown aims to be the hive of vibrant New Year’s celebrations. Yet, beyond this annual focus on the West End neighbourhood, few Londoners are aware of the colourful quarter’s history, particularly as it relates to popular culture and entertainment.

The Chinese community was firmly established on Gerrard Street by the late 1960s. Yet the story of Chinatown goes back as far as the 18th century when it was based in the East End. A small number, a mere few hundred of Chinese sailors employed by the East India Company chose to settle in the docks of Limehouse and open businesses. The area’s reputation as an exotic and edgy neighbourhood gave way to its inclusion in literary works.

Fiction by Sax Rohmer, Thomas Burke and Agatha Christie brought Chinatown and its characters to life. However, locals were often depicted pejoratively as malevolent geniuses plotting world domination or detaining innocent bystanders in opium dens.

Night dens were indeed a part of Chinatown’s renown, although ones of a more spirited variety. During the roaring ‘20s, Kate Meyrick opened up the notorious Club 43 on Gerrard Street, a decadent nightclub that hosted parties frequented by the rich and famous. Famed London jazz institution Ronnie Scott’s first opened up at no. 39 Gerrard Street in 1959 (prior to relocating to nearby Frith Street in 1965). In addition, Led Zeppelin’s first rehearsal took place in August 1968, in a basement in Chinatown.

However, nocturnal revelry and rock ‘n’ roll scenes were only one of Chinatown’s draws, as lovers of Chinese food can enthusiastically confirm. It was during the post-Blitz days that the then endeavouring and dismantled neighbourhood (Chinatown’s initial East End incarnation) was saved… by dim sum and chicken chow mein.

British soldiers returning from the Far East had developed an appetite for Chinese cuisine. So, a few restaurateurs set up business on Gerrard Street, in an area that used to be a training ground for soldiers. The contemporary West End Chinatown was born.

Today, the area is home to over 80 restaurants, as well as many businesses including Chinese supermarkets, hair salons, bakeries and even a Far East travel agency.The recent emerging Taiwanese bubble tea craze (cold drinks with tapioca balls in the cup that is drank with a straw) seems to mean more establishments are popping up and continuing to thrive.

It may be encouraging that popular television programmes like Sherlock have taken to using Chinatown as a shooting location as well. Sherlockoligists who fancy Chinese food surely approve.

An estimated 300,000 people flock to London’s Chinatown’s paper-lantern decorated streets to celebrate with gravity acrobatic shows and dragon dancing. Musicians including Emmy the Great are set to perform at this year’s event. Naturally, the quarter aims to also come to life after dark with a magnificent fireworks display, which embodies the excitement and theatricality of Chinatown.

Chinatown’s New Year celebration takes place on 10th February 2013. The parade begins in Trafalgar Square at 10:15 a.m. and ends there at noon. Free entertainment until 6 p.m.

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