Population movement has shaped the geography of cities and urban life all over the world. Migration from the countryside to towns in search of work has led to the growth of cities and a shift from rural to urban economies. The settlement of diasporic communities has further shaped the cityscape. Industrial, commercial and residential sites have changed hands and found new uses. New shops, restaurants, places of worship and community centres have sprung up to meet the varied needs of diverse local populations. Some have been designed to reflect familiar architectural styles from the homeland; others made to blend in.
Many cities around the world have a Chinese quarter or Chinatown. Famous examples include those in San Francisco, Manhattan, Honolulu, Vancouver, Toronto, Singapore, Bangkok, London and Paris. The fact that there are Chinatowns in so many different countries is a sign of the extent and long history of Chinese migration, from Hong Kong, other parts of South East Asia and from the Chinese mainland. The earliest Chinatowns were established in the 19th century. They arose because officials wanted to segregate the Chinese from the rest of the local population. Because few people had first-hand knowledge of these areas, they were frequently imagined as dangerous, frightening and exotic. Increasingly though, they were recognised for their ethnic businesses and for the hard graft of those who worked in them. Chinese restaurants and laundries, as well as drug and gambling dens became popular cultural symbols of life in Chinatown.
With the settlement of Chinese sailors in East London’s docklands, the first London Chinatown developed in Limehouse in the 19th century. The current site, Gerrard Street and the surrounding area of Soho, only became the focus for Chinese businesses and organisations in the 1950s with the arrival of new Chinese migrants from Hong Kong. Offering cheap food, late-night opening and a taste of the Orient, Chinese shops and restaurants began to attract non-Chinese tourists as well as Chinese Londoners from various parts of the capital and beyond. Local organisations developed to support the community and its enterprises, and to welcome new migrants – first from Vietnam and later from the People’s Republic of China. Changing patterns of migration brought about economic and cultural changes too. Business links were developed with the Chinese Government, Mandarin was spoken alongside Hong Kong Cantonese, and new dishes were on the restaurant menus.
© Cityscapes of diaspora
A significant series of events in the recent history of London’s Chinatown was the building of a pagoda and new gates, along with the refurbishment and pedestrianisation of the area in the 1980s. The first organised Chinese New Year festivities were held there in 1985. The area now includes some eighty restaurants with cuisine from across East Asia, more than fifty shops, including food stores, herbal remedy treatments, pharmacists, reflexology specialists and travel agencies, and twelve bars and pubs. Another new arch is in development, with a launch planned for the run-up to London’s 2012 Olympics.