On Leaving the Chinese Festival

Chinese social club

As I left the Chinese Arts Festival that night
The Dragons followed my soul in flight
Back through the years to old Chinatown that
Whispered Chinese promises with hardly a sound

As I heard under the quiet Pennyfields stars
As Chinamen from the ocean who sailed so far
From old Camay and the revolution and wars
They came in and went through Chinatowns secret doors

I saw the Shanghai men, ashore from sailing ships
Seeking Old Friends in Chinese Restaurants whose lips
And hands were hard and calloused from their months at sea
Working as cheap labour in the ship’s laundry

The groups of Chinese shopkeepers discussing sales
Whose English wives were at the Chandlers sowing sails
While the more disreputable of these Chinese men
Were living in a secret dark opium den

The romance of the Orient enchanted the young
Who flocked to play the Puk-a-Poo game with Chang Chung
While music hall actresses looking for distraction
Came to old Chinatown to sample the action

Then the Chinese outgrew the busy docklands town
And when the sailing ships no longer came around
then they moved inland and their dragons moved as well
Away from the sea and the sound of the ships bell



Limehouse Chinatown Project: The Interviews


The Limehouse Chinatown project was a local history project. It included talking to the Chinese people about their experiences. The difficulty was, they mostly didn’t speak English, so, I got an interpreter to help me. The interviews were conducted at the Chinese Association in Commercial Road, Limehouse.



Years ago, in Limehouse, we had every mortal thing we wanted. Just like Poplar and Wapping, Limehouse had every shop you needed in Grenade Street and Three Colt Street. We had two bakers, two butchers, fish shops, everything, and it was busy the whole time. I remember the fish and chip shop in Broad Street. We’d ask for ‘a ha’penny bit of na’porth’, and mustard pickle on top, and we thought that was marvellous.


In Limehouse, we lived near a farm, believe it or not, and a dairy where they milked the cows. We used to look through the crack and watch them milking the cows. I can remember the smell of Michaelmas daisies, and I think of that garden when I smell them now. I can remember the milkman. He’d let the rainwater fall into the milk to make it go further. You used to go out there with your can, and if you weren’t in, there used to be a hook at the top of your front door, and he’d hook the can on there, galvanised cans.



When I was young, round Limehouse, we wasn’t allowed down Chinatown. West India Dock Road used to be full of Lascars

They had a place near the West India Dock, and they’d go out from there to work in the Dock. As they went back in, they’d always wash their hands and their feet. They used to go up the Lane and buy the old clothes. They wasn’t very tall people.

The Limehouse Causeway was big cobble stones, difficult to walk on. It started at Three Colt Street, and went to Gill Street. It was very narrow, and the roads were always littered with Puckapoo papers. Puckapoo was a Chinese game played in all the shops in the Causeway. Anyone could play. They used to bet sixpence. I only went once. Mrs Payne told me to run and put this bet on. There was a Chinese paper square with all Chinese words on it and they used to mark it with a brush. I got a clout for going. My brother Billy gave it to me.

We used to go in the Chinese Restaurants for our ‘Chang wins’. That’s fried batter with all different pieces in; sage and onions, bits of chickens.

I wanted an Anna May Wong haircut. And the barbers wouldn’t cut it. So, I said, ‘If you don’t give me that cut, I’m going to tell my brother Billy you wouldn’t give me a normal haircut. ‘ And he cut it, the fringe and all. Billy used to go and have a drink in the Railway Pub, and it used to be men only. I opened the door” and I said, ‘Where’s our Billy?’ Peter Ruddock came out. He said, ‘Annie, he’ll kill you when he sees your hair!’ They’re all coming out to have a look at me. And then they told my brother. Directly I see him coming out the little door, I run for me life.


My grandmother used to go gambling down Chinatown. My mother used to hate it, because it always used to be raided by the police. She used to play Puckapoo, rather like bingo. And of course, one particular night it did get raided and that cured her. She didn’t go down again. As a kid, I loved the air of mystery about it. It was exciting, that area. Such tales went round, like stories about the old white slave traffic. They would capture beautiful young girls and they would be whipped off the street and sold into slavery. Or if a girl disappeared, they’d always say. ‘Oh, she’s been sold as a white slave!’

The sailors used to come off the ships and they used to go into Charlie Brown. And they used to spend their money very quickly. Well of course they used to bring all of these things from abroad. Charlie Brown had watches like clocks. They had them all up in his room. He’d buy them from the sailors for next to nothing. There was an old man, the old Chinaman in Pennyfields, old Ching was his name. Every Chinese New Year, he used to buy the English children new shoes because he loved children, he was ever such a good man he was.


My brother Freddie worked outside Browns on the barrels, and they gave him permission to take us in there. We were never normally allowed in. And when you went in, the prostitutes were sitting on the sailors’ laps. It was just like a film. It had a stage and everything. The opium was round the back. And opposite, by the Blue Post pub that was done out lovely in there, that’s all the rich people used to go to look at the antiques — was where the Chinese had a temple. It was beautiful. All the people walked in, and they had a clock run by water. Oh, it was marvellous.

When Charlie Brown died, we all lined West India Docks Road, singing, ‘Poor old Charlie. Blinkin’ dead ‘.

We used to sit up half the night watching all the prostitutes. You’d be surprised, girls who’d come down hcne from up North. They’d never have any shoes. We used to give names to them. ‘No Shoes’, ‘Baby-face’. Now Baby Face was a very rich woman. She come from a very rich family and something must have happened. She had a room in Chinatown on the Causeway. She used to do all her slitting up the other end but she was dressed marvellous. She fetched a little boy down from her home, and she paid for him to go to school, but she didn’t want nothing to do with the family. A very nice person.

When the prostitutes used to get doped up and they couldn’t do nothing them, they used to fetch them along to the police station on boards. They used to have a strap round the middle and a strap for their legs and they’d take them in like that, men and women. We lived right opposite in Limehouse. When my boy was in bed I’d stand on the doorstep with my neighbour chatting. They used to say Limehouse was terrible.


Came by plane, very happy, cannot understand air hostess on plane Kwang Jong from Hong Kong — England. When arrived in airport (Hong Kong) did not know how to change planes. Man helped them to find plane. Waited a long time. Passport control asked a lot of questions, carried lots of Chinese medicine. Alison had flu. Man called Chinese translator, go out with luggage. Grandparents meet, then go to house from airport.

Grandparents came to England first. Parents came to England by boat during Vietnam war. 20 years old when got here, now 21. They clean house, lino and carpet. Don’t like rice, like noodle. Work in Noodle in North London. Parents and grandparents are here. Jenny live new house with grandparents.

Restaurant Washing up. Hong Kong, elderly. Went from China to – worked in Viet Nam, then to England.

May 18th. Chinese from Vietnam 1979-80 to Hong Kong— England refugee camps — Scotland, Yorkshire, Ashford


Lived in Guanantzhou — China. 19. Worked in restaurant. Came 19 years ago here. Husband opened restaurant St. George, London. Husband didn’t want her, he married another. Council translator service at doctors. Rhis area service and government. Mon — Fri comes lunch here (Chinese Association, Limehouse), likes to sing Chinese songs, Beijing opera, Karaoke. 6 years in this area, likes church singing. Husband left, homeless, sleep in wharf, met Japanese. Doesn’t speak English so wrote to Japanese girl who got police, who got her to another house, Red Cross Hostel.

Live in home, got money from there and got illness, mental illness. She want to die, don’t like this country. But her friend takes her back. After few months’ government got house in St. George, (out of London). Very happy all this year. Japanese lady helps employ lawyer, take a picture of her scars and bruises. Last year, June, she use Community, got divorced, no marry again.


80 yrs. old. Been here 19 years ago, before live in concentration camp (Vietnam). Wife died in 1986. When she came to England no job because no – – – buy ship, went to Hong Kong 15 months refugee camp. Job builder. He didn’t want to come to England because fighting between Vietnam – China. Chinese had to leave. Service welfare funds/service system feels better in this country.

Came to England, one English man helped friend (very polite) Brief going 5 yrs. Believes God in England. His children keep up the Chinese tradition. Came this community 11 yrs. ago. Like Chinese festival, dragon dancing. Write poems. Does Tai Chi exercises. Enjoy Chinatown Sat and Sun. Didn’t say what. Enjoy communities Ma Jong, Chinese cards. Meet elderly people to chat on past in Vietnam and future. And before this community celebrates mid-autumn day, moon day festival. October. Like Chinese spring festival, Chinese Valentine’s day festival. And reunion dinner, reunions rice family, all meet together for dinner. Stayed in memories —National Day. Arrived Jan. Cold. Daughter never seen ice, upset her when picked it up (in Yorkshire) here, has a future. Glad England is his country.



Charlie Brown and Chinatown, painting exhibition.

This is a record of the exhibition I had, of local history, called Charlie Brown and Chinatown and the life of lee. it lasted a few weeks, and was put up at the Oxford House gallery in Bethnal Green around 2001. The making of it was commissioned by the Peabody Trust under the auspices of the lottery fund.

Charlie Brown and his pub.

Limehouse Chinatown

The story of Lee

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