18 June 2022

Cultural diversity is alive
in post-Brexit London in
Chinatown and the West End

Chinatown grew up around Gerrard Street, off Shaftesbury Avenue, in the 1970s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us have been in London twice in recent weeks, exploring Southwark on the South Bank and strolling through Chinatown in Soho, meeting friends in the afternoon or for dinner in the evening.

Chinatown borders Soho and Theatreland, in an area around Gerrard Street, off Shaftesbury Avenue. It includes Chinese restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, souvenir shops, banks and other Chinese-run businesses.

London’s first Chinatown was in Limehouse in the East End, where Chinese immigrants began to arrive in the 18th century. By 1914, a Chinese community was burgeoning with new restaurants and shops catering for sailors.

The present Chinatown only dates from the 1950s to the 1970s. After World War II, the increasing popularity of Chinese cuisine and the arrival of immigrants from Hong Kong led to an increasing number of Chinese restaurants opening in the area that became Chinatown.

Gerrard Street was the birthplace of the Post Office and the home of Ronnie Scott’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Before Chinese restaurants and businesses began to pop up in the 1950s, this area had a long and colourful history: this area was the birthplace of the Post Office, the home of Ronnie Scott’s and the playground of the literary elite.

In the panic to rebuild London after the Great Fire in the late 17th century, the owner of the land, Charles Gerard, 1st Earl of Macclesfield (1618-1694), gave permission for houses to be built on former farmland that had become a military training ground.

Gerrard Street was built between 1677 and 1685. Within a century the surrounding area had become a haunt for artists, authors and political activists, such as Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds, who discussed and debated the problems of the world at the Turk’s Head Inn.

The area soon attracted immigrant communities: the French Huguenots were followed in the 19th century by Irish, Italian, Jewish and Maltese settlers, who followed one another. By the time Ronnie Scott set up his first jazz club in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street, Soho had become a cultural magnet.

By the late 1960s, Chinatown was the epicentre of London’s Chinese community (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

When London’s Chinese community started to move towards the area in the 1950s, it had a reputation for its nightlife and its cheap commercial rents. Chinese-owned supermarkets and restaurants were the first to open, followed by more entrepreneurs, and Chinatown was born.

By the late 1960s, Chinatown was the epicentre of London’s Chinese community, by then in their tens of thousands as more and more Chinese workers arrived from Hong Kong.

The area got the full Chinatown treatment in the 1980s, when Chinese gates, street furniture and a pavilion were added, and Gerrard Street, parts of Newport Place and Macclesfield Street were pedestrianised.

From bakeries to bars and restaurants to reflexology, today’s Chinatown is a thriving hub of Oriental wonder, including souvenir shops, health clinics, barbers, travel agents and banks. The Chinatown gate on Wardour Street, installed in 2016. It was made by Chinese artisans in the style of the Qing dynasty and assembled in London.

Maison Bertaux at 28 Greek Street is the oldest French pâtisserie in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Greek Street, between Soho Square and Shaftesbury Avenue, is famous for its restaurants and cosmopolitan nature. Greek Street takes its name from a Greek church that was built in 1677 in adjacent Crown Street, now part of the west side of Charing Cross Road. The church is depicted in William Hogarth’s ‘Noon’ in Four Hours of the Day.

Maison Bertaux at 28 Greek Street is the oldest French pâtisserie in London. It was founded in 1871 by a Monsieur Bertaux, a communard from Paris. He arrived in London as a political refugee and opened his shop in the heart of the French community in late 19th century London. The French Protestant church is nearby in Soho Square, while the Catholic Notre Dame de France is in Leicester Place.

Three of the mirrors in the shop contain the inscriptions Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Each year, the shop creates a tableau vivant on 14 July to celebrate Bastille Day.

Mozart stayed at No 20 Frith Street in 1764-1765 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Nearby on Frith Street, the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lodged at No 20 with his father and sister in 1764-1765. John Logie Baird lived at No 22 from 1924 to 1926, and there on 26 January 1926 he first demonstrated television to members of the Royal Institution.

Today, No 22 is Bar Italia, one of London’s best-known Italian cafés. It was first opened in 1949 by the Polledri family, and is still owned by Veronica and Anthony Polledri today.

Bar Italia inspired the song of the same name by the band Pulp, the last track of their album Different Class (1995). The song describes the café as ‘round the corner in Soho’ and ‘where other broken people go.’

Dave Stewart, formerly of the Eurythmics, once said, ‘This coffee shop is very small but what goes on in there is as big as the world.’ Bar Italia has been named at times as London Coffee Shop of the Year.

Next door, Jimmy’s opened at No 23 in 1948 and was the oldest Greek restaurant in Soho until it closed in recent years.

The streets with their Bohemian atmosphere and multicultural variety reflect the diversity that is flourishing in London, even in these post-Brexit days.

Bar Italia at No 22 Frith Street is one of the best-known Italian cafés in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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