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)

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
18 June 2022 (Psalm 115)

‘Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see’ (Psalm 115: 4-5) … masks in a shop window in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

I was supposed to be back in Stony Stratford this morning,. However, widespread rail disruption in and out of Milton Keynes and across the Midlands yesterday means two of us spent an extra night in Tamworth last night after two days in Lichfield and Tamworth.

We have been visiting Lichfield Cathedral and the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, which have been my ‘spiritual home’ since my late teens, and Tamworth, where we visited the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church last night, and spent an afternoon in the Moat House on Lichfield Street, once a Comberford family home, as well as catching a quick glimpse of Comberford Hall the day before.

I hope to get back to Stony Stratford later this morning (18 June 2022) in time to speak later today, as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), at the Peace Festival organised by Milton Keynes Peace and Justice Network.

In the Church Calendar, this is Ordinary Time. Before today begins, and before we start tring to neogiate and of today’s potential hazards on the rail network, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 115:

Psalm 115 is the third of the six psalms (Psalms 113-118) comprising the Hallel (הַלֵּל, ‘Praise’). In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this psalm forms the second part of Psalm 113, counted as verses 9-26 of Psalm 113, verses 1-8 being Psalm 114 in Hebrew numbering. In Latin, that part is known as Non nobis.

Psalms 113-118 are among the earliest prayers written to be recited in the Temple on days of national celebration. They were sung as accompaniment to the Pesach or Passover sacrifice. Early rabbinic sources suggest that these psalms were said on the pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.

These psalms are known as the ‘Egyptian Hallel’ because of the references in Psalm 114 to the Exodus from Egypt.

This psalm may have been composed for use in the Second Temple services after the return from Babylon. The opening words of this psalm in Latin, Non Nobis Domine, have been used for inscriptions on buildings.

Psalm 115 is the third of six psalms (113-118) of which Hallel is composed. On all days when Hallel is recited, this psalm is recited in its entirety, except on Rosh Chodesh (except on Chanukah) and the last six days of Passover, when verses 1-11 are omitted.

In verses 1-11, who hear a strong condemnation of idolatrous practices. The former Chief Rabbi, the late Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, says, ‘Worshipping impersonal objects or forces eventually dehumanises a culture and those who are part of it. Whether what is worshipped is an icon, a ruler, a race or a political ideology, the final outcome is the sacrifice of human lives on the altar of high, yet imperfect, ideals.’

He continues, ‘Idolatry is the worship of the part instead of the whole, one aspect of the part instead of the whole, one aspect of the universe in place of the Creator of all who transcends all.’

The NRSV translates verse 16 as: ‘The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings.’ However, Lord Sacks suggests the word ‘given’ is better rendered as ‘given over.’

He says the earth was placed in the guardianship of humanity: ‘We do not own the earth; we hold it in trust from God and there are conditions on that trust, namely that we respect the earth’s integrity and the dignity of the human person.’

This verse, among others, motivated peace activist John McConnell to propose Earth Day as a call to preserve the Earth and share resources. Earth Day is an annual event on 22 April. First held on 22 April 1970, the official theme for 2022 was ‘Invest In Our Planet.’

‘The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings’ (Psalm 115: 16) … globes and lighting in a restaurant in Killaloe, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Psalm 115 (NRSVA):

1 Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.
2 Why should the nations say,
‘Where is their God?’

3 Our God is in the heavens;
he does whatever he pleases.
4 Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
5 They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats.
8 Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them.

9 O Israel, trust in the Lord!
He is their help and their shield. 10 O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord!
He is their help and their shield.
11 You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord!
He is their help and their shield.

12 The Lord has been mindful of us; he will bless us;
he will bless the house of Israel;
he will bless the house of Aaron;
13 he will bless those who fear the Lord,
both small and great.

14 May the Lord give you increase,
both you and your children.
15 May you be blessed by the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

16 The heavens are the Lord’s heavens,
but the earth he has given to human beings.

17 The dead do not praise the Lord,
nor do any that go down into silence.
18 But we will bless the Lord
from this time on and for evermore.
Praise the Lord!

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) has been ‘Focus 9/99,’ which was introduced on Sunday by the Revd M Benjamin Inbaraj, Director of the Church of South India’s SEVA department.

Saturday 18 June 2022:

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for the pioneering work on child protection and ecological concerns carried out by the Church of South India. May we be inspired by our brothers and sisters there.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org