Running without fanfare at the China Exchange in the middle of London’s Chinatown, the Making of Chinatown exhibition aims to tell the story of how an immigrant community could suddenly spring into such a vibrant part of a city’s cultural experience. As the timeline that forms the main part of the exhibit makes clear, the Chinese community centred on Gerrard Street is relatively recent – newspaper clippings as late as 1970 point to the media’s growing awareness that the street was starting to accrete restaurants and stores serving the Cantonese-speaking community.
This exhibition has been a long time coming. When New York has a Museum of the Chinese in America, and both Vancouver and Melbourne have their own richly appointed Chinatown museums, London has been left lagging behind. The temporary exhibit here is necessarily small-scale, concentrating on video archives and scattered photographs, and lacking a lot of material content. There are asides about Limehouse, the original centre for Chinese residents in England, but little about the demonisation of the Chinese in the British imagination in the age of Fu Manchu and Broken Blossoms.
This is a Chinatown museum for the Chinese, specifically the Cantonese who flooded here from Hong Kong during the century and a half of British dominion. But it stops short of celebrating the Chinese in Britain in general – unlike say, the Museum of Arab Americans in Michigan, there is little attempt to engage visitors with the contribution made by Chinese people to British society. Nor does it delve too far into some of the more controversial contemporary issues, such as who actually owns Chinatown, and whether rising rates will make it possible for there to even be a Chinatown in central London within a few years.
A few interactive boxes, seemingly designed for school parties, dare the visitor to open them to find answers to common questions. Does Chinatown look like China? No, comes the informative reply, which explains the fact that most Chinatowns worldwide copy the chop-socky architecture of San Francisco’s 1907 post-earthquake reconstruction, infamously masterminded by two white men who had never been to China themselves.
In an inadvertent bit of post-modern micro-aggression, another box asks: “How do you say ‘hello’ in Chinatown?” I opened it, and it was ominously blank.
The gift shop downstairs is oddly under-stocked, carrying very little of interest that can’t be bought in half a dozen shops in the street outside. It did, however, sell me a lovely book about the Chinese Labor Corps, the “unknown” 140,000 men who were airbrushed from history, but played a vital role in the First World War. Long-term readers of this blog will already know that the Chinese Labor Corps is something of an obsession of mine, and the China Exchange is getting behind a drive to give them a monument of their own in East London – I bought a pin for £2, although that’s still a way away from the £400,000 they need. One hopes that in future, the Chinese presence in Britain will also be celebrated in a more wide-ranging and permanent form, of which this exhibition will turn out to be the first exploratory step.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. The Making of Chinatown exhibition has now finished at the China Exchange, but will be returning in 2020 to several venues around London, starting with the Westminster Archives from the 14th January, then Beckton Library, Charing Cross Library, Hackney Chinese Community Centre and finally Woolwich library.