The heart of Chinatown is Gerrard Street. Here, we have a fusion of Hong Kong and mainland China in the centre of London! In 2018, Chinese New Year is on 16 February and the main public celebrations will take place on Sunday 18 February. 2018 will be the year of the dog! Hundreds of thousands of people will descend on Gerrard Street and the West End to enjoy a colourful parade, free stage performances and the essential ingredient of any Chinese celebration; fireworks! It’s the biggest Chinese New Year celebrations outside of Asia.
Some history. Initially, Chinatown was situated in Limehouse (in the east end of London) in 1800, catering to Chinese sailors bringing tea to London. There are tales of opium dens and slum housing. Then an influx of immigration from Hong Kong, bomb damage to Limehouse during the Blitz and our love of Chinese food brought Chinatown to central London, Gerrard Street. We have the first Chinese restaurants opening in Lisle Street, parallel to Gerrard St, and more opened gradually. The present day Chinatown only really emerged in the 1970’s. (Tip: eat at ‘Wong Kei’, 41 Wardour Street, for a unique experience!)
Originally, Gerrard Street was the northern edge of the 1680’s ‘Military Ground’. During the reign of Charles 2nd, possession transferred to Lord Charles Gerard, 1st Earl of Macclesfield. Following that, the area was developed by Dr Nicholas Barbon, son of ‘Praise-God’ Barebone’s ‘Parliament of Saints’ in July 1653 – a parliament composed entirely of Puritans nominated by Oliver Cromwell and the Army’s Council of Officers! Nicholas’s full name was; ‘Nicholas If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barbon’ – that’s a puritan father for you! Nicholas was an economist, physician and financial speculator, plus a pioneer of fire insurance and a leading player in the reconstruction of London – he introduced a game changer to residential property. Barbon ceased building traditional double fronted housing and built terraced housing instead – thereby doubling the capacity – and profits. By the 1750’s most of Gerrard Street was turned to coffee houses.
There have been many famous residents in Gerrard Street; at 37, a Royal Society of Arts blue plaque commemorates Edmund Burke in 1780’s – he pressed for parliamentary control of royal patronage and expenditure over King George 3rd, wrote, ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ (1790) and appealed to the British virtues (at the time!) of continuity, tradition, rank and property. Burke opposed the French Revolution to the end of his life and is regarded as one of the founders of the British Conservative tradition. At 39 Gerrard Street, in the basement, was the original Ronnie Scott’s. At 9, Samuel Johnson and Joshua Reynolds met at the Turk’s Head Tavern to found ‘The Club’, a dining club, in 1764. And finally, the film director Michael Powell worked out of no. 4. He was the director of one of our favourite films, ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ – set across three wars; the Boer war, First World War and the Second World War – which, I guess, brings us back to the foundations of Chinatown here in Gerrard Street after WW2!