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Flag of United KingdomLondon Chinatown
伦敦华埠

london chinatownThe arrival of Hong Kong Cantonese speaking Chinese who began opening restaurants outside Limehouse Chinatown before the war, eased the transition of today's Chinatown close to Soho, occupying the area in and around Gerrard Street, and then by the 1970's spilling over on to Shaftsbury Avenue.

Compared to New York or San Francisco Chinatowns, Soho Chinatown is small. Which may explain why most Chinese in London do not live there.

Unlike Limehouse Chinatown, today's Chinatown in the City of Westminister is no longer on the fringe but is part of the hustle and bustle of a gentrifying west end.

Although the light of adventure has gone out of today's Chinatown, it has nonetheless retained a shadow of its former self. Oddly, it has no temples, very few souvenir shops, but no museums.

Its raison d'etre is to serve the Chinese community, through many programs which ease the plight of the elderly and ease the new emigrants into the hustle and bustle of London.

As such, the sinewy streets of Soho and louche clubs and bawdy houses faintly recall Limehouse Chinatown, but the opium dens and the tingle of sex and the thrill of the underworld are long gone.

London Chinatown today

Today's Chinatown is a designated tourist stop, for its restaurants and lion dances and lunar New Year and Mid Autumn celebrations. Its archway, paifang (牌坊) or ornamental gates mark its boundaries. Tourist trap? Or a spot for Londoner, out of towner, or foreigner to eat a variety of Chinese fare.

Thanks to its proximity to Covent Gardens, the theater district, Leister Square, and Piccadilly Circus, it has become a part of today's trendy, but hardly swinging, London.

Yet, it remains a tourist spot. Its paifang transports the ordinary Londoner or the tourist into a world of one's fancy about China; its fairy lights add a splash of color and enchantment. The tones of Chinese disorient ever so slightly which lend a playful melody to chimes of the imagination.

Celebrations in London Chinatown

Its major festival, the lunar or Chinese New Year attract a goodly crowd of onlookers whose enthusiasm is heightened by the millennia old lion dances, the drums and cymbals, and the seemingly strangeness of it all. It makes the onlooker immune to everyday reality and a contrast to it. It is also the central focus point during special occasions such as the telecast of 1997 Hong Kong Handover and the passing of the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch.

Thus, today's Chinatown in its own manner is part and parcel of London, yet through its food and cultural events awakened the romantic in each of us. Yet, it is as much a commodity as a splash of colour and a change from the ordinary drill of life.

Compared to Limehouse Chinatown, which has lost touch with a reality that no longer exists, today's Chinatown meets the demands of a society and culture which demand dreams of sugar plums and gingerbread; it speaks to the mentality of today's London which takes pride in its Chinatown.

In 2007, a plan was developed by the Prince Foundation For Built Environment to transform London Chinatown to become the "Best Chinatown in the world" and to recognise Asian culture and diversity.

Ideas included a Nine Dragon Wall, a London Underground ext for Chinatown and creating new road access to Chinatown.

Article contributed by Dr. Jak Cambria

 

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