Limehouse is a place in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. In the 1880s, immigrant Chinese began to settle in Limehouse, in particular Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway. The Chinese had restaurants, grocery stores and laundry houses where lime was used specifically to bleach clothes. By 1890 there were two small Chinese communities there; Chinese people from Shanghai settled around Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street (in Poplar) and those from Canton and south China lived in the Limehouse area. There were no Chinese women in the early days and wives were British. During 1939-1950, the Chinese community in East London was first badly affected by the Blitz and then the post-war slump in maritime trade. The East London Cemetery contains a large Chinese burial area.

  • Date: 17-Jan-2010, 30-Jan-2010
  • Place: East London Cemetery, Grange Raod, Limehouse Basin, Narrow Street, Cantonese Quarter, Dragon Sculpture, Shanghai Quarter, Chun Yee Society, Commerical Road, Salmon Lane

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17 January 2010

A pre-visit journey to Limehouse. Kar joined the project yesterday and started work today as local researcher (and later became photographer as well). It was a fine day, almost no one on the streets and we had visited a number of places before we stopped at Chun Yee Society. Kar pressed the door bell and then stood two meters behind me, coolly telling me they would open the door for a girl. They did open the door for me, and with the unexpected visit (for the people outside and inside the door), we made an appointment for an interview.

30 January 2010

A team of 5 (video-girl Aubrey, driver/photographer Ricky, artist Ryszard, Researcher/Interviewer Kar and I) started the journey in the very early morning. The ground was covered in snow again and it was so cold! Our first stop was the East London Cemetery (Ryszard’s wish had not been granted), then back to the Limehouse area. An interview was planned for today, but I woke up and found an urgent message from Aubrey, informing that the interview had been cancelled due to the interviewee being sent to hospital. We decided to go as planned, as we needed to film some parts of Limehouse, with or without interviewee.

Walking passed Chinese Association of Tower Hamlets (Sailor’s Palace), Kar’s finger touched the door bell again. We made our grand entrance (as the workers thought we were journalists, with those professional cameras on our necks – I don’t blame them), chatting with the staff there we found out our intended interviewee was in Royal London Hospital and we decided to make a surprise visit. It was Kar’s first interview, and he had the most prestigious venue – by the bed side of a hospital ward! We put the cameras back into our bags, only switched on the audio recorder, and listened to the stories from Mr. Yew Chang, a 90-year-old retired sailor, pulling his memories back from the 1940s...

- by Chungwen Li



The Chinese community in Limehouse was concentrated along the Narrow Street of Limehouse Causeway, Pennyfields, West India Dock and Birchfields Street. To many Londoners in the past century Limehouse Chinatown was the very embodiment of crimes and catastrophe. The area achieved notoriety for opium dens in the late 19th century, often featured in works by Sax Rohmer (The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu, 1912) and Thomas Burke (Limehouse Nights, 1916) amongst others. Yet there were never more than a few hundred Chinese people. By comparison with other immigrant groups the Chinese presence in Limehouse was actually negligible and never exclusive.

Limehouse Background

Limehouse is a riverside district of East London stretching along the Thames from Wapping to Limehouse and inland north up to the Commercial Road. It was first described as a working class area.

“Its streets of little terraced houses were squeezed among canals and railway-lines, timber-yards and sawmills, lead-works and coal-yards, dry docks, ship-repair-yards, factories and workshops. There was heavy pollution and bad sanitation. There was overcrowding, along with low and irregular wages and among the highest levels of child mortality and the highest levels of poverty in London.”

Limehouse was a port with exclusive docks and wharves. Its past industries included shipping, ship-building, rope-making, etc. Limehouse Basin opened in 1820 as the Regent’s Canal Dock, which served as an important connection between Thames and the canal system where cargoes could be unloaded from larger ships to the canal boats. The arrival of Chinese seamen in Limehouse was linked to the growth of British trade with China during the 19th century. After the Second World War the decline in the shipping industry made many of the Chinese community relocated to Soho.

Limehouse Timeline

  • First settlement of Chinese in Limehouse by 1880. The Chinese Community consisted mainly of Shanghaiist and Cantonese seamen. Life consisted of hard work in the London Docklands
  • The expansion of the Chinese community was driven by the increasing needs for foreign commodities from the Far East to satisfy domestic consumptions. For example, the East India Company was importing popular commodities such as tea, ceramics and silks from China. Asian sailors were housed in Limehouse while in London
  • The London Docks were badly damaged in the Second World War and the remains to be demolished by the council
  • The decline of the shipping industry after the war caused the local community to move to Soho
  • Today only elderly Chinese live in Limehouse area
  • There are names such as Nankin / Pekin / Canton / Ming / Amoy Streets to evoke the presence of past community

Limehouse Trip

  • East London Cemetery, Grange Road
    • Founded in 1871 the main entrance consists of stone piers and elaborate cast double iron gates
    • The cemetery has a large number of historical gravestones with paths laid out symmetrically
    • Two chapels to a T-junction where there is a large anchor
    • Turn left for about 100+ metres there are a large number of Chinese gravestones
    • This is the reminder of the Chinese who have lived, worked and died in East London
    • There is a memorial erected in 1927 to all Chinese who had died in England
  • Limehouse Route
    • Limehouse Basin
      • By the beginning of the 20th century Limehouse was a working class slum area. Next to Limehouse DLR it has been developed into a luxury residential area
      • Its basin is now filled with luxury yachts rather than narrowboats
    • Narrow Street
      • Narrow Street, Limehouse’s historic spine, which runs along the back of the Thames wharves
      • The Narrow, which is a gastropub, is run by Gordon Ramsay
      • The Grapes, rebuilt in 1720, well-known to Charles Dickens and featured in one of his novels
    • Cantonese Quarter
      • Settled around Gill Street / Limehouse Causeway
        • A few lodging houses have survived the bombings on Limehouse Causeway
        • Nowadays only council flats around Gill Street
    • Dragon Sculpture
      • Next to Westferry DLR Station this sculpture symbolizes the presence of past Chinese community in Limehouse
    • Shanghai Quarter
      • Settled around Pennyfields Street / Amoy Place / Ming Street
        • Not a trace of Chinese roots left
        • Proximity to Canary Wharf
      • Past – largest shipping centre in the world
      • Now – largest financial hub in Europe
    • Chun Yee Society – Birchfields Street
      • Established in 1906
      • Used to be an old Sunday school
      • Used to be Chinese sailors' shelter
    • Other places evoke the presence of past Chinese Community are
      • Mandarin / Peking / Nankin / Canton Streets and Amoy Place
    • Commercial Road
      • Chinese Association of Tower Hamlets
      • St Anne’s Church
        • Built in 1730 this was built to serve the needs of the rapidly growing population in the area
        • Grade II listed this is an Anglican Church
      • Limehouse Town Hall
        • Built in 1878 it had been used as National Museum of Labour History
        • Grade II building it is being renovated
      • Sailors’ Mission
        • Across from Limehouse Town Hall and at the junction of Commercial Road and Salmon Lane the “anchor” is a memorial to those seamen who die in World War I
    • Salmon Lane – Local Friends
      • Rumored to be the first Chinese Take-away in the U.K.
    • Lunch
    • Canary Wharf Pier via Narrow Street and riverside walk

- by Kar-Hei Lam

Scripted by Chungwen Li
Narrated by Kar-Hei Lam
Produced by Aubrey Ko

Audio Archive

Limehouse Historical Audio Tour, 30 January 2010, Saturday morning nearly 10 o’clock. A fine but bitterly cold day.

First stop, Limehouse Basin, or Regent’s Canal Dock as it was originally known. Facing the dock, now is full of leisure boats and yachts; and the surrounding are built with luxury apartments, could hardly imagine what it was like in the 19th century. However, from the information board provided by the British Waterways London, I am now standing on the edge of Bergen and Medland Wharves where timber, tea, fruit and ice were once unloaded.

Walking through the newly built apartments to Narrow Street, across the dock gate, it has the name of “Limehouse Marina” on it, in white big characters. Narrow Street, which runs along the back of the Thames wharves, lead me to the Grapes, a local pub well-known to Charles Dickens and was featured in one of his novels. A Blue round plaque with white characters attached to the wall claiming it was built in 1583.

Opposite is Ropemakers’ Fields, there is a 2-metre high sculpture, a herring gull with rope loosely circle under its feet. Many ropes were required for the shipping businesses in those days.

Following the Thames Path National Trail, I arrive at the Cantonese Quarter. The early Chinese immigrants settled around Gill Street and Limehouse Causeway area, now only council flats around Gill Street.

Continue my journey to Westferry Dockland Light Rail Station. A dragon sculpture in curled form looked upon the sky looking like a lamppost, with a plaque, Dragons’ Gate, it said. “The Dragon is an ancient Chinese symbol of good fortune, providing you understand it and treat it with respect! This work celebrates the first and oldest ‘Chinatown’ in Britain that existed around Limehouse and Pennyfields. The dragon / serpent is also a potent symbol across all continents and in all the major cultures of the world; from the ancient Babylonians to the most popular fairytales, myths and computer games of today. Dragons represent power. In cyclical form, biting each other’s tails, they embody the power of unity and renewal. The Year of the Dragons gives birth to the new millennium.”

Across the busy road, it is Pennyfields. Look around, not able to find an official sign post of Pennyfields. Walking along the council flats, there is another round stainless steel plaque attached to the wall. It looks like a steering wheel with a ship in the centre, another colourful round picture is on top of the ship. On the edge of the round plate, it engraved: “Heritage Trail, China Town Pennyfields. In the 1880’s immigrant Chinese began to settle in Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway, where a small China Town sprang up in 1901, the first Chinese laundry opened in Poplar.” The colour round picture in the centre has a light blue background; 3 lanterns, a dragon, a Buddha head, a sign of yin yang, a bowl of rice with a pair of chopsticks, and with some blue waves underneath. There is also a symbol in the picture that I am not able to recognise, should be related to Buddhism.

Shanghai Quarter. The early Shanghaieses settled around the area of Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street. Interestingly Ming Street has an old wooden street sign, and it was underneath a modern street sign. In the past, this was the largest shipping centre in the world, now has become the largest financial hub in Europe. Under the same sky, not a trace of shipping business is found.

A number of streets are named after the origins of the past Chinese communities – Mandarin Street, Pekin Street, Nankin Street, Canton Street and Amoy Place. They had their own settlement around this area. And now it is council estates, I wonder how the local residents feel about the street names.

Chun Yee Society, 50 East India Dock Road, on the corner at Birchfields Street. It was established in 1906, and was a Chinese sailors shelter and old Sunday school. Apart from the Chinese restaurants, this is one of the few reminders of the many previous Chinese residents.

A long walk to Salmon Lane, number 102, a Chinese take-away named “Local Friends”, was the first Chinese take-away in the U.K. till now. It does not have a Chinese name like most others Chinese takeaway do; it stands on the street quietly watching passengers come and go in different decades.

This is the end of the Limehouse Historical Audio Tour.