The Making of Chinatown

2019-02-22 18:50:16 China Minutes

Due to open in the Summer of 2019, the National Lottery Heritage Fund is supporting China Exchange to embark on an ambitious and important project. This summer will see the launch of an exhibition that documents the historical developments of Chinatown from the 1960s to the present day, capturing the living stories and experiences of the people that have helped shape the area into an iconic cultural precinct of London.

A local community has developed within Chinatown over the latter half of the 20th century. Its participants are varied: from businesses, supermarkets and restaurants, to traditional herbal medicine shops, hairdressers, churches and more. The streets play host to tourists, residents and visitors of all generations; each of whom contribute to the vibrancy of this small Chinese community. However, London’s Chinatown is undergoing a period of rapid change. In absence of a sufficient formal public archive dedicated to the history of the area, a looming threat exists that this valuable past may be forgotten, misremembered or lost altogether. The Making of Chinatown exhibition comes at a vital time. China Exchange aims for it to serve as a focal point for visitors and locals alike, where they may come to enrich their understanding of the origins of Chinatown. The exhibition will also celebrate the contribution of the Chinese community within London, who have shaped this cultural landmark renowned throughout the world.

The story of London’s first Chinatown began in the 1880s in Limehouse. In the early 20th century, high unemployment in the shipping trade, heavy bombing throughout The Blitz of the 1940s and the prevalence of cheap rental accommodation in Soho, attracted a predominantly Cantonese community to the area around Gerrard Street. This gathering of settlements, known today as Chinatown, acted as a magnet for London’s Chinese community from the 1960s onwards. The 1970s then saw a wave of new migrant arrivals from Hong Kong’s agricultural industries, who started to develop businesses in the neighbourhood. By the 1980s, the area had officially taken on the title of Chinatown, with the installation of the stone lions and gates of welcome that are typical in other Chinatowns around the globe. As the turn of the 21st century approached, more mainland Chinese nationals arrived, bringing with them a rich variety of cuisines, languages and cultural customs.

The Making of Chinatown exhibition will present factual, historical imagery that recounts this historical journey, accompanied by text panels, audio and video installations that narrate the development of the area. Moreover, volunteers will be trained in oral history techniques in order to bring the past experiences of Chinatown to life for the entertainment and education of visitors. Guided tours of the exhibition will also be on offer, allowing the public an accessible and interactive journey through the history that is suitable for both adults and children. Alternatively, a series of free public events will be hosted that provide a deeper insight into Chinese community and culture. Following the exhibition, oral narration of these historical experiences will be deposited with the City of Westminster Archives, as a means to ensure that the legacy of the project lives on and allowing the history to be rediscovered by generations to come.

Salema Khanum, Project Manager overseeing The Making of Chinatown exhibition, explains the motivation behind this event and what it means for the wider community: “What we now call Chinatown has a rich history; an area that is visited by both locals and tourists alike. The people that shaped it and helped grow it into what we all enjoy now, took dedication, commitment to raising cultural awareness and a passion to have the voice of the Chinese community heard. I am delighted to have secured funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, allowing us to ensure the preservation of those people’s stories, as well as creating an accessible opportunity for everyone to be involved in a heritage project.”

The exhibition is due to open to the public on Friday 14th June 2019. Opening times will be 6 days a week, 10am to 7pm from Tuesday to Sunday. Attendance will be free.

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