Limehouse is a neighbourhood in London, situated east of the Tower of London at the North bank of the Thames. It is right next to Canary Wharf, which is these days one of London’s financial districts. Limehouse has accordingly gentrified – Google’s description of the area states ‘Limehouse is a regenerated former dockland area where housing in converted warehouses and modern towers lines the Thames and Limehouse Basin, which is also home to a yacht-filled marina. (…) Upscale restaurants and hip cafes sit alongside laid-back global eateries.’
Back in the interwar period, however, Limehouse had very different connotations. As the area housed docks, it had from the mid-19th century been mainly populated by seamen. More specifically, from 1860 onwards Chinese sailors had settled in lodging houses in the area. A similar development occurred in Liverpool, which also had a big and busy port. Unlike the Liverpool ‘Chinatown’, however, Limehouse obtained a cultural significance that far outstripped the mere 5000 Chinese who lived in the area.
The stereotypes and fears around the Chinese inhabitants of Limehouse centred around drugs, gambling, and interracial relationships. Being sailors, most of the Chinese living in Limehouse were single men, who often lived in lodging houses. Those who did decide to settle down often married white women, as there were few Chinese women living in London and they had little means of paying passage for women living in China. At a time when racism was rife and eugenics was still acceptable, the spectre of mixed-race children being raised in Britain was used to cause moral alarm.
Limehouse and the Chinese were also consistently linked to opium and other drugs. In the 19th century, Britain had introduced opium from India into China for financial gain. After millions of Chinese became addicted to the drug, the so-called Opium War took place between Britain and China from 1839 to 1842. So whilst opium came to be seen as a Chinese drug, it had in fact originated from the British empire and planted in China by British officials.
Until the First World War, opium could be fairly easily obtained over the pharmacy counter and it was used as a recreational drug. During the war, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) introduced widespread government powers to clamp down on anything from pub opening hours to press freedom. In the same way that DORA led to the rise of illegal nightclubs in the 1920s, it also facilitated the boom of ‘opium dens’ in Limehouse. Pushing opium use into illegality caused it to be more profitable for traders, and more tempting for users. Alongside opium, the possession and selling of cocaine was also banned in 1921.
The third aspect commonly linked to Chinatown in interwar fictions and reports is gambling. Betting on horse races, greyhound races and football pools was a popular pastime for the British working classes, and card parties often played for substantial amounts of money. The Chinese, however, introduced the casino-style games of Fan Tan and ‘Puck-apu’, a ‘lottery-like gambling game.’ A visit to Limehouse became a great opportunity for West End socialites to go ‘slumming’, partake in recreational drugs, gamble money, and flirt with the possibility of interracial relations.
But beyond the actual activities of Limehouse, which ultimately consisted of a small Chinese community which mostly lived quietly and ‘respectably’, the idea of Limehouse was what really took flight in the interwar period. This started with fictional portrayals of shady Chinese master criminals, most notably Sax Rohmer’s ‘Fu Manchu’. The concept was then borrowed by crime fiction powerhouses Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie.
In Christie’s The Big Four (1927) Hercule Poirot hunts four criminal masterminds who are in league to take over the world order. ‘Number 1’, the ringleader and most dangerous criminal, is the Chinese Li Chang Yen. The Big Four is one of the weaker Poirot novels, pieced together from short stories to fulfil contractual obligations whilst Christie’s first marriage was ending. It is telling that during this time, when Christie did not have the capacity to write a brilliant novel, she fell back on the ‘Chinese mastermind’ stereotype – it had already become an easy shorthand for readers.
Cinema, too, used and abused Limehouse as an atmospheric setting. Possibly the most famous interwar film set in Limehouse is actually an American production, D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms starring Lilian Gish (1919). In Britain, E.A. Dupont’s 1929 film Piccadilly features the Chinese scullery maid Shosho, who works in an expensive nightclub in the West End, but lives in Limehouse with a Chinese companion. As noted above, in reality there were few Chinese women in Limehouse. Shosho (played by Asian American actor Anna Mae Wong) serves to fulfil white male fantasies about ‘Oriental’ women.
Piccadilly’s white male hero, Valentine Wilmott, falls for Shosho, or is seduced by her, depending on your interpretation. The film features extensive scenes of Shosho dancing in revealing outfits with unusual headdresses. She takes Valentine with her to a Limehouse bar, where other patrons use cocaine. Afterwards, Shosho invites Valentine to her house and bed – an invitation which he accepts. Although it was considered deeply inappropriate for a white woman to have a relationship with a Chinese man, Valentine is able to pursue Shosho without consequences. In fact, it is Shosho who ends up dead: she is shot by her Chinese friend Jim, who was secretly in love with her and kills her in a jealous rage. Piccadilly thus ultimately reaffirms stereotypes of Limehouse as a space of criminality and transgression.
During the Second World War the Limehouse docks were subjected to heavy bombing. After the war, London’s Chinese community mostly migrated to the town centre in Soho, which currently remains the city’s ‘Chinatown’. Soho has an enduring mythology of its own, of which Chinatown is a part, but in which it is not prominent. It is in Limehouse and during the interwar period where the stories of London’s Chinese community consolidated into something much bigger than its parts.
 Yat Ming Loo, ‘“Mixed race,” Chinese identity, and intercultural place: Decolonizing urban memories of Limehouse Chinatown in London,’ Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City, 2022, 3:1, 23-41 (p. 23)
 Annie Lai, Bob Little, Pippa Little, ‘Chinatown Annie: The East End Opium Trade, 1920-1935: The Story of a Woman Opium Dealer’, Oral History Journal, 1986, vol. 14, no. 1, 18-30 (p. 18)
 Ibid., p. 21
 For more on slumming in London see Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)
 John Seed, ‘Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900-40,’ History Workshop Journal, 2006, 62, p. 58