Should you know London at all well – or maybe even if you don’t – there’s a good chance you’ll be aware that, when taken together, a few of the streets to be found in the West End’s Soho district are known as ‘Chinatown’. But what exactly is this colourful, exotic and actually less predictable-than-it-looks area – and how did it come to develop into the fascinating patch of London it undoubtedly is today…?
Why’s there a Chinatown in London?
Believe it or not, the small area in the heart of the West End’s Soho that’s known as Chinatown was once home to many immigrants from Malta and the Huguenot ethnoreligious group. It only started to develop into the area it’s recognised as today in the 1950s when it began to fill up with first- and second-generation Chinese people and, thus, a number of Chinese-themed restaurants opened within its parameters. As the years went by, other Chinese culture-focused enterprises opened their doors and the area took off. If you were wondering where the original ‘Chinatown’ was located in London (visited by Sherlock Holmes in Conan Doyle’s fictional adventures, for instance), you’d have found it in East London’s Limehouse area, thanks to an explosion of Chinese immigrants becoming employed by the legendary East India Company and settling in the Docklands area – that is before the city’s shipping industry dwindled as the 20th Century progressed.
You can’t miss…
Aside from its many marvellous restaurants, Chinatown is surely most famed for its iconography. To wit, you genuinely can’t miss the three-dimensional symbology in the guise of dragon sculptures, stone lions and the gloriously colourful Chinese gates on Gerrard Street that mark the ‘entrances’ to the area. Moreover, the district now too boasts a new gate – it’s the biggest Chinese Gate in the UK, proudly based on the traditional Ching Dynasty style. Together – or individually – these monuments make for fantastic photo and selfie opportunities for every visitor to the capital.
Shop till you drop!
In addition to all its eateries, the area’s jam-packed full of shops and bakeries that are renowned for offering punters authentic Chinese goods, foods, ingredients, items and bits and bobs – pretty much the sort they’ll struggle to buy from a shop anywhere else but in South East Asia. The likes of the SeeWoo and New Loon Moon supermarkets are where to head for fresh and dried fruits and vegetables and exotic spices, while the Kowloon bakery and the Golden Gate Cake Shop are simply unbeatable for their bread-based treats and delicacies. Meanwhile, it’s hard to move in many a Chinatown outlet for the customary souvenirs that are lanterns and maneki-neko (beckoning cats). In fact, if you’re staying at a West End hotel, Chinatown’s a terrific place to go for souvenir hunting for the friends and family back home – because, when you’ve finished browsing and buying and you’re weighed down with bulging shopping bags, you’ve only a short walk back to the likes of the Piccadilly London West End hotel.
And so to Chinatown’s much-loved restaurants and cafés – but what’s not so recognised outside London’s Chinese community is just how diverse the cuisine they collectively serve is. Many specialise in different regional Chinese dishes, as you might expect, but others cater for everything from Korean to Malaysian cuisine and Japanese food to (yes, even) European pizza-based mains. Among the area’s best recommended restaurants are Baiwei (for Sichuan dishes); Baozi Inn (for street-food servings); Four Seasons (roast duck’s the order of the day here); Golden Dragon (chiefly for dim sum); Leong’s Legend (for Taiwanese cuisine); New Mayflower (for seafood); Plum Valley (for contemporary Cantonese dishes); Rasa Sayang (for Malaysian and Singaporean menus) and Shuang Shuang (for stunning steaming broths).
Fancy a drink?
Finally, an aspect of Chinatown that’s developed over the decades is its reliability to constantly offer up many a great watering hole (well, it is in Soho, after all!). An unmissable establishment – if you can find the jade door it hides behind on Gerrard Street, that is – is the Opium Cocktail & Dim Sum Parlour with its Prohibition era-style speakeasy attitude and the similar Experimental Cocktail Club, while the LGBTQ favourite that’s Ku Bar’s always a winner and the mighty De Hems on Macclesfield Street is the place to head for many a frothy taste of the Low Countries, with its splendid selection of Belgian and Dutch beers that help to provide an atmosphere that’s equally as lively as the ales it serves!