I BET YOU DID NOT KNOW that Michael Alphonsus Shen Fuzong (c1658-1691) was the first documented person from China to visit England. I did not know that he met King James II in 1687. Furthermore, did you know that the Chinese sculptor Tan-Che-Qua (c1728-1796) from Canton, who visited London between 1769 and 1772, not only exhibited at London’s Royal Academy but also met King George III before returning to his native land. Maybe, I might have stumbled across these two notable men from China by accident had I not visited the British Library today (the 20th of March 2023), but this is highly unlikely. Until the 23rd of April 2023, there is a fascinating, well-displayed exhibition called “Chinese and British” at London’s British Library.
Beginning with the earliest Chinese visitors to Britain, this splendid exhibition charts the growth and considerable achievements of Chinese people who chose to live in Britain. John Hochee (1789-1869) was one of the first people from China to have settled permanently in England. He arrived from Canton in 1819, worked as a property manager with John Fuller Elphinstone (1778-1854; son of William Elphinstone a Director of the EIC: see https://www.rh7.org/factshts/hochee.pdf), whom he probably met whilst working for the East India Company in China. Hochee married an English lady, Charlotte Mole, and James (1832-1897), one of their seven children, became a surgeon. John was naturalized in Brighton in November 1854.
Since Hochee (Ho Chee) settled in Britain, many more people from China have followed in his footsteps. The exhibition at the British Library illustrates this well. Early settlers included many who had worked on ships and had landed in Liverpool or London. Chinese communities became established in the 1880s, notably in London’s East End. The Chinese in Britain established businesses to serve their community and their British neighbours. Chinese restaurants and laundries figured largely amongst the early enterprises. With the advent of laundrettes in the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese laundry business faded away, but still today the Chinese are very important in Britain’s catering industry. It was after WW2 that restaurants and take-aways really took off in Britain. These outlets supplied both British and Chinese food. Many of their workers and owners were from Canton and Hong Kong.
During WW1, nearly 100,000 Chinese men provided support for The British Army in Europe – digging trenches, burying the dead, and other tasks. Some of these men had signed 3-year contracts, which obliged them to return to China after the war, which most of them did. The exhibition devotes some space to the activities of these men.
Apart from what I have already described, the exhibition has displays illustrating the many other achievements of the Chinese British. One exhibit that particularly amused me was a selection of books in English by Chinese British authors. They were displayed on a ‘lazy Susan’, a revolving serving platform often found in the centre of round tables in Chinese restaurants.
All in all, I am very pleased that a post on Instagram alerted me to this interesting exhibition, and I encourage everyone to visit it.
THERE IS A ROOM in Knole House (near Sevenoaks in Kent), which contains several portraits painted by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). One of them is a self-portrait. Near to this, there is a portrait of a man with a red cap, seated cross-legged. His youthful face has Chinese features. The sitter is Wang-y-tong (‘Huang Ya Dong’: born c 1753). Reynolds painted him in about 1776.
Wang was one of the earliest known Chinese people to have visited England. He came over following in the footsteps of an earlier Chinese visitor, the artist Tan-Che-Qua (c1728-1796), who arrived in London in 1769. Tan met King George III, and his work was shown at the Royal Academy in 1770. In about 1770, Wang was brought from Canton to England by John Bradby Blake (1745-1773), an employee of the East India Company. Blake was a naturalist and was interested in Wang’s knowledge of cultivating Chinese plants, and their uses. Wikipedia noted:
“Wang visited the Royal Society on 12 January 1775. In a letter of 1775, he is said to be about 22 years old. He was visited at Blake’s house, where he discussed the manufacture of Chinese ceramics with Josiah Wedgwood, and acupuncture with physician Andrew Duncan.”
It also describes how Wang became a page to Giovanna Bacelli (1753-1801), who was a mistress of John Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, who owned Knole House. Wang lived at Knole, and was educated at the nearby Sevenoaks School. He returned to China by 1784, at which date he was working as a trader in Canton.
Wang’s portrait hangs amongst those of many famous men painted by Reynolds, including Samuel Johnson and David Garrick, as well as the 3rd Duke. The latter is said to have paid Joshua Reynolds 70 guineas (almost £76) to paint Wang’s excellent portrait. Wang was well-received in England. It would be interesting to learn what he thought about life as he found it at Knole and other places he visited in England.
SERAMPORE NEAR CALCUTTA was a Danish colony, or at least under Danish administration, between 1755 and 1845. It was then known as ‘Frederiknagore’. When we visited the place briefly in 2019, we were struck by the similarity of the type of design of its Church of St Olave (built 1806) and that of the far better-known St Martin-in-the-Fields (built 1721-26) on the east side of London’s Trafalgar Square. Although there are similarities between the two churches, there are also many differences. One of them is that the interior of St Olave’s is far plainer that that of St Martin’s. Even though many thousands of miles apart, there is a tiny aspect of Asia in the church on Trafalgar Square.
In the southwest corner of St Martin’s, I spotted a memorial, which aroused my curiosity. It is a simple green cloth-covered square notice board surrounded by a wooden frame in which various things are carved. These include the words “Requests for prayer”; carved plant motifs; Chinese pictograms; and the words “Praise God for his servant Florence Li Tim-Oi DD. 1907-1992. The first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion 25 January 1944”. There were several notices and a couple of plastic drinking cups pinned on the board.
Florence was born in Aberdeen, Hong Kong during a time that most Chinese parents favoured male children. However, her parents were unusual in that they challenged the then current prejudice against girls. As a student, she joined the Anglican church, probably after hearing a preacher (in Hong Kong) asking for women to dedicate their lives to working for the Christian ministry. At her baptism, she chose her English name, Florence, to honour the late Florence Nightingale. After studying at the Canton Theological College, she was eventually, in 1941, ordained as a deaconess. At that time, she was sent to the then Portuguese colony of Macau to help refugees fleeing there from war-torn China.
When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong, it became impossible for ordained Anglican priests to reach Macau. Although she was not yet ordained, Florence had to perform all the functions normally carried out by an ordained priest. In January 1944, she met Hong Kong’s Bishop Raymond Hall in an unoccupied part of China. There, the bishop, realising that there was no Anglican priest in Macau and that Florence had the ‘gift of priestly ministry’, ordained her as an Anglican priest. In so doing, on the 25th of January 1944, Florence made history by becoming the first woman to be ordained as an Anglican priest. This was 30 years before the ordination of women was permitted by the Anglican Church in the rest of the world. So, her ordination was frowned upon by some leaders of the Anglican Church.
After WW2 was over, Florence lived and ministered in China. In Maoist China, churches were closed (from 1958 to 1974), and during the so-called Cultural Revolution, Florence led a miserable life, as did many other Chinese people. She was sent to a farm to work with chickens and her home was raided several times. After a long time, she was allowed to retire from the farm and was given permission to leave China. In 1983, she was taken to Canada, where she assisted in the religious activities of a church in Toronto. By then, the Anglican Church in Canada had approved of the ordination of women. On the 40th anniversary of her ordination in China, she was reinstated as a priest. In later life, Florence served at the Anglican Cathedral in Toronto, where she lived the rest of her life.
I do not know when the memorial noticeboard commemorating Florence was installed in St Martin-in-the-Fields. However, on the 25th of January 2014, a service was held in the church to mark the 70th anniversary of her ordination as the first female Anglican priest. I am pleased that I spotted the somewhat unobtrusive notice board because if I had missed seeing it, I might never have known about this remarkable woman of faith.
THE CHINESE MEDICAL College in Hong Kong was founded in 1887 by the physician Sir James Cantlie (1851-1926), who was the inventor of what we now call ‘first aid’ and one of the founders of The London School of Tropical Medicine. One of his first students in Hong Kong was Sun Deming, better known as Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925). In 1878, Sun went to Honolulu to live with his elder brother. There, he was educated well in English at school. Aged 17, he returned to China. After desecrating a temple, he fled to Hong Kong, then under British rule, where he continued his education, joining the Chinese Medical College in 1887, having already studied a bit of western medicine elsewhere. In 1892, he graduated as a medical doctor. He became a friend of Sir James Cantlie.
In 1896, poor health forced Cantlie to return to London. That year, Sun came to England to visit Cantlie. Already out of favour with the Imperial Chinese government because of his revolutionary activities, private agents employed by the Chinese were sent to Liverpool where he landed to follow his movements. The reason for his conversion to political activism are summarised in an on-line article (www.newstatesman.com/international-content/2021/10/the-london-kidnapping-that-changed-china) as follows:
“The contrast between the colonial advancement he encountered abroad and the endemic poverty he knew from home convinced Sun that China needed revolutionary change. Rather than becoming a doctor, he helped engineer a rebellion in Canton (Guangzhou) in 1895. The failure of the uprising forced Sun to go on the run, which is why he ended up in Britain the following year.”
The first person that Sun visited after arriving in London was his old teacher Cantlie, who lived close to the Chinese embassy, which was, and still is, in Portland Place. On his way there, Sun was kidnapped and held captive in the embassy. He would have faced death had not he persuaded the embassy’s English housekeeper, a Mrs Howe, to smuggle a note to Dr Cantlie. An influential man, Cantlie managed to get Sun released, as was described in the above-mentioned article:
“In the end, it was an article about the kidnapping in the Globe that did the trick. On the following day, 23 October 1896, a large crowd formed outside the legation, noisily demanding Sun’s release. While diplomatic and legal wheels moved in the background, the ambassador and his staff realised they had to let their prisoner go. Sun emerged on to the street a national hero. While recovering at Cantlie’s house, he gave a long interview to the liberal-left Daily News, giving British readers their first insights into China’s embryonic revolutionary movement.”
Late last year, we were driving to Buntingford in Hertfordshire when we passed through the nearby village of Cottered. As the traffic was slow-moving, we managed to spot a memorial plaque attached to a house. We did not stop, but we saw enough of it to realise it had something to do with Sun Yat Sen. Very recently, we returned to Cottered to look at the plaque more carefully because we were intrigued that the Sun Yat Sen had a connection with a tiny Hertfordshire village. The plaque attached to a house called The Kennels reads as follows: “Sun Yat Sen “Father of Modern China” was a frequent visitor to this house while in exile from his home country.” Beneath Sun’s name there are three Chinese characters: “孫中山” which Google translates as ‘Sun Yat-sen’.
“His connection to the property, called The Kennels, comes from his life-long friendship with physician Sir James Cantlie, who owned the house, earlier taught him medicine in Hong Kong – and in 1896 saved him from imprisonment by agents of the Qing monarchy at the Chinese Legation in London.
Dr Sun visited the Cantlies in London and Cottered whenever he was in Britain … Sir James’ son Kenneth recalled one of the statesman’s visits to the village:
‘I must have been about five years old. It was sunset on a summer evening, and Dr Sun was walking up and down in the orchard. He was wearing a grey frock-coat and his homburg hat was tilted forward to keep the level sun out of his eyes. He had his hands behind his back and was pondering deeply. I was about to rush up to him in my usual impetuous way, when I stopped. ‘He is probably thinking great thoughts,’ I said to myself, and I went quietly away. I was not in the least afraid of Dr Sun, who was kindness itself – but my parents and my nurse may have put the idea into my head that here was a great man who must not be interrupted when he was thinking.”
Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Cantlie (1899-1986) was about five years old in 1904, which was when Sun was living outside China.
The article continued:
“In 1912, after the success of the Xinhai Revolution – which established a Chinese republic, with Sun Yat-sen as its first provisional president – the doctor wrote with clear affection to the Cantlies. On paper headed ‘The President’s Office’, he wrote: “It makes me feel more grateful to you when from the present position I look back on my past of hardships and strenuous toil, and think of your kindnesses shown me all the while that I can never nor will forget.”
Both Sir James and his son Lt Col Kenneth are buried in the cemetery of Cottered’s parish church close to its southern door. According to “The Comet”:
“After Dr Cantlie died and was buried at St John’s Church in Cottered in 1926, the Chinese minister to Britain, Sao-Ke Alfred Sze, laid a memorial tablet at the church. Dr Cantlie’s grave in the churchyard is engraved with a Chinese translation of the gospel verse Matthew 5:7.
China Central Television visited the house in 2001, and again in 2011 as part of filming for a documentary series on the Xinhai Revolution.”
Sadly, I could find neither the tablet amongst the Cantlie family gravestones nor the engraving in Chinese, which is a translation of “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”. Despite this, revisiting Cottered was well worthwhile, and it has for me sparked an increased interest in the birth of modern China. We hope to return to Cottered to see inside its church, which, judging by pictures posted online, looks fascinating.
AT FIRST SIGHT, this clock, on the esplanade overlooking the seashore at Folkestone in Kent, looks unexceptional. But look again, and you will see that it is missing the figures ’11’ and ’12’. It is a decimal clock forming part of an artwork.
There are as you know 24 hours in a day and of these twelve are usually displayed on a clock face. For a few years during the French Revolution, it was decided to divide the day into ten hours instead of the usual 24. This was not all: the decimal hour was divided into 100 decimal minutes, each of which consisted of 100 decimal seconds. Midnight became 0 in decimal time, and 1 in decimal time was 2.24 am in the 24 hour system, 2 occurred at 4.48 am, 3 at 7.12 am, and so on. This attempt at revolutrionising time did not last for long in France. It was abandoned in 1805.
The French were not pioneers in using decimal time. They were preceded by the Chinese, who ceased using it in favour of the 24 hour system in 1645.
The decimal clock in Folkestone is one of ten in the town, which were created by Ruth Ewan as part of an artwork named “We could have been anything that we wanted to be”. The Tate Gallery website noted: “The commission comprised ten decimal clocks of different designs installed around the seaside town of Folkestone in Kent. All the clocks were displayed publicly, some in very prominent positions such as the town hall, and others that had to be either assiduously sought out or happened upon by chance, such as those found in a pub or a local taxi. With each clock, Ewan replaced the dials and mechanism to achieve the decimal regulation of time.”
The example, which we saw near a Victorian bandstand on the Esplanade has a decimal clock on one side and a regular one on the other side.
I WAS THE EDITOR of the newsletter of the Anglo Albanian Association (‘AAA’), when a writer, Thomas Harding, sent the following email in late 2016:
“… I am researching the life of Allan Chappelow, a former member of Albanian Society and Anglo-Albanian Association. My former books include ‘Hanns and Rudolf’ and ‘The House By The Lake’. I would welcome hearing from anyone who remembers or has stories about Allan Chappelow…”
I had already heard of the two books and seen a little bit of correspondence about Chappelow, which suggested to me that he was a mysterious fellow. He interested me because he had been a member of one of the earliest groups to visit Communist Albania soon after the end of WW2 and he was a participant in the first student tour of the USSR made after Stalin had died.
Thomas Harding published his book, “Blood on the Page” in 2018. The secretary of the AAA and I attended a launch of this publication in Daunt’s bookshop in Hampstead’s South End Green. The book is about Chappelow, and I have only just finished reading it, having purchased a copy only recently.
Chappelow (1919-2006) lived and died at number 9 Downshire Hill, a lovely Georgian house in Hampstead. Sometime in May or June 2006, he was brutally murdered in his home. His rotting body was only discovered many days later after a bank had been investigating some irregularities in his account and had been unable to contact him. Wang Yam, a man of Chinese origin was accused of, and found guilty of, his murder and stealing his identity to carry out fraudulent financial transactions. All of this is detailed in Harding’s un-put-down-able book, which reads like a good thriller. In addition, Harding describes the trial of the man accused of having been the murderer.
The trial of the accused, who now languishes behind bars, was unusual for a murder case. Some of it was held ‘in camera’ for reasons that have never been disclosed and cannot be, without risking contempt of court. Trials are usually held ‘in camera’ either to protect national security interests and/or to protect the identity of witnesses. Chappelow’s was the first ever murder case to have been held ‘in camera’ in the UK. Why this was the case was not revealed in Harding’s wonderful book. It is clear from his text that he was not privy to the reason for the secrecy. As I read the book, I kept wondering what it is that the government wants to keep secret. From the detailed account of the murder and what Harding was able to find out about it and the 86-year-old victim, by then a recluse, I could not detect anything that could have been a threat to national security
“Before, during and after the trial, the government went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that details of Wang’s links with MI6 would remain secret. Two cabinet ministers told the trial judge that Wang’s entire defence must be heard behind closed doors. A contempt order issued by the judge prevents the media from speculating about the reasons for the secrecy.”
Elsewhere, the article mentioned:
“Between his arrest and the start of the trial, it emerged that Wang had acted as an informant for MI6 in London for a number of years. Wang was well placed to be an informant for Britain’s foreign intelligence agency. He had family links with China’s first communist leaders, he was opposed to repressive measures taken by Beijing, and he was something of a computer expert.”
Chappelow had visited both the USSR and Albania during the height of the so-called Cold War. I first visited Albania in 1984, when the Cold War was still ongoing, and the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha still held the country in his repressive grip. Our group included people who, after the trip, revealed that they were not what they had claimed to be while we were in Albania. For example, a lady who told me during our visit to Albania she was an archaeologist revealed to me later that she was really a journalist. At that time, journalists were forbidden from visiting Albania unless invited by the regime. Chappelow revisited Albania in 1993 after the ending of Communist rule. In his book, Harding quotes a member of the AAA, who was on the trip with him. She remembered that he had said he was a teacher, but she never “got to the bottom of his background”. Most biographical notes about Chappelow refer to him as a photographer and an author, not a teacher. That got me thinking, as did recalling an incident from my 1984 trip.
At least one of my fellow travellers told me that after the trip that he had been approached in Tirana discreetly by one of our Albanian tour guides and some of her colleagues. They invited him to become an agent to provide Albania with information about his country, Australia. Remembering this incident, I wondered whether Chappelow’s murder trial was held behind closed doors because his trips behind the Iron Curtain had either not been purely for reasons of tourism, or possibly while he was there, he had been approached by the local authorities as was the case of my Australian travelling companion.
Returning to Chappelow’s visits behind the Iron Curtain, here is something else I noticed in the Guardian’s article:
“Chappelow was the product of an educated, socialist family, whose liberal-leaning father, a successful decorator and upholsterer, had moved to Denmark rather than be conscripted into military service during the first world war. At the end of hostilities, the family returned to London and bought 9 Downshire Hill. Allan grew up in a politically progressive home; his parents were active members of the Fabian Society. At the onset of the second world war, the bookish Chappelow was faced with the same dilemma as his father, as well as his schoolboy hero, George Bernard Shaw, who had refused to fight in the first world war and was strongly opposed to the second.”
Interesting as speculations about whether Chappelow could have been involved with intelligence work might be, we will probably not find out the real reason for the secrecy for many years to come. In any case, this mysterious episode, centred in and around Hampstead, is a good reason to read Harding’s exciting and intriguing book … and possibly you might come up with your own hypothesis about why Wang’s trial was held ‘in camera’.
LOOK UP AND if your eyesight is reasonably up to scratch, you might well be lucky enough to see a weathervane on top of a church steeple or some other high point on a building. The ‘vane’ in weathervane is derived from an Old English word, ‘fana’, meaning flag (in German the word ‘Fahn’ means flag). Weathervanes are simple gadgets that indicate the direction of the wind. They usually consist of an arrow attached by a horizontal straight rod to a flat surface that catches the wind. The rod is mounted on a vertical support in such away that it can rotate as the wind catches the flat surface. The horizontal rod with the arrow rotates so that it offers the least resistance to the prevailing wind. Beneath the rotating arrow are often indicators that are labelled with letters denoting the four points of the compass. If, for example, the wind begins to blow from east to west, the horizontal rod will rotate so that the arrow is above the ‘E’ denoting east. Some weathervanes substitute the horizontal rod with a single flat asymmetric object that can catch the wind and rotate. Often the object seen above churches is a cock or other bird, whose beak will indicate the direction of the wind. I suppose that for birds wind direction is quite important.
The weathervane is not a recent invention. It was invented in the 2nd century BC both by the Greeks and the Chinese but separately. Some of the oldest Chinese weathervanes were shaped as birds and later, at least by the end of the 9th century AD, bird shaped vanes became used in Europe. Although avian weathervanes are still very common, a wide variety of other shapes have been used. Sundials, weathervanes, now archaic, only give an approximate indication of time and wind direction respectively. However, unlike sundials, which do not work when the sun is not shining, weathervanes work in all weather conditions and in day and night, although they are somewhat difficult to see at night-time. Despite their relative inaccuracy compared with modern instruments for measurements of wind, weathervanes are attractive adornments to buildings both old and new.
GERRARD STREET IS THE HEART of London’s Chinatown. We often visit it to eat delicious dim-sum and other dishes at our favourite restaurant, The Golden Dragon, which has both indoor and covered outdoor dining spaces. One of our favourite dishes, which was introduced to us many years ago by my sister, is steamed tripe with chilli and ginger. It might sound off-putting, but, believe me, it tastes wonderful. Our visits to Gerrard Street always include a visit to Loon Fung, a Chinese supermarket. This well-stocked establishment bears a commemorative plaque that I only noticed for the first time today (12th August 2021). Partially hidden by a string of Chinese lanterns, it informs the passerby that the poet John Dryden (1631-1700) lived on the spot where we purchase pak-choi, chilli sauce, black bean paste, and a host of other ingredients for preparing Chinese-style dishes at home. I suspect that Dryden was unlikely to have ever come across any of these exotic ingredients back in the 17th century.
“Dryden lived at 44 Gerrard Street with his wife Elizabeth (c. 1638–1714) from about 1687 until his death in 1700. His years there were difficult: his conversion to Catholicism in about 1685 meant that he was unable to take the oath of allegiance after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. As a result he lost his position as Poet Laureate, one he had held for 20 years. He found himself in financial difficulties but remained highly active in London’s literary world.Dryden usually worked in the front ground-floor room of the house, and it was here that he completed his last play, Love Triumphant (1694), the poem Alexander’s Feast, or, The Power of Musique (1697) and translations such as The Works of Virgil (1697). In the preface to the latter, Dryden likened himself to Virgil in his ‘Declining Years, struggling with Wants, oppress’d with Sickness’…
… Number 44 was built in about 1681 and re-fronted in 1793, before being redeveloped in about 1901. At the same time number 43 was demolished, a deed described in the press as ‘a hideous and wonton act of vandalism’ …
… The plaque, though damaged, was immediately re-erected on the new structure. It is unique among surviving Society of Arts plaques in its colour – white, with blue lettering.”
Well, I can add nothing to that informative quote. So, ext time you wander along Gerrard Street do look for this and other reminders of the area’s history. It was a place where several other well-known writers and artists resided several centuries ago.
OUR FAVOURITE CHINESE restaurant is Golden Dragon in Gerrard Street, which is the heart of London’s Chinatown. It is particularly enjoyable to order dim sum dishes there at lunchtime or in the mid-afternoon. Amongst these delicious small plates, allow me to recommend steamed tripe with ginger and chilli, which contains tripe cooked to perfection. The other larger dishes, available during the place’s opening hours are excellent. Chinatown is rich in eateries serving Chinese food. Although we have tried several of them, we keep on returning to Golden Dragon. A visit to Gerrard Street is never complete without entering the excellently stocked Loon Fung supermarket. Between the Golden Dragon and the supermarket, there is often a street stall where followers of the Falun Gong movement, which is frowned upon by the government in China (PRC), issue propaganda material. For anyone wishing to experience a Chinatown district, Gerrard Street and its environs will not disappoint. Recently, when walking along Gerrard Street during the Chinese New Year, I wondered about the street before it became a vibrant centre of London’s Chinese community.
Gerrard Street, which was named after the soldier and courtier Charles Gerrard First Earl of Macclesfield (c1618-1694) who provided a bodyguard for William of Orange during his journey from Torbay to London in 1688, was built in about 1681 (Chinese Year of the Rooster from 18th February 1681). Gerrard built a house, which according to a map drawn in 1870 stood on the south side of Gerrard Street opposite the southern end of the present Macclesfield Street. The north side of Gerrard street, according to the map, used to be a ‘Military Garden’. This was a walled in area for military exercises using arms. This was covered with buildings by 1746, when John Rocque drew his detailed map of London.
Gerrard House occupied the site of numbers 34 and 35 Gerrard Street and was built between 1677 and 1682 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp384-411). In 1708, it was owned by the well-known rake, duellist, and politician Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun of Okehampton (c1675-1712), who was killed whilst fighting a duel (probably about matters both political and financial) with James Douglas, 4th Duke of Hamilton (1658-1712) in Hyde Park. Both participants of the duel were mortally wounded and each of them died soon after the fight. In the 1760s, the house was divided into two dwellings by its then owner, Commodore Sir William James (c1721-1783), who had served with the East India Company. He had been commodore of the Bombay marine and retired to England in 1759 with a huge fortune. James had been involved in various major naval fights against Indian forces along the Konkan coast of Western India. The house was destroyed by fire in 1887.
Apart from Lord Mohun and William James, many other well-known people lived along Gerrard Street. These include, to mention but a few: the poet John Dryden (1631-1700); the philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797); the antiquary Peter Le Neve (1661-1729); the Dutch painter William Sonmans (died 1708); the biographer and diarist James Boswell (1740-1795); one of the first British balloonists, John Money (1752-1817); and the theatre-manager Charles Killigrew (1655-1725). The street was also home to the ‘Literary Club’ that was founded in 1764 by Dr Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Meetings were held in the Turks Head Tavern, which might have been located roughly where Loon Fung stands today. It was one of at least three pubs that used to exist in Gerrard Street. Between 1794 and 1801, number 39 housed first the ‘Westminster One-Penny Post Office’, which became the ‘Two-penny Post Office’, when postal charges were increased.
In the early twentieth century, Gerrard Street was home to various restaurants serving European food and some clubs of historical importance:
“Irish proprietor Kate Meyrick ran the notorious roaring twenties 43 Club at 43 Gerrard Street and legendary jazz maverick Ronnie Scott set up his first jazz club in the basement of number 39.” (https://chinatown.co.uk/en/about-us/).
However, the area was rather run-down. In addition to restaurants and other businesses, there were also some brothels.
All of this is interesting enough, but I was curious to know about Gerrard Street’s evolution into a Chinese area. According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinatown,_London), London’s first Chinatown was in the Limehouse district of the East End close to the London Docks. After the Blitz and WW2, the Chinese people began leaving the East End for other parts of London. The Chinese began moving into the part of Soho surrounding Gerrard Street in the 1970s, beginning with Lisle Street that runs parallel to Gerrard. However, I can remember Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street even in the late 1960s. I recall one example in particular, The Dumpling Inn, which has long been closed. By the 1980s:
“… the area got the full Chinatown treatment; Chinese gates, street furniture and a pavilion were added, plus Gerrard Street, parts of Newport Place and Macclesfield Street became pedestrianised.” (https://chinatown.co.uk/en/about-us/).
In addition, street signs are bilingual, both in English lettering and Chinese (Mandarin) characters.
An area that began to be built-up during London’s expansion soon after the Great Fire of London (1666), has evolved from being a residential street in the late 17th century to an area known for its coffee houses and taverns in the 18th century, Gerrard Street has become world famous for its thriving Chinese activity and wonderful restaurants. Yesterday, 13th of February 2020, despite the pandemic, there were long lines of people, both Chinese and others, who were waiting to celebrate Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ox, by purchasing Chinese cakes from the several Chinese pastry shops in and around Gerrard Street. All that remains is for me to wish you all: “Kong hei fat choy” (which means something like ‘congratulations and be prosperous’.)
PARTICLES OF SNOW, whisked by the breeze, were whizzing about in the air in random directions and eventually reaching the ground this early February afternoon in London. I had just finished my midday meal with some nutritious fermented cabbage and was wondering what to write. Maybe, it was the kimchi that helped me remember an old friend who spent some of his working life in Manchuria, which is close to Korea, the home of this weirdly delicious fermented food substance, or was it something else that has brought him to mind?
Sir Norman had already retired from Britain’s diplomatic service when I first met him in the mid-1970s. An accomplished musician, a string player, he used to perform in concerts given by a fine amateur orchestra based west of London, whose treasurer was both a player in it and a friend of mine. Usually, after concerts, my friend and her husband hosted a coffee party at their home for the conductor and selected patrons of the orchestra. Sir Norman was a patron, and it was at these parties that I first got to know him. The few tales that he related about his years as a diplomat fascinated me.
On graduating from university, Sir Norman had a good command of several modern European languages as well as Latin and Greek. He told me that it was typical of the diplomatic service that they decided that his first posting was to Japan, where he was to have a role in the interpreting of a language he did not know: Japanese. Being a good linguist, he was able to learn it.
During the late 1930s, he was sent to Shanghai in China for a year (1937-38). When he arrived, a war between China and Japan was in progress. He told me that every afternoon, he would sit taking tea on the roof of a building in the European cantonment of the Chinese city. As he sat there, he could see shells shooting overhead. They were being fired at the Chinese on one side of the Yangtse River by the Japanese artillery on the other side. This went on day after day for several months. Then one day, the shelling stopped suddenly and for good. Sir Norman wondered why.
Soon after the shelling ceased, he met some senior officers of the victorious Japanese forces. He asked them why the fighting that had been dragging on for so long had ended so abruptly. The officers explained that the Chinese soldiers were mostly mercenaries. Once the Japanese had ascertained how much to pay them to stop fighting, they stopped.
Later, Sir Norman was transferred to Manchuria, where he was the Acting Consul General in Dairen (now ‘Dalian’). He was serving there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. After that incident, the Japanese authorities in the city of Dairen ordered him not to leave the consulate building, in which he lived. They cut off his telephone and forbade him to use his wireless to listen to radio broadcasts. Frequently, Japanese officers used to visit his premises to check that the radio was inactivated. Sir Norman, who told me that he had never been much of a technological wizard, told me more about the radio. He said that he had unscrewed a wire in the radio, which rendered it inoperable, and left it disconnected whenever he did not want to use the apparatus. With a smile on his kindly face, he explained to me that whenever he wanted to listen to a news broadcast, it was a simple matter to reattach the wire. During the time that he was being held under house-arrest, none of the Japanese officials who had visited to check on him had ever bothered to examine the radio properly.
In about 1942, the Japanese transported Sir Norman to Tokyo and eventually he was transferred into Allied hands. He said that at no time was he treated badly by the Japanese. In fact, he was looked after by them very well.
The last time I saw Sir Norman was not long before he died. We went to visit him at his home, whose lovely garden ran down to the bank of the River Thames. He was in good spirits, recovering from a hip replacement. He told my wife and me that both of his hips had prosthetic joints and that every few years they required replacing.
“It’s like changing a car’s tyres, you know,” he explained cheerfully, “except that it lays you up for a few weeks each time.”
Although I did not meet Sir Norman as nearly as often as I would have liked, I feel privileged to have been able to hear about historical events from someone who experienced them first-hand.
Sir Norman died in 2002. Sitting at home today in early February 2021, watching whisps of snow swirling in the air, whipped up by a strong cold wind, had brought him to mind. I am not sure that it was because of the kimchi I had just eaten that made me think of him. I wondered if I had recalled him because just as he was confined in Manchuria, we are also being confined, or at least being restricted in our freedom to move around. Unlike him, we have plenty of access to communications from the outside world, much of which arrives in ways that Sir Norman did not live long enough to experience. However, like him, we are currently limited in our movements. We can leave home, which Sir Norman could not, but we cannot travel as far from it as we had become accustomed to doing before the onset of the covid19 pandemic. Sir Norman used to sit out the several weeks of recovery from his hip surgeries patiently. I suppose that we must also wait patiently, but for far, far longer.