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’.)
Back in the early 1970s, I had dinner at a cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurant (Lido, which still exists in Gerrard Street) with about 7 friends. 5 of them were studying to be chartered accountants, I was completing my PhD thesis, and ‘J’ had only the most basic of educational qualifications.
The bill arrived. It was £24 for all that we had eaten. That seemed about right. The bill, consisting of three pages stapled together, was examined by all of us.
When J looked at it, she said it was twice what it should have been. This was because the waiter had added the sub totals at the bottom of each page to the individual prices which added together were equal to the sub totals.
We ended up sharing a corrected bill of £12.
What concerned me was that 5 people who were about to become chartered accountants missed the error in the bill which they had perused. Would you have trusted them with your money?
Incidentally, J went on to become a very successful business woman, probably more prosperous than anyone else sitting around that table in Lido.