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’.)
Just after Christmas in 1994, we flew to San Francisco in California (USA) for a four-week holiday. My wife was in the sixth month of pregnancy. Before booking our trip, we consulted her obstetrician at St Marys Hospital in Paddington, London. We wanted to know whether it was safe for her to travel at this stage in her pregnancy. The obstetrician did not mince her words:
“Yes, go ahead, but make sure that you have good travel health insurance because having a premature birth in the United States might well bankrupt you.”
After spending a few days with friends who live across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, we rented a car, an upmarket Toyota, one of the nicest cars I have ever driven. We drove all over California south of San Francisco. Also, we visited the Grand Canyon and saw it under snow. This was a very beautiful sight because the snow had fallen in such a way that the many stepped strata that line the walls of this spectacular gorge were accentuated. We admired this while trudging through very deep snow. In order to enjoy this, we had had to purchase snow chains and to learn how to apply them to the wheels.
One day, we drove south from the snow-covered Grand Canyon to Sedona, a town famed for its vortices of energy. It was a distance of 106 miles. Yet in that short distance the weather had changed from Arctic to summer. And, the following, day we drove further south past Phoenix and Yuma and then through a southern Californian Desert to San Diego. Even though it was freezing up at the Grand Canyon, from Phoenix to San Diego it was so hot that we had to switch on the car’s air-conditioning.
From San Diego, we spent a few days driving along roads close to the Pacific Coast. We visited most of the historic mission stations between San Diego and San Francisco. We also stopped at Nepenthe in Big Sur, where the writer Henry Miller once lived. The building in which the writer lived was open to the public. While we were visiting it, my pregnant wife needed to use a toilet urgently. Without making any fuss, the guardian unlocked the toilet that Miller used to use and allowed my wife to relieve herself.
Being fans of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, we visited some of the few buildings that the great architect had designed along the route we were taking. One of these, at San Luis Obisco (between Los Angeles and San Francisco), was a particularly lovely medical centre, the Kundert Medical Clinic that was built in 1956.
On the final day of our road trip, I looked at the guidebook and spotted something that I did not want to miss. To reach it, meant adding 60 miles to our already long (300-mile journey) journey. The place that caught my eye was about 90 miles to the east of our destination Marin County on the left bank of the River Sacramento. The small settlement is called Locke.
Locke is in the wetlands of the Sacramento River Delta. In the 1860s, work was undertaken to drain the malarial wetlands. Many poor Chinese labourers were hired to do this work at disgracefully low wages. In about 1912, the settlement of Lockeport, now called ‘Locke’ was established by three local Chinese merchants. Three years later in 1915, the Chinatown in nearby walnut Grove was destroyed by fire. The Chinese community then moved to Locke and a town grew. Because the Californian Alien Land Law of 1913 forbade Asians buying farmland, the Chinese in the area leased the land from a George Locke.
The town’s population reached 1000 to 1500 in its heyday. It acquired a reputation for its gambling halls, opium dens, and brothels. At one point, according to an article in Wikipedia, it became known as ‘California’s Monte Carlo’. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the towns population dwindled because many people migrated from Locke to major American cities. Currently, there are only about ten people living there.
By 1995 when we drove into Locke it was already a ghost town, a lesser-known tourist attraction. However, it did not disappoint us. Most of the main street’s buildings were picturesquely decaying. They were all made of wood, and no doubt highly inflammable. The place looked like a rundown set for a cowboy film, except that it was for real. One of the buildings that had housed a gambling salon, or maybe a brothel or opium den, was open to the public. Its original dingy décor had been preserved. All that was missing was a haze of opium smoke and the poor Chinese workers squandering their hard-earned money.
From Locke we drove west into the setting sun towards Marin County, pleased that we had made the detour to see the fascinating remnant of a far-off era. Our daughter was born three months later, having travelled several thousand miles around the American west in utero.
The Bangalore Club, until 1947 a British officers’ club (the Bangalore United Services Club), was founded in 1868.
At the entrance to the dining hall, there stands a heavy metal Chinese gong shaped like a ship’s anchor. It is held in a wooden frame surmounted by carved wooden dragons. On each of its flat surfaces, there are Chinese pictograms (writing characters). My friend Pamela Miu has kindly translated these Chinese pictograms. What she tells me gives some clues as to the history of the gong, which I have been seeing regularly for 25 years.
On one side, the inscription reads that the gong once belonged to the imperial navy school of the late Qing dynasty’s Beiyang Fleet, dating the object to the late 19th century.
The other side of the gong includes a date. This refers to the Qing Dynasty period. It mentions the the gong’s date is October in the 21st year of the reign of the Guangxu Emperor, who ruled 1875-1908. This dates the gong to 1897.
How the gong reached Bangalore from the Chinese naval school is a mystery at present. Apparently, the Beiyang Fleet suffered many defeats. Also, the British, along with seven other nations, fought the Chinese and looted many treasures from China. Tjis gong might well be be part of the loot. Finally, Pamela mentioned that when the British took (leased) Hong Kong in 1898, many of its police force were brought over from India.
So, there is a bit of the history of a dinner gong, which I have never seen used.