Travel China: Trails of the Unexpected ...

  • @SimonCalder
... through the Chinese quarter of London's docks

"There were opium-dens, where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new."

Not a bad description of Fleet Street, you might think, but in fact Oscar Wilde is illustrating an area of London three miles further east: Limehouse, on the north bank of the Thames.

A century ago, the capital's first Chinatown was established here among the vast warehouses, frenetic docks and decrepit dwellings. Much of it has been obliterated since then, by bombing and redevelopment, but the intrepid traveller in search of the Chinese connection will find much else of interest.

London's docklands began life exactly 200 years ago, when Parliament gave approval for the first modern dock, the West India, carving a great trench from the Isle of Dogs. As such, it attracted workers from the countries with which much of the trade was conducted. To 19th-century entrepreneurs, China appeared to be a source of unlimited cheap labour (it looks much the same to 21st-century investors). Many young Chinese were taken first to the mines of the Transvaal, where they laboured in what one historian described as "sinks of indescribable human beastliness".

In comparison, the Chinese sailors employed by the Blue Funnel Line were relatively lucky. They would spend their shore leave in Limehouse, close to the company's headquarters. The ares is named after the lime kilns that processed Kentish chalk: "strange bottle-shaped kilns with their orange, fan-like tongues of fire," remarks Wilde.

To walk the streets where the seamen roamed, begin at the western end of Narrow Street (signposted from Limehouse station). Those possessed of an active imagination will be able to envisage when the thoroughfare lived up to its name, a conspiratorial huddle of warehouses. Nowadays, many have been demolished and replaced by "executive" housing, while those that remain have been so lavishly renovated that they give not a hint of "dens of horror". One notable relic is the Grapes, a 16th-century pub which appears as the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Dickens' novel, Our Mutual Friend.

Limehouse was once a hub of shipbuilding, an honour it shared with Deptford across the river. Sir Walter Raleigh sailed from here in 1596 in search of gold in the New World. Today, a piece of modern sculpture, Jane Ackroyd's Herring Gull, enlivens the bleakness of Ropemaker Fields.

This is part of the Thames Path National Trail, but the riverside character has been lost. An early 20th-century guidebook reports "little knots of Chinese seamen can always be observed, and the lodging-houses and eating- places bear signs of which few Britishers know the meaning". Not these days.

Narrow Street leads on to the Limehouse Causeway, and soon crashing across all this history comes the Docklands Light Railway, a theme park ride masquerading as a piece of public transport. Diving under the DLR station at Westferry, you can follow Mandarin Street as far as the bus stop; adjacent, a skewered dragon commemorates the area's Chinese connections.

Cross the six lanes of the West India Dock Road and head along Birchfield Street past Amoy Place. Swing left on to the big, ugly Commercial Road, aka as the A13, venue for a couple of closed-down Chinese restaurants which yesterday were guarded by some older (non-Chinese) gentlemen quaffing an impressive amount of Tennant's Extra.

Soon you encounter Nicholas Hawksmoor's finest East End church, the magnificent St Anne's, and the handsome Limehouse Library, with a statue of Clement Attlee outside.

"For the matter of 18d [7p] you are at the Chinese Empire in no time," remarked a historian about Limehouse; these days, you must invest pounds 1.20 in a ride on the 15 bus to Soho to meet London's contemporary Chinese community.