Britain's oldest Chinatown sees hope of survival

Jonathan Foster reports on efforts to rebuild a community
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Britain's oldest Chinese community may be saved from dispersal by the intervention of Liverpool city council.

A blighted area south of the city centre, which includes Chinatown, is set to attract investment of up pounds 40m and halt its decline into dereliction.

Echoes remain of the seafaring community which put down roots around Pitt Street during the early 19th century. From the outset, the Chinese endured discrimination from the Liverpool labour movement, and compulsory deportation from the government when post-war merchant fleets no longer needed extra crewmen.

The final demise of Chinatown seemed to have been signalled in 1992 when the Labour council made a hurried sale of 390 freeholds in the area to a property company which collapsed into receivership. The Liberal Democrat opposition condemned the "incompetence" of the deal, the council counted losses of more than pounds 1m, and Chinatown was left to endure growing vandalism, burglaries and car crime.

Maritime Chinese families had begun to disperse in the 1950s, when a new influx of Cantonese-speakers arrived to work in restaurants. They also wearied of discrimination and lack of opportunity.

One middle-aged woman this week recalled buses that would not stop for Chinese passengers. A 59-year-old man said he became used to being spat on. Many Liverpool Chinese decided to move on and founded the flourishing Chinese communities in Manchester and the West End of London.

The council's plans envisage borrowing the stereotypical street architecture of ersatz Chinatowns elsewhere to regenerate the Liverpool quarter. A mosaic dragon will be laid in the pavement, an arch erected and pagoda roofs put on telephone kiosks during the first phase of the plan, in October.

If the council completes deals with Whitehall and the private sector, refurbishment grants will be available throughout the area, further education buildings added, and housing reintroduced to an area which has been largely deserted.

The co-operation of new landlords, including the Church of England, has convinced the council that regeneration of Chinatown is feasible. "I think there is a growing confidence that the area has turned the corner. We can see the private sector taking an interest," Bill Maynard, the council officer in charge of the project, said.

Polly Green, who runs the Pagoda community centre, said Chinese people would wait until they saw evidence of the regeneration project taking shape.

"But a start has been made. There is a consensus, an agreed plan to work on," Ms Green said. "There is for the first time an association of Liverpool Chinese businesses. A lot of elderly Chinese people are moving from around Merseyside back to Chinatown to be closer to the community."

Chinatown remains a social centre for the 14,000 Chinese in the area. Most believe it can never regain its flourishing commercial activity, only aspiring to be an adjunct of tourism, a metaphor of Liverpool's plight.

And the task is formidable. Dereliction surrounds the remaining restaurants and food stores. A former seaman, now a grocer, said business was "getting worse and worse".

"People don't come because of the vandals and burglars," he said. "The police can't control it. I feel exhausted and I would consider going back to Hong Kong even with the Chinese due to take over in 1997."