CORRESPONDENCErnLetter From Londonrnby Derek TurnerrnPeking-on-ThamesrnCross Shaftesbury Avenue going southrntoward Leicester Square, and you leavernhomosexual London for Peking-on-rnThames. Decorative oriental-style ironrngates, like in some 18th-century pleasurerngarden, mark the various entrancesrnto the small area which is officiallyrndesignated “Chinatown.” Orientalrnshops, restaurants, hairdressers, travelrnagents, and apothecaries selling Chinesernmedicines are crammed along and spillrnover Chinatown’s permeable borders,rnlike a medieval city whose populationrnhas grown too large. It is as if the inhabitantsrnare seeking Lebensraum in the expensivernpurlieus of “Theatreland.” Thernold De Hems Coffee House—now arnbar—right outside the northern gate, isrnlike a customs post, and seems immediatelyrnthreatened with absorption into arngreater Chinatown.rnIn this little rectangle bordered byrnShaftesbury Avenue, Charing CrossrnRoad, Leicester Square, and WardourrnStreet, first developed by Nicholas Barbonrn(son of the infamous “Praise-CodrnBarebones”) as an aristocratic residentialrnneighborhood, the London air is filledrnwith the smell of Chinese food and thernsound of Chinese talking and laughing.rnThe street signs are bilingual. (Not sornobviously, a large part of WestminsterrnLending Library beside the Garrick Theatrernis devoted to Chinese-languagernbooks and periodicals.) Shops, greengrocers,rnand restaurants line the pedestrianizedrnstreets, and every window displaysrnmassive jars of exotic roots, internalrnorgans, and other “medicines,” postersrnand publications in Chinese characters,rnbright red chickens depending fromrnhooks, and overly pale, quivering piles ofrndead crustaceans and invertebrates. Arnsolitary live eel (£1.95/lb.) waves his rearrnend apathetically in a large yellow barrel,rnawaiting his impending doom.rnDotted in amongst the Chinese shopsrnand restaurants arc occasional Britishrnsurvivals—Ladbroke’s betting shop, thernKing’s Head pub, with its quietly smilingrnfaces and homely lamps painted disconcertinglyrnonto the glass of the first floorrnwindows, a shop selling secondhand poprnrecords, tapes, and CDs, Council litterrnbins and occasional Westminster Boroughrnnotices pasted up on lampposts orrnon the windows of briefly untenantedrnpremises. One could easily imagine oneselfrnin Shanghai International Settlementrnor modern Hong Kong, a notionrnreinforced by the sight of Metropolitanrnpolicemen and women on patrol, andrnbesuited, white, male office workers toweringrnover gesticulating Chinamen andrnwomen, walking along Cerrard Streetrndown toward Charing Cross station andrntrains home to Kent. Visitors from Japanrnor China photograph themselves excitedlyrnin front of the Chinese sculpturesrnand shop-fronts. Bewildered Europeanrnand American tourists wander through,rnlooking as though they had been expectingrnsomething else. Starlings pick atrnsquashed things in the gutters, and fly offrntoward their winter roosts in LeicesterrnSquare when disturbed. Groups ofrnprovincial “lads” out for the night stumblerndrunkenly but good-humoredly inrnsearch of the strip bars of Soho, andrnshaven-headed homosexuals with rucksacksrnhurry through the throng to crossrnShaftesbury Avenue in the opposite direction.rnThis part of the city does not seem tornremember its past glories. The Turk’srnHead tavern in Gerrard Street, Chinatown’srnmain thoroughfare, where Johnson,rnReynolds, and the others startedrnThe Club, is now the Loon Moon Supermarket,rnand pictures of topless Chineserngirls cut from the magazines on sale insidernare pinned to a notieeboard outsidernthe door. Former residents of GerrardrnStreet include John Dryden, EdmundrnBurke, James Boswell, James Gibbs thernarchitect, and Chades Kemble the actor,rnand Chesterton and Belloc first met inrn1900 at the old Mont Blanc restaurant.rnBut it is not all doom and gloom. Inrn1850, Friedrich Engels lodged aroundrnthe corner, in Macclesfield Street, nowrnalso almost entirely Chinese. He, atrnleast, has gone. Some of what is nowrnChinatown has undoubtedly improvedrnin the last 100 years, partieulady what isrnnow Newport Court, formerly known asrn”Butchers’ Row,” described in 1872 as arn”fountain of foul odors.” The old NewportrnMarket was described in an I880’srnpolice report as “a veritable focus of everyrndanger which can menace the healthrnand social order of a city.” The report’srnauthors concluded that “it would be anrnact of true philanthropy to break up thisrnreeking home of filthy vice.” Even thernrecently documented presence of majorrncriminal Tong activity in Chinatownrndoes not permit modern Chinatown tornqualify as a “reeking home of filthy vice.”rnIt is very different from the old Chinesernsettlement in Limehouse in thernEast End, recorded so memorably in thernworks of Sax Rohmer and ThomasrnBurke, the latter himself an East Ender.rnBegun in the 1890’s by sailors, colonizationrncentered in what is now the remarkablyrncharacterless road called Pennyfields,rnjust north of the tower at CanaryrnWharf. It probably only ever had a maximumrnof 2,500 inhabitants at any onerntime, but the perfervid Victorian imaginationrnseized upon half-romantic, halffearfulrnnotions of opium dens (opiumrnsmoking was only banned in I9I6), gamblingrnhouses and illegal drinking shopsrnpopulated by cruel, mustachioed, pigtailed,rnyellow men with masks for faces.rnThe classic example of this popularrnimage is Rohmer’s Eu Manchu, whornhatched many of his plots for worldrndomination in secret bases beneath thernFor Immediate ServicernCHRONICLESrnNEW SUBSCRIBERSrnTOLL FREE NUMBERrn(nioiik kNrn’•mil . ^.-.rn: irn1-800-877.5459rnMARCH 1997/35rnrnrn