Saturday, September 12, 2015

Holmes and the Inscrutable Chinese of London

by Janet Bensley

In “The Adventure of the Dying Detective,” Watson tells us, and Mr. Culverton Smith, that Holmes has contracted an illness while “… in some professional inquiry, he [Holmes] has been working among Chinese sailors down in the docks.”  This little snippet, along with another referring to “the Chinese in the East End,” hints at the cosmopolitan nature of the population of London at the time.      William S. Baring-Gould places the tale as occurring on November 19, 1887, although the literary agent Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not have it published for Watson it until November, 1913.  So what was the Chinese community like during 1887?  And how did it change from 1887 until 1913?  (Since we do not know for certain exactly when Watson penned the tale, and since he often used more current scenarios in his works in order to “blur” distinctive details, we should cover all contingencies.)

The first Chinese immigrants in London arrived in the 1780s.  Most were sailors who worked for the East India Company and the Blue Funnel Line, often as cooks.  In 1856 the “Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders” was established on West India Dock Road, providing one area around which a growing Chinese community would form.  The 1881 census records 22 residents of the Home, including eleven who gave their place of birth as China and two as Singapore. Of the rest, six came from India or Sri Lanka, two from Arabia and one from the Kru Coast of Africa.

It is impossible to know the exact number of Chinese migrants in London, but census figures suggest that the Chinese presence grew steadily during the nineteenth century.  The 1861 census for London records only 78 Chinese-born residents, but by 1911 there were over 247.  To help put this into context, in 1881 census figures indicate a total of 224 Chinese in Britain.  Census records of 1891 indicate 582 Chinese-born residents in Britain.  By 1896 the census records indicate a decline in the number of Chinese-born residents to 387, of whom 80% are single males between 20 and 35, the majority being seamen.  After the turn of the century the numbers begin to increase once again with the 1911 census indicating 1,319 Chinese-born residents in Britain and 4,595 seamen of Chinese origin serving in the British Merchant Navy. (These census figures errs on the conservative side, as the Chinese living in Britain tended to treat all agents of the British state with suspicion and hide themselves from census officers.) 

Chinese immigrants settled predominantly in the East End of London, particularly in the boroughs of Poplar and Stepney, near to the docks and the “Strangers’ Home.”  In 1881 sixty percent of Chinese-born Londoners lived in the two boroughs. By the 1920s a significant number of Chinese had moved westwards, settling in Westminster, St Pancras, and Marylebone, while small communities could also be found in Hampstead, Kensington and Wandsworth.
    By the turn of the twentieth century social commentators were beginning to talk of London’s “Chinatown” located along  the narrow streets of Limehouse Causeway, Pennyfields, West India Dock Road, Birchfield Street and North Street Lower.  Although this community was relatively small, the Chinese presence had a disproportionate impact on visitors and commentators. Writers such as Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens the Younger wrote of the enigmatic Chinese shops and restaurants they encountered along Limehouse Causeway.  Other authors, such as Sax Rohmer and Thomas Burke, created popular fictionalized accounts of the exploits of shadowy Chinese immigrants intent on world domination. As a result, Limehouse came to possess a dangerous and sinister reputation where Chinese men fraternized with young white women and smoked opium.  In its full form, the East End Chinese “opium den,” with its trappings of drug addiction and easy sexuality, only really existed in the imaginations of excitable novelists and hopeful social investigators.  But in this area Chinese shops and restaurants, laundries and lodging houses sprang up to cater for the needs of a growing community, including the social consumption of opium.  Once such dens were mixed along the streets of Limehouse with the brothels catering for the maritime trade, all the ingredients of a dangerous and titillating reputation were in place.

Although the majority of Chinese migrants were involved in seafaring, census data suggests that the Chinese in London were employed in a wide range of occupations. A large number were employed as cooks and waiters in the numerous restaurants and public houses of the East End, and a similar number worked in laundries.  A smaller proportion were employed as clerks, firemen, carpenters and interpreters.  Chinese restaurants and cafes were the main social hub of the local community, providing a venue in which to conduct business, and serving secondary functions as informal post offices and banks.

Many of the Chinese migrants did not find the streets of the East End a warm and welcoming place. Stranded in a foreign country with little local knowledge and limited English, many struggled to make ends meet. In 1812 the government ordered the East India Company to provide satisfactory food, clothing and accommodation for the seamen, and a parliamentary committee was established to investigate what could be done to improve the conditions. The “Stranger's Home,” founded in 1856, provided some assistance.  Nevertheless, even at the end of the nineteenth century, Limehouse figured largely in the comprehensive enquiries into London poverty and squalor done by Charles Booth (philanthropist and social researcher) .

However, not all Chinese immigrants were poor or uneducated.  From the late 1880's until the early 1900's a steady flow of students from China arrived in Britain to study at Cambridge.  Many of the graduates stayed on in Britain, rather than return to China.  As an interesting note, the first Chinese student to graduate from a British university was Wong Fun who received his MD in 1855 from Edinburgh.  It is interesting to note that a mere thirty years later, in 1885, Arthur Conan Doyle also received his MD in Edinburgh.


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