London is a catacomb of forgotten stories and communities, none more hidden and invisible, it often seems, than the Chinese.
Here since the early 19th century, their diaspora is spread throughout the UK, London’s main contingent habitually being recognised as Soho’s Chinatown.
But many of us – me included – little realised that Limehouse in the East End was the original Chinatown and once home to a thriving Chinese community.
Yellow Earth, founded in 1995, the UK’s oldest and still probably only British East Asian touring theatre company have just finished a run of their latest show, The Last Days of Limehouse in which this community and their story has been resurrected before our very eyes.
Performed in Limehouse Town Hall, a wonderful if crumbling Victorian civic pile in the Commercial Road, now in the process of being restored as an arts and cultural centre, it serves as an appropriate if acoustically challenging space for awakening old ghosts.
Inside its echoing grand chamber, Gary Merry and Kumiko Mendl’s promenade, walkabout production recreates a pivotal moment in the Limehouse Chinese community’s history when in 1958, like so many similar projects around the country at the time, the local council decided on a programme of `slum clearance’ but demolishing more than smelly buildings in its wake.
Writer Jeremy Tiang sets out to present this moment as a battle between the heart and spirit of a community and the promise of a better standard of living – central heating, running water – a conflict which must be as potent today as ever.
What makes a community? In The Last Days of Limehouse, Tiang shows it as creating that very special, all too easily destroyed `sense of belonging’, felt by all, regardless of social status. It also shows the battle between the status quo and the future being joined in the formidable shape of Eileen Cunningham, a slightly posh returnee from New York, former Limehouse resident and daughter of old local restaurant owner, and Johnny Wong, currently owner of an ordinary Chinese eating house.
Demolition for Cunningham means only loss and eradication of her family history for ever whilst for Johnny Wong it is something quite different and positive: promise of a brighter future.
Ranging all over the room and interspersed by video and photos of today’s streets with just the occasional hint of what was there before in the names of streets or shop signs, Merry and Mendl’s rough-round-the edges but heartfelt production – which also neatly reflects the various social strata existing within the community – makes affecting and very personal the decisions that get taken in public town halls.
Alongside its great sense of retro ‘50’s period, Amanda Maud’s Mrs Cunningham also provides a roaring voice of resistance for the elusive communal elements that get destroyed in the name of progress. Fine work, too, from Gabby Wong playing Johnny’s wife Iris (later her daughter and grand-daughter) who sides with Mrs Cunningham but sees only too clearly the implications of arguments both for and against.
Educational maybe but spicey with it. Another piece of London’s hidden history crucially uncovered.