Tower Hamlets: London’s hidden Chinatown

Amended Pete Chinatown lead

Teachers at the Chinese Independent School of Tower Hamlets recently received an outstanding contribution award. Pic: The Chinese Independent School of Tower Hamlets

When we think of Chinatown, we picture the lantern-filled enclave between Covent Garden and Soho. So if may come as a surprise that, with its 8109-strong community, Tower Hamlets has the third-largest Chinese population in the UK.

London’s first Chinatown was established in Limehouse in the 1880s as a catering hub to serve Chinese sailors dropping anchor in Docklands. Chinatown may have since moved, but the impact on Tower Hamlets remains, and not just on the demographic.

In the 10-minute walk from Westferry DLR station to the end of Commercial Road, there are four Chinese takeaways, a Chinese massage parlour – and the Chinese Association of Tower Hamlets.

William Au, who works at the association, says the first Chinese settlers in Tower Hamlets were sailors stranded in London while they waited for a ship back to China. The sailors started catering and laundry businesses in the area, as well as marrying local British women. The growing Chinese influence led to Limehouse being called Chinatown, and it became an alternative to the cramped accommodation offered to Chinese sailors working for the East India Company. The British and Foreign Sailors’ Hostel opened in 1901 and was an example of such accommodation. The building now houses the Chinese Association.

“There’s an increasing number of Chinese people living and working in Tower Hamlets” says Au. According to the 2011 Census, the Chinese population has grown by 4,536 since 2001.

The Association is important to the Chinese community. “We started as a charitable organisation that gave advice to Chinese people here, now we have a school and a home care service,” says Au.

The Chinese Independent School of Tower Hamlets is a language school that teaches Cantonese and Mandarin to its pupils. “This is a vital service because it allows Chinese children and young adults to better communicate with the older members of their family who do not speak fluent English,” Au says. The school is partly funded by a grant from local government, the rest by an annual fee for pupils, set this year at £170.

In the face of government cuts and a growing clientele of aged Chinese people dependent on the Association’s home care service, its Opportunity Centre, an advice project for Chinese young adults looking to improve their chances of employment, was forced to close. “They cut your funding in half but still expect you to provide the same services,” Au says. “Our main focus is the home care service. There’s less funding now so we just have to do our best to meet the needs and expectations of our elderly clientele,” he adds.

Au believes that Tower Hamlets needs a culturally sensitive home care service. “These are elderly people who have very little English, how can carers who do not speak the language meet their needs? Also, they may prefer Chinese food and our carers can provide this,” he says.

Eleven per cent of the Tower Hamlets population are on out-of-work benefits, with 32 per cent of all under-19s living in families receiving tax credits. The Association’s welfare service is invaluable to Chinese residents. “We do what other mainstream services can’t because we can communicate with Chinese welfare recipients better. It is not just accessing welfare that we assist with, some residents don’t understand how welfare reform has affected their entitlements and we help with that,” says Au.

The Association has been serving the Chinese people of Tower Hamlets for 33 years; the cuts may have presented a challenge, but the Association has remained a vital service in the borough.

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