Britain's oldest Chinatown

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2008, 12:00am


Related topics

Two lions stare towards St Luke's Church. Behind them is the Blackie building. Under them is an inscription set in stone, 'Chinese and Western, Both Important. Equally Important.'

Liverpool recently celebrated its 800th birthday. King John granted the city its first charter in August 1207. Many heritage-based events were held to commemorate the city's history, but the crouching 'foo dog' statues on Berry Street and the 'paifang' ceremonial arch on Nelson Street also point to the past. They welcome visitors to another part of Liverpool's long story.

The city on the Mersey - European City of Culture 2008 - is not just famous for the Beatles and football. Liverpool has one of the oldest Chinese communities in Europe and the oldest in Britain. The first Chinese sailors arrived from Shanghai aboard the Bibby ship Duchess of Clarence in 1834, carrying tea; the silk and cotton trade between China and Britain brought more. Some jumped ship; some never went home. The first immigrants came via the Blue Funnel Line in 1866, settling around the docks in Cleveland Square.

There were intermarriages because Chinese sailors were seen as better behaved than their British counterparts. A fresh influx came from Zhejiang province and by the first world war there were 14 Chinese shops. A Chinese-language school was opened followed by the Chung Hua Chow (Chinese News Weekly) newspaper and the first Chinese bank. The communist victory in China caused the British to stop recruiting from the mainland; new arrivals came from Hong Kong and Britain's other colonial outposts. Because of extensive bombing the original Chinese quarter had to be demolished and moved in the 1970s to its present location around Nelson Street.

'The ceremonial gateway ... is also a symbol of the twinning of Shanghai and Liverpool,' says Brian Wong, chief executive of Liverpool Chinatown Business Association. 'The arch was moved piece by piece from Shanghai. At 15 metres it is the highest in Europe. It has 200 dragons and five roofs.'

Handling 34 million tonnes of cargo annually, Liverpool is still a major sea port and the leading British-US harbour. When it was granted Unesco World Heritage Site status in 2004 the waterfront was recognised as 'a supreme example of a commercial port at a time of Britain's greatest global influence'.

The stone lions in the middle of Chinatown say it all. On the side facing the Blackie building, once famous for being black with soot but now given a facelift, is a second Chinese inscription, 'Liverpool and Chinatown will prosper forever.'