Liverpool blues: the sad decline of Europe’s oldest Chinatown

Popularity of Chinese neighbourhood appears to have passed its peak, but plans for a metal and glass upgrade have failed to get off the ground, despite enthusiasm from investors – many of them from Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 September, 2018, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2018, 8:50pm

The gateway to Liverpool’s Chinatown is a fitting tribute to Europe’s oldest Chinese community.

A gift from the northern English city’s twin, Shanghai, it was shipped over in pieces and assembled by Chinese master craftsmen. It is 3.5 metres tall, decorated with 200 dragons and one of the largest paifangs outside China.

But the feng shui powers of the arch’s bronze lions have not been strong enough to protect Nelson Street, Chinatown’s main road, from the onward marches of supermarkets, swanky shopping centres and changing food tastes.

“Chinatown used to be a place where people would gather on Sunday to shop,” said Wing Wai Wong, English secretary of one of the oldest community groups in Chinatown, the See Yep Association. “In the old days you could only get Chinese ginger and other groceries in Chinatown. Now the big supermarkets sell them. We are suffering like any other English high street.”

Nor has it been a strong enough draw for new customers from the more than 4,000 Chinese students who study in the city but tend to go to the more dynamic Chinatown in Manchester.

On a sunny Saturday in August, half the restaurants on Nelson Street are closed. Just a handful of shoppers stroll down the once busy street.

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The Nook, a pub that used to be a community hub, is now boarded up.

Despite the decline in commercial activity, the area still oozes charm and culture.

Walking into the See Yep headquarters in an old Georgian house next to the paifang, with its mahjong tables, sport trophies and old photos, is like stepping back in time.

Chinatown still plays host to kung fu clubs, a Chinese opera, a table tennis group and calligraphy classes – things that are hard to find in other Chinatowns.

Despite decreasing, the 12,000 Chinese make up Liverpool’s largest ethnic group. Many from the younger generations have become professionals. Some, like actor David Yip, famous for his roles in The Chinese Detective and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, have become celebrities.

Watch: David Yip explores Liverpool Chinatown in 1981

Chinese immigrants first arrived in the city in the 1850s, many of them seamen working for the Blue Funnel Line, a British shipping company that imported silk, cotton and tea from Shanghai and Hong Kong.

From the 1890s, local Chinese set up shops, cafes and boarding houses to the Chinese sailors and the community began to grow.

Chinese who helped allies in first world war commemorated in Britain

By the second world war, there were around 20,000 Chinese mariners in the city. Although they played a role in the war, they were paid a lot less than British sailors. In 1942 they went on strike demanding equal pay but were labelled troublemakers. When the war ended they were not allowed shore jobs and their pay was cut.

Most Chinese at that time lived in Pitt Street near the docks, but the area was heavily bombed by the Germans.

The community moved and made Nelson Street the new centre of activity. In 1944 proposals began to surface for a new Chinatown.

In a letter to the Liverpool Daily Post on January 22, 1945, the secretary of Britain’s Association of Architects and Surveyors supported a plan drawn up by a Chinese architect called Chen.

“This is the first time in the history of the world that a member of an Asiatic nation has offered to take a part in reconstructing a corner of England, a corner, incidentally, where members of that nation have been taking a vital but humble part in providing personnel for the Merchant Navy,” wrote G.B.J. Athoe.

The scheme propose two Chinese pagodas and the overall design “recalls faithfully the lines of a typical Chinese palace with its series of courtyards”.

But Britain’s Home Office had other plans and a dark period of Sino-British history began when London decided to deport them. Hundreds of men were forced to leave their families and return to China in a deportation scandal that has still not been recognised by Britain, despite calls for an apology.

A modern scandal surrounds grand plans for a gentrified “New Chinatown” development on a two-hectare site owned by Liverpool Council next to the old Chinatown.

New Chinatown was the largest of a number of failed developments in the city promoted in Hong Kong by the British government as part of a wider scheme to boost economic growth in the UK’s once industrial north.

Unveiled in 2015 it was supposed to have 790 flats, a hotel, shops and restaurants. But in 2017, despite investors forking out millions of pounds in deposits, hardly any work had begun.

The council then took action against the Chinatown Development Company for £950,000 (US$1.2 million) that had not been paid.

A local newspaper then published an article linking the boss of the parent company North Point Global to two of Liverpool’s notorious drug barons. In July 2017, North Point Global announced it was stopping work and would try to sell the sites, blaming bad press and the council.

With landmark UK embassy planned for East London, China rides the river of history full circle

Hundreds of small investors, many of them in Hong Kong, had put down £90 million in deposits but were left high and dry.

The promotional brochure had been signed by the chancellor of the exchequer at the time George Osborne, which reassured small investors.

Earlier this year the New Chinatown site was sold to another developer and work is expected to start soon.

“The problems of Chinatown are every complex. It’s a cycle of change from the old to the new,” said Simon Wong, chairman of the Liverpool Chinese Business Association who ran a grocer’s shop in the neighbourhood for 20 years.

Wong said New Chinatown, if it ever gets built, would help bring more business to the area. However, he said tougher immigration controls make it difficult to recruit restaurant staff. He has other ideas.

“We want to bring more tourists – the arch can and does bring people but we need to make Chinatown more of a tourist attraction. We suggested a Buddhist statue ... and more commercial activities like a Chinese market but there are so many rules and regulations,” Wong said.

The interest in China as a new power with a very old history is certainly thriving in Liverpool.

The China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors exhibition in central Liverpool has been a major attraction, drawing tens of thousands of new visitors to the city.

A museum that recognises the contribution and achievements of the city’s Chinese community might also be popular.