There’s very little left of London’s original Chinatown. No not the one in Soho, the one that used to line the docks around Limehouse Reach from the 1880s to the 1950s. Here, Chinese sailors came on junk boats full of tea and spice and exotic animal skins (the first arrivals marooned after their stingy shipping company refused to pay their passage back home). It was a richly atmospheric corner of the city that fed the imaginations of writers including Dickens, Wilde and Conan Doyle.
Now however, there are only a few road signs to help conjure up that past — Mandarin Street and Amoy Place for example — but over the next three weeks there will also be a play in the old town hall that will bring back memories of this sadly lost pocket of London.
The Last Days of Limehouse is a promenade show, meaning the audience get to wander about, following the story of Eileen Cunningham, a former resident who moved away to America returning at a key moment in 1958 when the local council are getting ready to bulldoze the place. The play charts the battle to preserve the history against the march of ‘progress’.
Rather than tell tall tales about opium-toking men with wispy beards and long fingernails, this new show by Yellow Earth (a well-established British East Asian theatre company), examines the lives of the real Chinese people who lived in the area. And alongside the site-specific production, there will also be a range of activities that make the experience immersive.
Limehouse Chinatown Rediscovered is an exhibition of old photographs of the area while there is also an audio walking tour (with an mp3 guide available to downloaded here in advance). Also on selected nights there will be special after-show events including: recreations of pukka-pu (a gambling game similar to bingo that was a popular Limehouse specialty), a Cockney knees-up with Jess Woo, themed talks and Q&As, and performances by talented folk rock trio Wondermare.
There will also be family friendly days where kids can meet characters such as Stanley Lo the Sailor, Francis Foong the Sunday School Teacher and Johnny the Chef – plus the chance to have a Chinese lesson with Mrs Foong.
The show is on at Limehouse Town Hall, 646 Commercial Road E14 7HA from 16 July to 3 August. Performances start at 7.30pm each night with a Sunday matinee at 5pm. Tickets are £15 (with concessions and parties of 10+ reduced to £10). The family performances are on Saturdays 19 and 26 July and 2 August at 3.00pm – all tickets £6.