Many of us know London’s Chinatown for its restaurants and red arches. With a location right in the heart of the West End, Chinatown might be somewhere we pass every day without thinking much about what’s beneath the surface. But this vibrant area is home to many more fascinating stories than you might realise. So a local charity has taken up the mission of sharing Chinatown’s hidden history with visitors to the area through a new community walking tour – and we’re giving Panda Radio listeners the chance to win tickets!
“Visitors to London aren’t necessarily greeted with much to understand Chinatown,” explains Freya Aitken-Turff, CEO of China Exchange, “but it’s really an incredible area. It thrives, it dives, and then it reinvents itself. All that creates an amazing history, which we’re excited to share with our guests.”
Having been along to a preview of the tour last week, I can second that – the history really is amazing. From the unprepossessing doorway that was once the entrance to London’s most swinging jazz club, to the surprising story of how Soho got its name, the tour is full of eye-opening snippets spanning over five hundred years of history, showing how varied the story of a few streets can be.
Of course, Chinatown is also a hub for London’s Chinese community, and the tour explores this part of the area’s history too, from London’s “original Chinatown” in Docklands to its move to Soho in the 1950s. It doesn’t forget about the area’s iconic food culture either; after a couple of hours walking around the streets of Chinatown, the tour finishes off with a family-style Chinese lunch in a local restaurant, where you can refuel with some classic dishes and Chinese tea (with great veggie options, I can confirm).
Delicious food aside, what’s exciting about this tour is that China Exchange are running it by and for the community. Your tour guide is a ‘Chinatown champion’ trained by expert local historians from the Museum of Soho and the Anglo Asiatic Arts and Heritage Alliance. Our guides Hong, Hing and Lai were enthusiastic and knowledgeable, plus they had their own personal stories to share – from life as a semi-retired Chinatown business owner, to a second-generation British Hongkonger, to a Chinese postgrad doing research in the UK.
Tickets for the tour cost £27, which includes lunch and a donation to the London Chinese Community Centre and the Chinese Information and Advice Centre, as well as funding China Exchange’s work. Tours are offered in English, Mandarin and Cantonese for a minimum of 2 people, and they run from now until September.
Listen to Catherine’s interview with China Exchange CEO Freya and Chinatown champion Hong here: