Discover London's Chinatown

Chinese New Year sees thousands converge on London for celebrations, but the area has a year-round appeal

As the Year of the Dog begins (16 Feb, 2018), we find out how you can join in London’s Chinese New Year celebrations.

History of Chinatown

London’s first Chinatown was far from the glittering lights of the West End. Back in the 1880s, Chinese sailors working the trading routes between China and London settled in Limehouse, an area close to the London Docks, and a small community emerged. By the time journalists started referring to this part of London as ‘Chinatown’, it was still just a few hundred strong.

Visit London’s Docklands today and you’ll find no trace of the area’s Chinese past—though Museum of London Docklands is hosting family-friendly Chinese New Year events (16 Feb). During and after World War II, most of east London’s Chinese residents were scattered across other UK cities.

Chinese New Year celebrations at Museum of London Docklands, London, UK
Head to Museum of London Docklands for celebrations for Chinese New Year. (©Museum of London)

But not all of them left London. A small number found their way to Gerrard Street, which later increased with a new wave of Chinese migrants from Hong Kong, then a British colony. Rents were low in this part of Soho and short-term leases made setting up a business relatively easy.

Once British soldiers returned from the Far East, the market grew for Chinese cuisine. The present-day Chinatown that you see today was officially established in the 1970s. The area now is much more multicultural, with a mix of people from South East Asia plus Europeans, which is reflected in the broad mix of Chinatown’s restaurants.

Join the Chinese New Year Celebrations

London’s Chinese New Year celebrations take place on 18 Feb this year (Chinese New Year actually falls on 16 Feb), ushering in the Year of the Dog with a mighty parade that kicks off with a dragon and lion dance in Charing Cross Road at 10 am. The parade passes through Chinatown, finishing up in Trafalgar Square where Chinese dance and music performances—including the amazing lion pole dance—takes place on the main stage.

Chinatown, London, UK
The streets of Chinatown are awash with red and gold during the festivities. (©Mike in London/iStock photos)

Once you’ve enjoyed the fun, head along to one of Chinatown’s many eateries for a New Year feast and be sure to order some fish. The Chinese word for ‘fish’ sounds similar to the word for ‘surplus’, so superstitious Chinese culture believes that eating fish will bring a surplus of money and good luck in the year ahead.

Enjoy More Chinese Culture 

London’s Chinatown also differs from others in the world in that it isn’t really a residential area for the community. Now, as when Hong Kong Chinese migrants first came to Soho in the 1950s, people run their businesses in Chinatown but live elsewhere in the capital, such as Barnet, Edgware, Croydon and Greenwich.

20 Dragon ceramic tiles at British Museum, London, UK
Learn about ancient Chinese history at The British Museum. (©The Trustees Of The British Museum)

When it comes to other aspects of Chinese culture in London outside Chinatown, The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) are essential stops. The V&A is home to one of the biggest collections of Chinese art outside East Asia, encompassing ancient artefacts to contemporary pieces that reflect up-to-the-minute Chinese design. The British Museum, meanwhile, tells the story of China from 5000 BC to the present day, with calligraphy, painting, jade, silk and porcelain. Those wishing to take home a piece of Chinese art history should make a beeline for Eskenazi in Mayfair, a gallery specialising in high-end Chinese art.

Chinese artefacts at the British Museum, London, UK
Ancient bronze vessel from the 11th century BC, part of the Chinese collection at the British Museum (©The Trustees of the British Museum)

The performing arts are represented in the West End by "Shen Yun", an epic dance show at the Dominion Theatre exploring Chinese history and mythology through traditional Chinese dance (16-25 Feb). Meanwhile, the Wanlin Academy of Dance & Performing Arts has classes in Chinese dance at Danceworks studio in Mayfair on Sundays (2pm-4pm). 

Though you’ll find Chinese culture all over London, your starting point should be where it all began. Chinatown is where members of the community, those visiting from China and those who want to feel a connection to China, gather and associate with the culture.