London’s Chinatown needs more creative solutions to guarantee future

Reflections on the annual Ken Hom Lecture, 20th February 2018 at Asia House, London

This year’s Ken Hom Lecture brought together distinguished figures from the food and hospitality worlds to explore the future of Chinatowns, at a time when many believe they are under threat as distinctive cultural enclaves.  Ken Hom was joined by Freya Aitken-Turff, CEO of London’s China Exchange; Fuchsia Dunlop, acclaimed writer on Asian food and culture; and Geoff Leong, who operates a successful restaurant business in London’s Chinatown.

The session was chaired by Donald Sloan of the Oxford Cultural Collective. The lecture, now in its eleventh year, has been integrated into the Lee Kum Kee Culinary Culture Series of events which promotes better understanding of Asian food and culture. Previous speakers include Lord Patten of Barnes, Cherie Blair and Jonathan Fenby. The Ken Hom Lecture is held in association with the Oxford School of Hospitality Management at Oxford Brookes University.

With the support of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, Aitken-Turff is currently undertaking an international study of Chinatowns: their formation, development, contribution and likely future.  In her introductory remarks she highlighted that in most countries, Chinatowns were established as a result of enforced exclusion. Indeed in the US the ‘Exclusion Act’, which was not repealed until 1943, restricted access to most professions for those of Chinese origin, and compelled the Chinese community to live in designated areas. Reflecting on his childhood in Chicago’s Chinatown, Hom described how a legacy of prejudice lived on, discouraging integration.

Despite such origins, Chinatowns developed to become supportive environments for the Chinese Diaspora, with dedicated schools, libraries, restaurants and benevolent societies.  Fucshia Dunlop described the positive role that Chinatowns play in introducing a wide audience to Chinese culinary culture. As customers have become more confident and curious, so the dishes on offer are becoming more authentically Chinese. Calling on first-hand experience, Geoff Leong described how businesses in London’ Chinatown are adopting sophisticated tactics to win new customers in an increasingly competitive market.

Whilst Chinatowns have evolved and adapted over the years in response to a changing context, the panelists agreed they are under threat.  Urban gentrification is driving up property prices; developers are keen to get hold of prime land that is often close to city centres; and as cultural integration becomes the norm, the need for culturally-specific enclaves is being questioned. The speakers were in agreement that Chinatowns are worth preserving. They still act as a point of connection for those with Chinese heritage and they have the potential to enhance cultural ties and mutual understanding. Aitken-Turff believes that London’s Chinatown needs to adopt a better planned and more creative approach if it is to thrive in the future. She called for the formation of a Chinese heritage museum to tell the story of Chinese immigrants to the UK, protect their legacy and give insights into the particular role that Chinatown has played over the last century.

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