In the late Victorian period various writers included scenes set in the ‘opium dens’ of Limehouse to add a bit of exotic colour to their stories.
Dickens started it with The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1870 and Oscar Wilde and Conan Doyle followed this example. Journalists seeking out these supposedly flesh-creeping places were usually unimpressed by their ordinariness.
Already described by Edwardian journalists as “mysterious, colourful and romantic”, in 1912 Limehouse Chinatown took a huge leap into absurdly exaggerated dark fantasy as a venue for unspeakable crimes and ‘diabolical’ plots against humanity.
The terrifying genius behind all these was Dr Fu Manchu, the creation of Arthur Ward, known to an enthralled readership as ‘Sax Rohmer’.
This monstrous caricature has long outlived the fog-bound narrow streets and lanes of Chinese Limehouse. But this was not the reality. This was a community of ordinary decent people making a living in the world, subject to scrutiny and prejudice but enduring. It is good to remember them.