Letter From London: Peking-on-Thames

Cross Shaftesbury Avenue going south toward Leicester Square, and you leave homosexual London for Peking-on- Thames. Decorative oriental-style iron gates, like in some 18th-century pleasure garden, mark the various entrances to the small area which is officially designated "Chinatown." Oriental shops, restaurants, hairdressers, travel agents, and apothecaries selling Chinese medicines are crammed along and spill over Chinatown's permeable borders, like a medieval city whose population has grown too large. It is as if the inhabitants are seeking Lebensraum in the expensive purlieus of "Theatreland." The old De Hems Coffee House—now a bar—right outside the northern gate, is like a customs post, and seems immediately threatened with absorption into a greater Chinatown.

In this little rectangle bordered by Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road, Leicester Square, and Wardour Street, first developed by Nicholas Barbon (son of the infamous "Praise-God Barebones") as an aristocratic residential neighborhood, the London air is filled with the smell of Chinese food and the sound of Chinese talking and laughing. The street signs are bilingual. (Not so obviously, a large part of Westminster Lending Library beside the Garrick Theatre is devoted to Chinese-language books and periodicals.) Shops, greengrocers, and restaurants line the pedestrianized streets, and every window displays massive jars of exotic roots, internal organs,...

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