They say every city in the world has a ‘Chinatown’. Near Trafalgar Square in London, Asian restaurants, pharmacies and massage parlours transform a few pedestrian streets into something that (vaguely) resembles an East Asian shopping street. The Chinatown of London used to be alien to me, but now it feels familiar too.
As with most major tourist streets in Beijing (Nanluoguxiang or Dashilar in Beijing, for example), the first thing you encounter is an impressive gate. Just like in Beijing, the tall gate stands freely with round red pillars and a curved blue roof, and frames the street behind it. However, a closer look reveals the gate to be simple and metallic. It is not painted as in China, and the motif is not as intricate. The street it frames is ‘shinier’ too. So, ‘Chinatown’ begins to feel both familiar and alien at the same time.
The street is full of people. That’s pretty similar! An East Asian man performs a traditional instrument in the street, just like the busker round the corner from my university. Also, restaurants are everywhere, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and British pub specialties are crammed together on Gerrard Street, just like the huge variety of Western and Chinese eateries in Beijing business hubs like Zhongguancun.
On the other hand, there is much more blonde hair and more dark skin, and the man playing the traditional instrument has made up a great dance to go with his playing, which an old blind busker in China probably wouldn’t do! The staff I hear talking outside the restaurants mostly aren’t speaking Mandarin – I think I heard a lot of Cantonese and some Southeast Asian languages too. I’ll admit I was hoping to find someone to show off my Mandarin and it was really difficult to find them! When I (try to) read the Chinese characters around me, I forget I am in central London, and get a little jolt of surprise when it registers.
‘Chinatown’ was a lot more multicultural than an actual Chinese town to be honest. There were many more Southeast Asians, Japanese and Koreans than in Beijing or Xi’an, and the food came from Hong Kong, Japan and everything in between. It was a strange experience to feel I was in one place (China) while it was really obvious I was in another (London). I feel like a foreigner in my own country these days!