Tuesday, 18 September 2018

I Have Food, Water and Clean Clothes What Else Do I Need - Muna of Delhi

To be Hijra is to be neither male nor female but to possess elements of both. In India Hijras are recognised in law as a third gender and may adopt what is widely held to be female dress and behaviour. They have traditionally earned a living by collecting alms and by giving blessings and performances at weddings, births and festivals. Drawn from all religious groups, their devotion to Bahuchara Mata, a mother goddess comes before observation of any other faith they might follow. India's Hijra community has a recorded history of over 4,000 years.They are mentioned in ancient literature including the Ramayana and other important texts.  During the Mughal period some of them held high positions in the court and would be called upon for advice on religious matters or to give blessings during important ceremonies.


Muna is 70 years old and Hijra. She was born into a respectable Syed Muslim family, close to the Jama Mosque in Delhi.  Feeling different from an early age, she chose to leave the family and to live separately. Last week, together with my guide/ interpreter I had the privilege of spending an hour with her and hearing her story. For the first few minutes she was a little cold, sitting on the floor outside her home, rinsing out clothes and looking away from us as she spoke. As time went on she became more comfortable, spoke more freely and looked us in the eye. 

Muna is a guru and highly respected in the Hijra community. In the past she had students who would accompany her about the city, learn from her and eventually become gurus themselves, operating in different parts of Delhi. The former students still visit from time to time but do not provide any material support. She seems a solitary figure and when asked about family says that she has only superficial contact with them but wants nothing more. Due to her age she is eligible to receive a small amount of financial support from the government but has yet to do so. Despite this she describes herself as rich "I have water, food and clean clothes. What else do I need?".

This simple yet wise approach to life was displayed when during the course of the discussion we sent a small boy to bring tea from the chaiwallah. My guide asked him to bring 4 teas, one for each of us and another for the rickshaw wallah who had brought us to the meeting. Muna objected saying that we only needed 2 teas and 4 cups. She maintained that 4 teas is extravagant and chided us that we would not be able to look after our families if we "waste money on tea".

Muna is critical of what she describes as "fake Hijeras" involved in drugs, prostitution or crime. She says that they fear her when she walks in the red light areas and come to touch her feet and to give her respect and because of this she does not make trouble for them. Many of them come to her for blessings at festival times and on other important occasions. Respect is something that Muna talks about a lot. Although born a Muslim she respects all religions, is happy to give blessings to people of all faiths and will eat the food of any religious group if called upon to attend a wedding or some other ceremony. The only exception she makes is that she will not eat at the home of a family that consumes pork. Religion remains important to Muna but her devotion to Bahuchara Mata is of the greatest importance.

Towards the end of our time together she explained the reason for her initial disinterest. She is suspicious of outsiders many of whom come to her in order to make money and write or say disrespectful things about her. Some have promised help to complete an application in order to receive señor citizen's allowance but that help has not materialised.

As we stood to leave, Muna got up to give us a blessing, placing water on our foreheads and asking that we be safe and protected. I am not someone who could be described as spiritual but I felt a certain calmness from her, despite, or perhaps because of her direct way of speaking. Although there has been legislation to recognise the Hijras, abuse and discrimination is still widespread. It easy to change the law but not so easy to change attitudes and beliefs. I understood her preoccupation with respect.

Several writers say that the word "Hijra" has an Arabic source and means leave or migrate and interpret the word as being one who has left their tribe. Although Muna left her family and community many years ago she still lives close to the Jama mosque, part of a different tribe but not so very far from her previous one. I hope to meet her again.

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Labourers of Old Delhi

Delhi is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of more than 24 million. A city of two parts, New Delhi boast spacious tree lined boulevards and some grandiose buildings whilst the old city has narrow streets clogged with traffic and teeming with people. Whilst New Delhi is impressive and represents modern India it is the old city that has my heart.

Lost in thought, a carpenter waiting for work
Regular readers will know of my fondness for architecture, art and fine cafes but they will also know that for me the thing that makes a city is its people and the stories that they have to tell. Amongst the millions of people in the old city's streets there are many working men - porters, rickshaw drivers, shoeshine men and day labourers including plumbers, carpenters and men who are willing and able to do "odd jobs" and are employed directly from the street.

In the early part of the day groups of porters and rickshaw drivers stand or sit in groups, waiting for the calls to come from Delhi's various bazaars and once they begin they will go on throughout the day and into the evening. But that first part of the day offers the chance for camaraderie, talking to friends, playing cards or sitting in quiet reflection waiting for the working day to commence. These men know that there will be work each day but the more casual day labourers have no guarantee of work - ever. They gather at various points in the old city, lay out the tools of their trade on the ground in front of them and wait to be chosen.

Waiting for work in Old Delhi
Shakeel (in shorts) and some of his rickshaw drivers
Friends, two porters from Rizwan's team
Over the last few days in Delhi I have been able to speak to several of these men and to learn a little about their lives. Many of them are not Delhiwales (natives of Delhi) but have come to the city from Lucknow, Bihar and elsewhere in order to earn a living. They have been easy to talk to and happy to tell me about their work. Nazim in his thirties is a porter and a Lakhnavi (native of Lucknow). He told me that he weighs 47 kilos but can carry 55 on his head. He said that porters can earn good money - several thousand rupees a week making them the aristocracy of Delhi's manual labourers, but the work is hard and tiring. Nizam is part of a group led by a Rizwan, a fellow Lakhnavi. They share living quarters, cook together and some have members of their family living in the city, others are alone. Just across the road from Rizwan's crew there is a group of rickshaw drivers under the captaincy of Shakeel, also form Lucknow and they share similar stories.

Rizwan (in the pale blue shirt) and some of his group
Rambaksh, shoeshine
Salim 35 is a rickshaw driver - not of the hand pulled variety found in Kolkata but a cycle rickshaw. He rents his vehicle for 50 rupees a day and on a good day can make up to 1,000 falling to 500-600 when there is less business, particularly when there are fewer tourists. He likes the work describing himself as his own boss despite having to work from 8am to 8pm seven days a week. I asked him about the customers and he said that they are mostly fine, the exception being some local women who bargain very hard about the fare!

Shafiq and Mustafa are two young men who practice the trade of the khan bharia. They are ear cleaners and tour the streets of the old city advertising their trade through their distinctive headgear in  which long pins, the tools of their trade are held. I met them standing outside a barber shop offering their services to customers stopping for a haircut or a shave. When I asked to photograph them Shafiq was keen, Mustafa less so until he saw his friend's picture and then changed his mind.

Rambaksh is a shoeshine as was his father, Aged 60, he was born just outside Delhi. He has been doing this work for 40 years and sits under a picture of the deity who is the patron of shoeshines. I used his service and can confirm that he is both very good at his job and charges a fair price.

Salim, cycle-rickshaw driver
Shafiq, Khan Bharia
Mustafa, Khan Bharia
One of the privileges of meeting these men was being able to see them during their quiet moments, not hurrying through the streets with heavy loads on their heads or driving their rickshaw. Many of them sit smoking beedis the local roll-ups, interact with their friends or sit quietly, lost in thought. The picture of the man smoking at the top of this post is one such moment, his face covered in the mist of exhaled smoke, perhaps wondering how long he will wait for his next job or thinking about his family elsewhere. Perhaps my favourite picture is that of the man taking a break, shoes discarded, cup of tea in hand and the already smoked cigarette thrown to the ground. His friend, pictured in the white vest against a blue background sat with an half-smoked unlit cigarette in his mouth, about to relight it or say it for later.

Before leaving Delhi I had some of these pictures printed and did my best to find the men again and to give them a copy. All were surprised and all seemed pleased but perhaps the happiest of all was Mister Khan, a painter and decorator. I had photographed him sitting on a motorbike waiting for work and sure enough he was in the same spot when I went back to find him earlier today. He will have something to share with his family tonight.

Shoes off and a cup of tea
About to relight
Mr Khan, painter and decorator

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Scenes From The City Of Joy 2 - Pay Me In Dollars, I Want To Buy A House

Kolkata is surely one of the most visually inspiring cities in the world. Its streets are filled with people working and idling, buying and selling, eating, drinking and transporting goods from one place to another. But despite the constant activity the citizens of Kolkata are almost always ready to spend a few minutes talking to a visitor who is interested in them, their lives and their story. And this is a city of stories, many of them written on the faces of the people in its streets, set against a unique architectural background. I came here for the first time last year and since then have been longing to return, to renew my acquaintance with India's former capital city, to meet more of her people and to record their stories with my camera.

Chaiwalli, Chitpur Road
If Kolkata is my one of my favourite cities, then Chitpur Road is one of my favourite streets. This long, long street is chaotic with commerce of all kinds being carried out from early morning to late at night, much of it in buildings that date back up to 200 years. It is badly dilapidated in parts but this does not seem to affect its importance and it is still possible to see crafts being carried out here that have disappeared elsewhere. One craft that is certainly not dying out is that of the chaiwallah or tea seller, offering steaming hot chai to thirsty passers by often from a roadside stall or a tiny "hole in the wall". Strolling along Chitpur I noticed an elegant woman in a green and white sari working as a chaiwalli. I wondered if the man sitting near her was her husband. When asked if this was the case she said "Him? No, he is a customer". Then she laughed. Quite a lot. He didn't. A case of mistaken identity.

The smoker, Zakaria Street
Mohammed Ishmail, businessman
Running off Chitpur, Zakaria Street is in a predominantly Muslim area and home to the magnificent Nekoda mosque. It is full of small shops selling food, paan, jewellery and clothes. It is also a rich source of interesting pictures. The people are generally open to being photographed and are genuinely curious about visitors. The man pictured smoking spotted me taking pictures, lit up a bidi and began playing up to the camera. I loved the results. He looks directly at the camera, takes a drag and blows the smoke down in a cloud around his throat whilst his yellow kurta and checked lunghi contrast  with the colourful backdrop.

Walking into an alley off the main part of the street I found myself in a small tailors owned by one Mohammed Ishmail who sat near Gulab, a much younger man working at a sewing machine. Mister Ishmail explained that his was a long established family business. When I enquired what relation the tailor was to him, he replied in English "he is my servant". The tailor looked a little surprised as must have I because Mohammed corrected himself saying "that is, he is my staff". Another case of mistaken identity I fear.

Gulab, tailor on Zakaria Street
Metal recycling near Zakaria Street
There is an enormous recycling bazaar in one of the side streets off Zakaria. This is not recycling as many people in the west would know it. This is the real thing. Metal, wood and cardboard goods are collected from various place around the city, brought here, dismantled and used to create new tools, furniture and other items. Workers sit surrounded by piles of materials using Indian ingenuity to give new life to discarded belongings. Sparks fly from welding and there is the constant sound of hammering as old nails are straightened in order to be used again. The man pictured above was winding thick lengths of wire ready to be sold and used again.

I like a joke, including a joke at my expense if the intention is not malicious.  I often meet a joker on my travels and on this occasion it was delivery man Feroz Khan of the sparkling smile and bald head who asked me to take his picture before pointing at my head and announcing in English "you and me same to same hahaha". I'm sure I don't know what he means. Cheeky chap.

Feroz Khan, my long lost and significantly younger twin
Ginger vendor, vegetable market
If Kolkata is one of my favourite cities, its 24 hour vegetable market is one of my favourite quarters. Full of life, colour and activity it is a photographer's dream. The market's management allows a small number of people to collect vegetables that have been dropped on the floor or are less than perfect but still edible and to sell them from small patches outside the main wholesale hall. These people are extremely poor and this is a way to help them earn a little extra money to support their families. One of them, an older woman selling ginger and wearing brightly coloured clothing smiled at me and wished me good morning. She seemed different to the other vendors, comfortable in her self and of her lot and I felt sure she would agree to be photographed. She did and is pictured above.

As well as the hundreds of wholesalers who have shops here, there are many small scale vendors on the periphery of the market who sell items directly to the public. I noticed one such vendor - a young woman slicing the tops off coconuts and then selling the juice to thirsty customers. I indicated that I wanted three coconuts, one each for me and my two friends and asked her how many rupees. She threw her hands up in the air and in a surprisingly husky voice replied "Rupees? Pay me in dollars, I want to buy a house". I happened to have two dollars in my pocket and was tempted to call her bluff but her expertise in slicing the tops off coconuts dissuaded me from attempts at humour. Her six year old daughter Jazmina sat behind her smiling and then poking her tongue out at the camera. I hope they get their house one day.

Pay me in dollars, I want to buy a house
Not shy at all, the vegetable market
Some of the vendors are now used to being photographed, due in large part to the tours organised by Calcutta Photo Walks.  Not only that, some of the vendors are now pretty clued up themselves about what makes a good shot or who is particularly photogenic. A herb seller called me over and told me to photograph two of the young women working for him. At first they seemed reluctant, laughing a little and feigning shyness. I was on the point of giving up when they stood beside each other and offered the camera two fabulous smiles. Perseverance works.

Less shy were what I assume to be a married couple who were brushing their teeth with liquorice roots. It is not uncommon to see men and children do this in public but never an adult woman. And I've certainly never seen a woman come close to the camera and demonstrate her teeth brushing technique  alongside the man who might have been her husband. Note I said "might" - hoping to avoid another case of mistaken identity.

Demonstration of teeth brushing, the vegetable market
But perhaps the most interesting person I met in the market was a man who makes and sells essential oils. The oils are sold in tiny bottles kept in a small, lovingly cared for wooden box which houses a series of drawers. Used for aromatherapy the mixtures include differing quantities of bark, leaves, flowers, resins, peel, seeds and other natural materials. The vendor's explanation attracted a small crowd of young people, interested to hear. In the past there were many such vendors but this is now a dying art. Less and less of these oils are being produced by traditional practitioners. He was very happy to be photographed and proudly displayed his collection for the camera.

I have been advised that when in India I should expect the unexpected. Turning into a side street off Chitpur Road I was struck by the fashion model elegance of a couple of young men stood talking to each other. Both delivery men, they seemed unaware of their good looks and were surprised that I wanted to photograph them. I had a similar moment last year in Haryana when I saw a Rajasthani farmer walking with his cattle. He would not have been out of place on the cover of Vogue.

Maker and seller of essential oils, vegetable market
Elegant young men near Chitpur Road
Dilip and Mrs Ghosh, Beadon Street
Last year I photographed a chaiwallah in Beadon Street, North Kolkata. He first caught my attention due to the brightly coloured backdrop of his stall. I then secured his permission for a portrait through a customer since he did not speak English. My volunteer interpreter told me the chaiwallah's name was Mohan Lal and that he came from Bihar. It turned out to be one of the best pictures of my first trip to India and keen to present him with a copy, I spent three days looking for him along Beadon Street before eventually finding him. He was both surprised and delighted as was his wife who after a little persuasion joined him in another picture. And something strange. Not only is he not called Mohan Lal, he is not from Bihar either. He is Dilip Ghosh, a Bengali, born in Kolkata. Despite the confusion he told me that business is good - so good that he produces a calendar every year to give to his regular customers. Fabulous. I hope to meet the Ghosh family again one day.

Still on the subject of tea, when walking through the lanes of the Bhawanipur neighbourhood I passed three men of a certain age who were sitting on a bench and enjoying a cup of chai. They waved to me and wished me "good afternoon". I can't resist a chat and they insisted I drink a cup with them. Mr. Mitra, Mr. Das and Mr. Sarkar turned out to be real gentlemen, speaking a very formal English and enquiring about my family, health and the weather. Now what was that about expecting the unexpected?  

Tea drinkers of Bhawanipur


You can see more pictures from Kolkata here.

Manjit of Calcutta Photo Walks again accompanied me at the market, leading me to some great shots, explaining how the market works, interpreting and generally making things fun. he can also advise on technique. His tours are highly recommended.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Scenes From The City Of Joy - 1, The Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata

Kolkata (Calcutta) is sometimes referred to as the city of joy. The hand pulled rickshaw is one of its iconic images. It is the only city in India that still has this mode of transport introduced during the period of British rule. Almost all of the men involved in this work come from other parts of India, predominantly Bihar, one of the poorer states. 

Dorik Jadab, rickshaw puller from Bihar
Navin Das, rickshaw puller from Bihar
I became interested in the rickshaw pullers last year when I visited Kolkata for the first time. These men are often of small stature, very lean and yet somehow manage to transport passengers of all shapes and sizes, sometimes two or three at the same time. The passengers often have enormous piles of shopping from the many bazaars and this too is loaded onto the rickshaw which then has to be maneuvered through narrow lanes and main thoroughfares most of which are clogged with trucks, cars, trams, buses and myriad other forms of transport. In recent years there have been state government proposals to outlaw this kind of work on grounds of it being inhumane. The rickshaw pullers protested that having no other qualifications or training they would not be able to find alternative work and so the ban was not enacted. Further proposals were developed to replace the rickshaws with a battery powered model. To date this has not happened.

Someone I spoke to told me that this work does not require strength but is all about balance. That person has a nice office job, so I am not sure how he would know. I wanted to know more about the lives of these men, where they come from, how they live and what they think of the work. On my more recent visit, with the help of an interpreter, I spoke to two of the rickshaw pullers, randomly encountered in Chitpur Road and Beadon Street in the northern part of the city.

Navin
Rickshaw puller with customer, North Kolkata
Navin Das is 65 years old. He told me that he has been doing this work for 33 years, ever since he came to Kolkata. Shortly after arriving from his village in Bihar he saw the rickshaws and decided it was something that he could do to earn money. His wife, two sons, three daughters and five grandchildren remain in Bihar. He works for two months at a time and then goes home for one month. His working hours are from 5am until 8pm. He does not own the rickshaw but rents it for 30 rupees per day. The rental charge includes an element for repairs for which he does not have to pay extra. Most rickshaw owners will have between 75 and 100 vehicles in their possession so quite an earner if you are receiving 30 rupees per day seven days per week for their hire. Navin can earn up to 300 rupees on a good day and about 200 rupees at less busy times. 

I was curious to know where he lives when he is in Kolkata. He pointed to the rickshaw and explained that each evening, he pulls it to the side of the road and sleeps on it and has done so since he started working. This is to maximise the value of his earnings and to be able to take back as much money as possible to his family. Whilst he was speaking I realised that in the 33 years he has been in this city, he has probably never, or very rarely, slept indoors. 

I asked him about the customers. He said that most of them are polite and respectful. There are fixed tariffs so there are no arguments over fares. The only people he does not like to take are those who are drunk who sometimes try to avoid paying at all or occasionally offer many times the fixed amount. He dislikes both. 

Dorik Jadab is 36 and is also from Bihar. He has been a rickshaw puller for ten years. He is a striking figure with a yellow headscarf and an impressive moustache. He has four children aged from 8-18 who live in his home village with their mother. He also pays the standard 30 rupees daily rental and makes a similar amount of money to Navin. He likes the work but suffers from problems with his legs due to the constant pressure of pulling heavy loads. Dorik sleeps in a wood storage facility together with several other workers. He said that he does not have to pay for this but did not explain on what basis he is there.

Dorik 
Tilak Mahato
Navin said that the rickshaw, if looked after properly will last for 10-15 years and that he has heard of some lasting even longer than this. I visited one of the repair workshops where three men were carrying out maintenance work to Tilak Mahato's rickshaw. Repairs normally take place overnight, outside of operational hours and the work can spill out onto the roads if the workshops are full. Repairs are usually completed within 24 hours and almost always within a few days. Tilak is 58 years old and comes from Jharkand, formerly part of Bihar and now a state in its own right. He was sitting patiently whilst the work was being done and explained that every two years he arranges for re-painting of the woodwork to help reserve it and for minor repairs to be carried out. He has been a rickshaw puller for 40 years.

Waiting for customers
Tilak waits for his rickshaw to be repaired
You can see more pictures of Kolkata here.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Northwood Hall - 1930's luxury in Highgate

Luxury Art Deco apartment blocks were built all over London during the 1930's. Offering the latest domestic conveniences, concierge services and in some case swimming pools and resident only restaurants  they were designed with the principles of modernity and luxury firmly in mind. Many of these buildings have survived including Northwood Hall in Hornsey Lane, Highgate, built in 1935 and designed by architect Charles Edward Bright.



Northwood Hall is large and imposing with a striking main entrance topped by stylised lettering carrying the building's name. Behind this sits a recessed and glazed stairwell topped by a tower rising one level above the rest of the structure. The original almost 200 flats were advertised as having either two or three bedrooms with large reception rooms and various modern facilities. The rental cost per annum in 1935 ranged from £105-175 per annum and for this tenants got central heating, constant hot water, heated linen cupboards, an electric lift, garage space, a fitted kitchen and a de-luxe bathroom. Peace and quiet was ensured through the sound proofing of all corridors.

Architects working in the modernist style emphasised not only modernity and luxury but also healthy living. Charles Edward Bright reflected this in the building's unusual cruciform shape, intended to maximise the amount of natural light flowing into each unit. The inclusion of semi-circular sun windows in some flats and French windows leading to external balconies in others further enhanced this. The balconies are architecturally interesting too, protruding from the building and of unorthodox design with one rounded and one squared off end.


Still with healthy living, exercise was encouraged by setting the building in extensive gardens and by providing tennis courts where according to the advertising brochure residents could participate in tournaments during the summer months. Of course, exercise wasn't compulsory and for the less sporty residents, the roof garden may have been more attractive. Sadly neither of these features have survived. The tennis courts were built on many years ago and the roof garden is no longer accessible. The loss of the roof garden is particularly unfortunate since it must command spectacular views across the city as do the flats at the upper levels. Indeed this was a feature of the original advertising which boasted that it was possible to see as far south as Crystal Palace on a clear day.

The annual rent included access to uniformed porters who could also arrange for maid services but perhaps the most splendid facility of all was the restaurant that offered both table d'hote meals and an a la carte menu. Not only that, meals could be served in your flat if you preferred to eat at home. These arrangements were not unusual in apartment buildings of this period - the Isokon in nearby Belsize Park had a famous restaurant and bar - but I am not aware of any that have survived until today. I understand that the former restaurant space was converted into additional flats whilst a residents' shop also closed.



The architect had an interesting career. Educated at the Bartlett, he went on to work as an assistant to Herbert Baker, Edward Lutyens and Guy Dawber from 1928. He designed at least three more London apartment buildings during the 1930's, including Benhurst Court in Streatham which has some design similarities to Northwood Hall. He also saw military service in Gibraltar during the Second World War.

Recently proposals were brought forward to add two storeys to the building consisting of 22  new apartments with a total of 55 bathrooms (!) Whilst there are many examples of adding a single  storey to buildings of this kind, it is most unusual for changes of this extent. If implemented this would have significant impact on the original design, destroying its lines, proportions and in particular detracting from the previously mentioned main entrance. The building is not protected by listed status but significant opposition to the proposals including more than 40 objections submitted to Haringey Council's Planning Department resulted last week in their withdrawal. New proposals are to be drawn up and consulted on. It is hoped that a more sympathetic approach will be taken. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Picture Post 71 - A Hidden Art Deco Treasure in London's West End.

One of London's most attractive Art Deco facades is tucked away in a side street, just a few steps from Bond Street in the city centre. Built in 1937, Blenstock House was designed by architects Fuller, Hall and Foulsham who were also responsible for the superb Ibex House near Tower Hill.


The building stands on the corner of Blenheim and Woodstock Street and gets its name from a combination of the two. It received Grade II listed status in 2009 due primarily to its use of "eye-catching materials on the facade which is clad in buff, yellow and peach faience, a distinctive and stylish example of Art Deco architecture". Other features referenced in the listing include bent glass vertical windows, a stair tower, flagpole and the rooftop advertising frame. The stylised external sprinkler stop valve signage is also thought to be original. I particularly like the "thermometer" feature in the centre of the facade and the glazed tower which stands to the left when facing the building. According to the official listing details, some original internal features have been retained including the brass handrail and metal balustrade of the main staircase.


The building was originally the offices of Phillips auctioneers, a company with a long history, founded in 1796 by one Harry Phillips. Harry had served as a senior clerk for Christie's auctioneers before branching out by himself. The first Phillips auction in Blenstock House was held in 1939. Although the building was leased to Phillips, other businesses also occupied space here including sportswear manufacturers Berker Sportscraft Ltd who moved there in 1946. By 1951 two more companies had space here - Glendining and Co Ltd (another auctioneers) and Fina Petroluem Products. Over time Phillips expanded and by 1974 they were the sole tenants. In 1989 they established an interconnection to their other premises in nearby New Bond Street to form a single unit. Bonhams took over the entire building in 2001.

The architectural company of Fuller, Hall and Foulsham was based in Hemel Hempstead and its partners were to design many buildings there during the expansion of the town in the 1950's as well as AMP House in Croydon, completed in 1964.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

China Town Rediscovered

I have recently been spending time in Chinatown, photographing the street life and discovering things  that I'd hadn't noticed in more than 30 years of going there! I have to admit that it is some time since I last went to a restaurant there but I often partake of those long, deep fried "Chinese doughnuts" if I am there at the weekend and occasionally buy little treats including sweets made from various beans, or mangosteens, a small and delicious fruit I developed a liking for when living in Thailand some years ago.

Dansey Place grocery shop
Taking a break, Rupert Court
I have many memories of spending time in this part of London, including eating with groups of friends, once or twice attending parties in tiny flats tucked away above restaurants and even going to the Guang Hwa bookshop to purchase of Chinese books for a library service I once worked in and which had several Chinese customers. My recent forays, reading and internet research have made me appreciate Chinatown much more and have also provoked in me discomfort about its future as more businesses are forced out through hikes in rent whilst the number of gambling establishments increases.

For those not familiar with London's Chinatown, it is a collection of about nine streets clustered on the southern side of Shaftesbury Avenue. People know it for its restaurants but bakeries, supermarkets selling Asian food items, hairdressers and community organisations can also be found there. There are also a handful of Japanese and Korean restaurants offering alternatives to Chinese dishes. The main thoroughfare, Gerrard Street is always busy, especially at weekends when Chinese people come from across London and the South-East to shop and to meet friends and family. Many tourists visit and are easily spotted having their photograph taken under one of the ornamental gates before choosing a place to eat. This street is also the main focus of public cultural activity at Chinese New Year and other festival times as well as a place you might see a political demonstration by Falun Gong, Jehovah's Witnesses distributing brochures translated into Chinese or occasional buskers at the junction with Wardour Street.

Wardour Street

Deliveries, Wardour Street
London's original Chinatown was in Limehouse in the East End where most of the city's Chinese population lived at the beginning of the 20th century, many of them running businesses catering to seamen from the nearby docks. The area was heavily bombed during the Second World War and many Chinese businesses and homes suffered destruction or damage. Post-war demolitions destroyed most of what remained and a new Chinatown was gradually established around Gerrard Street in the late 1960's and early 1970's. However the Chinese presence in this part of the city predates this. In "London Nights Out: Life In Cosmopolitan London" Judith R. Walkowitz refers to Soho restaurants run by Hong Kong Chinese in the 1930's as well as other Chinese businesses bombed out in Limehouse coming here in the 1940's on extremely disadvantageous leases just to stay afloat.



Shopping in Gerrard Street
And so to my discoveries. Wong Kei in Wardour Street is one of London's best known Chinese restaurants. For years it was renowned for the rudeness of the staff who who bellow at customers "upstairs upstairs" as they entered or insist you share tables with people already seated when there was space elsewhere. I remember one famous occasion when going there to eat with a group of Chinese friends one was so incensed with the rudeness of our reception that he almost came to blows with one of the waiters. This robust welcome became part of the experience of eating at Wong Kei and people would go there to "enjoy" the experience as well as to sample the food.

The Wong Kei building has quite a history. Built in restrained art nouveau style, the foundation stone was laid in 1904 by none other than actress Sarah Bernhardt whilst the coping stone was laid by Henry Irving. Both were extraordinary people. Bernhardt was the supreme star of the French theatre during the late 19th and early 20th century even after having a leg amputated in 1915. She also inspired several of the wonderful art nouveau posters of Czech artist Alphone Mucha. Irving was born into a working class family in Somerset, rose to become a luminary of the British theatre and the first actor to be granted a knighthood in 1895.  This building is proof that one should always look up when walking in London. I have a passion for art nouveau but entranced by the menu in the window only recently noticed the obvious architectural features and plaques to Bernhardt and Irving. For many years the building was home to William Berry "Willy" Clarkson's Wigs by Clarkson. Clarkson was not only an excellent wig maker and costumier, but also an accomplished blackmailer and fraudster. Perhaps unsurprisingly he died in suspicious circumstances in 1934.


Dansey Place
Just across from Wong Kei, there is a narrow alley that runs behind a string of restaurants. This is Dansey Place. At first site (and smell) it is neither welcoming nor attractive. However it is worth venturing in if only to visit Lo's Noodle Factory where delicious fresh noodles are made and sold  very cheaply from this "hole in the wall" operation. Peep over the counter and it is possible to see huge sheets of noodles being stretched out before cut and packed into bags ready for sale. There is also a seafood stall in the street and a small, red and green painted grocery shop.

Our friend Willy Clarkson has a connection with Dansey Place too. Before the Second World War the street was a notorious gay meeting place. Men would congregate in a public lavatory opposite Clarkson's shop and which became known as Clarkson's Cottage. It was also a haunt for blackmailers who would extort money from the men - male homosexuality being completely illegal in the UK until 1967. The facility was so notorious that when it was closed in 1945, a wealthy New Yorker bought it and installed it in his garden.

A modern conversation in Gerrard Street
Nice hoardings but another closed restaurant
London's Chinatown is small compared to those of say New York, San Francisco, Manila or Melbourne but it is no less interesting. Whatever time you choose to wander its few streets there will be something to see including early morning deliveries to the shops and the restaurants, waiters and waitresses having quick cigarette breaks before the onslaught of lunchtime customers,  people snacking outside the bakeries and the of course occasional street trader. I recently noticed a couple of older men selling garlic and green vegetables spread out on newspaper. I bought something from each of them and asked if they would let me take their pictures. We do not have a language in common but we somehow understood each other and they agreed for me to take their portraits - both extremely amused that I should want to. I have since returned to give them hard copies of the photographs. Both of them were surprised and after looking at the pictures placed them very carefully in their wallets. One tried to give me free garlic in return! Portraits of the two gentlemen are featured in this post.

It is true that we often don't notice the things we see very day and we don't always realise their value or consider them special until they are lost. This tiny enclave in the centre of London is important not only to the various Chinese communities or as a tourist attraction but because it represents an important part of the city's history. The losses due to high rents and the encroachment of unrelated businesses is worrying. It would be shameful if these few streets lost their unique character in the way that much of the neighbouring Soho has.

Gerrard Street
Lisle Street