LONDON - The crowds pour out of this city’s legendary West End theatres looking for a place to satisfy their late-night hunger after digesting some of the finest acting in the world.
And while many seek out traditional pubs, most head to a small nearby neighbourhood that looks more like Hong Kong than London.
Giant red lanterns hang across streets and bright neon lights guide people to the entrances of Chinese restaurants, bakeries, souvenir shops and supermarkets on bustling Gerrard Street, the heart of London’s Chinatown.
Left: London's Chinatown is a hidden gem. Right: After theater shows, people like to eat in London's Chinatown.
While many people don’t even know London has a Chinatown, the English capital has actually been home to a significant Chinese population since the beginning of the 20th century, and today about 100,000 Chinese call London home.
London’s Chinatown, however, has had a checkered past. Set up to cater to Chinese sailors who drifted into the capital on ships carrying cargo from the Far East in the late 1900s, Chinatown became known for its opium dens, slum housing and gang warfare.
That’s all changed and today Chinatown, with its neatly kept shops and brightly-lit walking streets, is a culinary hotspot with some of its restaurants earning rave reviews from London’s harshest food critics.
One of the restaurants most talked about is Gerrard’s Corner, whose dim sum dishes are said to be the best outside Hong Kong. It sits at the corner of Gerrard and Wardour and has become a local landmark.
Dr. Danis Tang, a.k.a. Mr. Chinatown, is a practising physician in the area and one of the restaurant’s biggest boosters.
“The food here is excellent, very good quality and well prepared by very knowledgeable chefs,” says Dr. Tang, who was born in Hong Kong, studied medicine at England’s Sheffield University and decided to make London his home after graduation.
Dr. Tang has seen Chinatown change over the years and remembers when it was one of London’s seediest areas.
Above: The selection and quality of the dishes in London's Chinatown are on a par with restaurants in Hong Kong.
“The gangs have all gone and as you can see the area is very bright and clean. Tourists now are encouraged to come here.”
On a lunchtime visit to Gerrard’s Corner, I see tourists and local Chinese enjoying dim sum dishes – bite-sized treats usually enjoyed at lunch that were first perfected in southern China and then brought to Hong Kong and the rest of the world.
The hargow (shrimp dumpling), char siu bao (barbecue pork bun) and siu mai (pork dumpling) are prepared to perfection and Dr. Tang tells me that’s because the restaurant employs a long-time chef who is “the best in London.”
“I won’t reveal his name because maybe another restaurant will try and steal him,” says the jovial doctor.
Encouraged by the delectable lunch, I return for dinner and find a long queue outside the restaurant.
“We’re lucky tonight, the wait is usually much longer,” says a Londoner who makes Gerrard’s Corner “my second home at dinner time.”
More than 80 restaurants populate Chinatown, which now has spilled over onto a number of streets that run off Gerrard. All seem to be doing a booming business, thanks to an increase of visitors from mainland China to London in recent years and a demand from locals for top quality Chinese fare. Gerrard’s Corner never disappoints.
The night-time offerings here are equal to the dim-sum treats I enjoyed earlier and while I see Chinese patrons ordering some exotic food, Westerners are content with dishes that come drenched in sweet red sauces.
“The restaurant caters to all tastes,” says my dinner partner Dr. Tang, who insists I try some traditional fish dishes because “the chef really knows his fish.”
Gerrard Street has always been a “good time” place in London and Charles Dickens set the home of Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer in Great Expectations, on this street. It has also been home to many of London’s most famous clubs and in the Roaring ‘20s, the 43 Club attracted the city’s richest and most powerful people; even a few naughty royals were seen leaving No. 43 in the wee hours of the morning. In 1968, Led Zeppelin held their first rehearsal in a basement on Gerrard Street.
Thanks to Chinese restaurants like Gerrard’s Corner, good food and good times have returned to Gerrard Street.
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The address for Gerrards Corner is 30 Wardour St, London, England (Soho) - information: www.gerrardscorner.co.uk/emain.htm / For more information on London, go to www.visitbritain.com
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