Liverpool is a world renowned city.
Mention Liverpool to any Brit or Western traveller and they’ll probably be able to reel off a few dubious ‘facts’ about The Beatles and will more than likely warn you not to leave your car parked up somewhere quiet.
Negative stereotypes aside, Liverpool is a city famed for its rich musical heritage and football teams, but many people are unaware of the long-standing cultural connection that the city has had with China, in fact many tourists to the city are often surprised by the presence of a Chinatown here. To many the iconic Chinese Arch (the largest of its kind outside of China) is a rather incongruous sight, but a quick visit to the recently opened Museum of Liverpool soon reveals this landmark’s origins.
You’ll find a detailed history of the city’s Chinese connection in the Museum of Liverpool’s ‘Global City’ exhibition on the ground floor, but for those who aren’t planning a visit anytime soon I’ll give a brief rundown that should help to elucidate this intriguing section of Liverpool’s history.
The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Liverpool in 1834, these intrepid travellers were employed by Alfred Holt and Company, one of the first British companies to establish trade routes to the East. By the 19th Century, Liverpool’s Albert Docks were under construction but there were still many smaller dock yards dotted along the Mersey receiving goods from all over the world. These Chinese seafarers were some of the first of their kind to have settled overseas, they were accommodated in boarding houses close to the dockyards, but it wasn’t long until they started to branch out into other parts of the city. Cleveland Square, Frederick Street and Pitt Street were amongst the first areas to see an established Chinese community.
From the late 19th century these Chinese people were able to start setting up businesses. Shops, boarding houses, restaurants and cafes soon began to populate the streets attracting more Chinese folks and also encouraging more seafarers to jump ship in favour of a life on dry land. After 60 years of living amongst the people of Liverpool, the Chinese visitors were now becoming accepted. It was at this point in time that marriages between Chinese men and local women began to take place.
Despite some seafarers’ taste for gambling, Chinese men had a good reputation amongst the people of Liverpool. They were considered hard workers and were drinking less than their English counterparts. From these unions more businesses sprang, by the 20th century there were around 14 Chinese owned restaurants in addition to a number of Chinese-style laundry shops opened which were considered innovative for the time.
After significant bombing decimated much of the Chinese dwellings during World War II, the Chinese families (some of whom could trace their history back almost a 100 years) moved once more to the area now considered to be Liverpool’s Chinatown. Although the aforementioned Chinese Arch (crafted in China and constructed here in 1999) is one of the most recognisable footprints of this China connection, a walk around Nelson Street, Berry Street, and Duke Street reveals a cornucopia of delights for the observant sinophile.