Chinatown occupies a small part of London, but is very popular among Asian people obviously, but also tourists and Londoners. Especially at this time of year, when the annual Chinese New Year festivities are around the corner. This is the best moment to wander in this area, which is erupting into an exuberant burst of colours and life for a few days.
Today, DOYOUSPEAKLONDON invits you to explore London’s Chinatown, the home to a large East Asian community and Chinese culture hub.
Chinatown London: history
Geographically, Chinatown is currently located in and around Gerrard Street. It is delimited by Shaftesbury Avenue to the north, Rupert Street to the west, Charing Cross Road to the east and Leicester Square to the south. It counts several Chinese restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, souvenir shops and businesses.
But it was not always there: the first Chinatown was located in Limehouse in the East End. Chinese employees of the East India Company settled at the docks in the late 19th century and helped to form a Chinese community. However, this area declined during the Second World War.
Chinatown as we know it today started to form in the 1950s, when a few Chinese restaurants opened. With other businesses and services setting up there, the neighbourhood had become a great hub for Chinese culture by the 1960s-1970s.
Chinatown’s buildings and streets are decorated with Chinese symbols such as dragons and lanterns, but there are other distinctive signs that will make you feel far away from London…
Have a look at the street signs, which are all written in English and Chinese.
Go find the stone lions (the attraction of Gerrard Street and common meeting point for tourists for a souvenir photograph), enjoy some other contemporary art sculptures and head to the renowned Chinese gates.
The popular Chinatown’s “fourth gate” is to be found on Wardour Street: it was completed in 2016 and built in traditional Qing dynasty style. It is said to be the largest Chinese gate in the UK!
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is held according to the Chinese Lunar calendar, so the date varies every year (even if usually occurring in January/February). Better check the exact date in advance, especially if you are planning your travel in accordance with the festivities!
2020 is the year of the Rat and the Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) begins on and ends .
Chinese festivities in London
If you are interested in joining the festivities, the Chinese New Year activities will take place in Chinatown, Trafalgar Square and across the West End. As usual, you will be able to watch Chinese dance shows, music performances and colourful hand-crafted floating lions and dragons.
The Chinese New Year parade will kick off at 10am on Charing Cross Road, before snaking its way through Shaftesbury Avenue, in Chinatown.
The fun in Trafalgar Square will begin at 11am with screen shows and a thanksgiving ceremony, followed by firecrackers, speeches and the Lions’ Eye-Dotting Ceremony.
Places to eat in Chinatown
When we went to Chinatown last year to experience the New Year’s festivities, we first headed to the renowned Bun House to enjoy a tea in the downstairs room and be ready to order their famous buns, celebrating the Chinese New Year.
2019 was the year of the Pig and all the “Piggy buns” made specially in pig-shapes were unfortunately gone in no time (despite staying in the long queue for half an hour!). We just ordered the traditional buns to take away and ate them later on that day (quite delighted by the mellowness of the buns and the tasty filling).
The crowd and bustle of the shop just made it clear about the success of this place, and eventually we felt quite happy to enjoy some of the Chinese traditions at that time of year…
We then randomly chose a restaurant, from where we could enjoy the festivities and feel the good vibes.
Shanghai Modern was ideally located and we could see some dragons coming in and out of the restaurant and share with us the Chinese New Year Salad, the tradition of which was explained to us by the friendly staff there: tossing the salad is meant to bring good luck.
And we did find the opportunity to taste a Piggy-Bun!!! Quite cute to look at and interesting to try !
This year’s Rat steamed buns might be as cute and tasty, just have a look here if you are looking for a simple recipe 🙂
The whole thing is really worth experiencing: the noise in the streets, the dynamic of the people celebrating the new year, the mix of colors and shapes of the dragons and other costumes… London enables you to discover different cultures in the heart of the city and to immerse yourself in new environments quite easily, which I really enjoy as a Londoner.
To go further:
Bun House: 26-27 Lisle Street, Soho WC2H 7BA; Website
Shangai Modern: 12 Newport Place, WC2H 7PR ; Website
A website to help you organise your trip to Chinatown for the New Year celebrations