Visit Homepage
Skip to content

Aspects of Literary Limehouse: Thomas Burke and the “Glamorous Shame of Chinatown”

Anne Witchard

In 1916, the fact of relations between Chinese men and white women in London’s East End was fast becoming an issue of critical national concern. The Chinese in Lime house were the scapegoats of British social ambivalence. Through their lack of integration they represented the breakdown of social order, whilst as a bachelor community they posed a sexual and racial threat. Anxiety about the “inscrutable Chinamen” who dwelt at the hub of Britain’s empire fed the myth of an Oriental criminal conspiracy operating from within the capital. Arthur Ward, writing under the pseudonym Sax Rohmer, boosted the notoriety of Lime house by making it the headquarters of his evil genius, Fu Manchu, from whence he masterminded international drug-trafficking and white slavery with a view to global dominion. Thomas Burke’s best-selling collection of Chinatown love stories, Lime house Nights was published in 1916 to instant notoriety. Whilst the book received laudatory reviews it was banned for immorality by the national subscription libraries. Burke caused outrage by his misappropriation of the underworld of establishment concern: “In place of the steady, equalised light which he should have thrown on that pestiferous spot off the West India Dock Road,” protested the Times Literary Supplement, “he has been content … with flashes of limelight and fireworks.”[1] Whilst Burke’s representation of London’s Chinatown is symptomatic of the same concerns which produced Rohmer’s demonised Chinaman, Lime house Nights displays what seems in the light of its day, an unusual racial tolerance. For both writers, Chinese Lime house was a resort of occult Otherness, but whereas for Rohmer the alien element is presented as undesirable and operates as a byword for all that is sinister and threatening, Burke invokes a theatre of the exotic, a picturesque Lime house informed by the effects of orientalism on British popular culture. “There was the blue moon of the Orient. There, for the bold, were the sharp knives, and there, for those who would patiently seek, was the lamp of young Aladdin.”[2] This Lime house suggests the “limelight and fireworks” of Christmas pantomime, the tinsel glamour of “Chinese” musical comedy and the lurid illustrations of popular editions of The Arabian Nights. Whilst Lime house Nights is generally referred to in the context of the Chinatown thriller and, within the sub-division of its tiny English genre, as a non-malignant adjunct to Sax Rohmer, Burke’s stories of Chinatown can be read more productively when seen in the tradition of literary chinoiseries. In his divergence from the moral norm, Burke harnesses the notion of Chinatown as a site of “mythopoetic transgression” predicated upon the chinoiserie topsy-turvy, traditional in British popular culture as a vehicle of burlesque.[3] In Bakhtinian terms, Chinese Limehouse presented itself as a place of carnivalesque transgression.[4] The carnivalesque functions in popular culture through the upsetting of society’s norms. The district of Pennyfields and the Limehouse Causeway, London streets overlaid with the trappings of an alien culture, rendered it a world-turned-upside-down. The shop windows are filled with arcane produce, restaurants are denoted by weird hieroglyphs and serve weirder food. Strangely dressed people and the locality’s dimly lit glooms (a heavy mist never lifts from Limehouse) provoke an easy association with theatrical spectacle. Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway are streets “of no-time and no-place … of spices and golden apples, where men, dark or lemon-faced wearing the raiment of pantomime swam through the mist or held the walls in living statuary.”[5] Carnival revels in inversion and the supposed Chinese control of an illicit opium market at the heart of the British Empire upended colonial dynamics. It was undermining, as Barry Milligan points out, of the power relations that demarcated centre and periphery of empire.[6]

Early-twentieth-century obsessions with Chinatown were the product of an overdetermined set of factors; of discourses ranging from eighteenth-century Sinophilia to the the Victorian mythologising of the East End opium den, from the demonising of China in De Quincey to the perennial appeal of Aladdin on the pantomime stage. Mid-Victorian popular entertainment offered Londoners a density of images of Chinese spectacle. “Ten Thousand Curious Chinese Things” could be seen at Dunn’s Pavilion in Hyde Park.[7] A Chinese junk moored at Blackfriars Bridge offered tours, acrobatic and firework displays. Pwan-ye-koo, a “lotus-footed concubine”, gave musical performances in Park Lane near the Great Exhibition, and an illuminated Chinese pagoda dancing-platform was the star attraction of the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens.[8] Chinoiserie romances were a staple of Edwardian Musical Comedy. Shows such as A Trip To Chinatown (1894), San Toy (1899), A Chinese Honeymoon (1901), The New Aladdin (1906), See See (1906), The Chinese Lantern (1908), Kismet (1911), and Chu Chin Chow (1916), coincided however with the demonising of “the Chinaman” in the burgeoning mass print media. “Our Captious Critic” reviewing San Toy at Daly’s theatre for The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News found the show’s scenes of inter-racial romance a little too strong:

It is possible…that the British Colony in Pynka Pong would not see the fun which is discovered at Daly’s in the flirtations of Dudley, the English lady’s maid, with Li, the Heathen Chinee — but at Daly’s we do not quite understand the drawbacks of The Heathen Chinee.[9]

A cultural subjection to equal doses of sinophobic propaganda and chinoiserie charm produced an ambivalence of response to Chineseness. The discourse of yellow perilism which began to escalate in Britain during the early twentieth century was a demonology of race and vice, bound up with fears of degenerative urban blight and imperial decline. Notions of Chinatown vividly described a moral barrier between decency and degeneracy. The vacillations of the Orient in the imagination of the West, between contempt and awe, were encompassed in Chinatown fictions of the familiar made strange. The Orientalised metropolitan slum was a forbidden zone furnished with the imagery of England’s imperial history, a conjuring of unimaginable Chinese excesses, grotesque heathen practices and bizarre perversities that had “the power to thrill the nursery and the theatre, and to enrage the drawing-room and the club”.[10] An agreeable terror of Chineseness would play a major role in the newly theorised unconscious of the Edwardians.

Limehouse Nights was received as a “frank and brutal” evocation of Chinatown’s melodramatic “grotesqueries” that were at the same time fantasies “evoked by the Pavements of the New Baghdad [Burke] shared in vision with R. L. S. and Arthur Machen.”[11] The book excited passionate critical response. Its author was compared to Dickens and Poe.[12] Controversy raged around the accuracy of Limehouse Nights. Were the tales fact or fantasy? “Mr Burke, as it were, held up a mirror to a part of society … where Orient and Occident casually meet in a Chinatown”.[13] Opinions about the book were largely expressed in its own register of unflinching realism intertwined with romance. Edwin Pugh declared Burke a genius, “at once a poet and a realist…the poet in him redeems his realism from the bald horror of a police report … in spite of his realism he takes you into an enchanted world, as hideously ugly as nethermost hell and as luridly beautiful.”[14] The book’s blend of shocking realism with lyrical romance flew in the face of consensual thought and middle-class taboo. The fact of co-habitation in Chinatown undermined utterly the foundations of English culture by destabilising the Englishness of its institutions. Burke’s portrayal of a hybrid East End where teenaged Cockney girls eat Chow Mein and Chop Suey with chopsticks in the local caffs, blithely gamble their house-keeping money at Puck-a-Pu and Fan Tan, burn joss-sticks in their bedrooms, and ritualistically prepare opium pipes in the corner pub, was the reason for the ban by Boots and W. H. Smith, whose policy was not to stock books that were salacious or corrupting. The absence of moral censure regarding miscegenation, or what H. G. Wells referred to as “rather horrible…’sexual circulation,'” contributed towards the book’s notoriety in the United States.[15] Here public interest was avid, whipped up by racy reviews: “Amid erotomaniacs, satyrs and sadists — and if the full meaning of these terms escapes you, be thankful — he seizes scraps of splendid courage, beauty and pathos … If you dare to face the human heart as it really is do not miss Limehouse Nights urged the Boston Transcript.[16] A homesick Charlie Chaplin credited Limehouse Nights as the inspiration for A Dog’s Life (1918) in which his character befriends a dance-hall prostitute:

I got a feeling from reading Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights … There is beauty in the slums! — for those who can see it despite the dirt and sordidness. There are people reacting toward one another there — there is LIFE, and that’s the whole thing![17]

D. W. Griffith paid one thousand pounds for the film rights to Limehouse Nights and it is largely due to Hollywood that Chinese Limehouse would make so profound an impression on the twentieth-century imaginary.[18] London’s fog-bound dockside streets, the lurid opium dens and gambling parlours, home to Burke’s displaced Chinamen and Cockney waifs, are vividly realised in Griffith’s film of ‘The Chink and the Child’, titled Broken Blossoms (1919). The film’s reputation as a masterpiece of early cinema set a celluloid precedent for the iconic imagery of Chinese Limehouse. Between Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thriller and Burke’s Limehouse love tale, the Victorian narrative tradition of dockside Lime house as a place where gentlemen went sometimes to smoke opium, developed into a lurid literature of yellow men, white girls, sex and dope.

Cockney John Chinaman

Nor is John Chinaman’s fancy for copying English ideas confined only to that of adopting names. ‘John’ — as I learnt very much from a recent visit to his quarters — has a great fancy for adopting English wives as well as English names.[19]

Fin-de-siecle figurations of “the Chinaman” owe a debt to late-nineteenth-century invasion fears, newly articulated by their focus on the burgeoning freedoms of women in the early decades of the twentieth century. The association of white women and Chinese men symbolised ethical abandonment and heralded the degeneration of society. Young girls, devoid of moral sense, were a target of the East End’s Yellow Peril, “but in what manner they are attracted to the Chinese Quarter of London has not been unravelled,” wrote one journalist. It was concluded that: “Little gifts of sweets and delicate attentions overcome the aversion borne of colour prejudice. Then comes the insidious suggestion of puck-a-boo … so simple that the most unintelligent child can play it.”[20]Everyone in London knew that Limehouse opium dens rendered up white women for obscure Chinese desire. There they “stretched out in mixed company and gave themselves up to a somnolent narcotic.”[21] In the following newspaper description of “a recognised establishment” hidden away in shabby Lime house, the emphasis is on secret sensuality:

The soft light of shaded lamps hanging from the ceiling disclose a spacious hall. The feet sink in the rich, heavy carpet as the visitor passes on to the next floor, where there is an excellent restaurant with weird Chinese decorations and a menu that offers a variety of seductive Chinese dishes. Its patrons sometimes include Society women seeking a new sensation.[22]

It was Charles Dickens who was instrumental in establishing the maleficence of London’s Chinese quarter. He wrote one of the earliest published portrayals of an opium den in 1866. ‘Lazarus, Lotus-Eating’ is preoccupied with the Orientalising effect of opium on English women, something that would become a convention of much Chinatown fiction. With his portrayal of John Jasper’s secret life in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) “the filthy but harmless opium den described by Victorian reporters was superseded by the depiction of the opium den as a palace of evil”, its occupants invariably iniquitous.[23] “Said Chinaman convulsively wrestles with one of his many Gods or Devils, perhaps, and snarls horribly. The Lascar laughs and dribbles at the mouth.”[24] Whilst not all opium den narratives were as obviously hostile as Dickens’, Virginia Berridge notices “from the 1870s onwards an increasing tone of racial and cultural hostility”.[25] By the end of the 1890s the English reading public were well aware of Lime house as London’s Chinatown.

Operations between England and the Far East had been established since the 1860s by merchant steamship companies, most notably the Blue Funnel Line. These employed hundreds of Oriental seamen, signed on in China’s treaty ports. Whilst Britain’s soldiers and entrepreneurs set sail from Lime house Reach to defend and extend her interests in China and the Far East, the capital’s East End became cosmopolitan with an influx of Orientals: “Indians, Malaysians, Chinese, and Japanese. Like the Irish and the Jews they tended to live and work in the rookeries and slums.”[26] Along the riverside streets of Lime house Causeway and Pennyfields there developed a Chinatown. There were grocery stores, eating houses, association halls, laundries and lodging rooms. The community was small and the men more or less isolated by culture, language, and the transience of their stay.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century was preoccupied with the question of slums and innumerable slumland exposés sustained a readership eager for the vicarious strangeness of a dockside opium trance. After the restrictions enforced by the Poisons and Pharmacy Act of 1868, opium was no longer so easily obtained as De Quincey had been delighted to discover on a rainy Sunday in 1804 when he made his marvellous purchase from that “unconscious minister of celestial pleasures”, a dull druggist in Oxford Street.[27] Nevertheless opium might be accessed still by “the Celestials” who lived in low and villainous Lime house. Conventional descriptions invariably “discovered” filthy dens “run by a Chinese and his English or Irish wife, patronised by transient Asian sailors”.[28] These places were “mean and miserable, squalid and poor, but not mysterious or threatening.”[29] With the Act came a shift in attitudes that prepared for the dark chinoiseries of the Lime house literature to come. Medical opinion now decided that opium eaten or drunk was usually medicinal (despite De Quincey’s notorious side-effects) yet when smoked à la chinois, was an intoxicant, an inebriate, and thus morally corrupting. The intemperate smoking of opium “which had been encouraged with such careless enthusiasm by British traders in China had come home. The empire was returning fire.”[30] In the same year as the Poisons Act was passed, a feature in London Society acknowledged the existence of “a strange yearning to make more intimate acquaintance with the miraculous drug concerning which there is so much whispering”. The writer describes the drug as a “charming narcotic” and “carnal delight” as well as “a means of raising the devil”:

there hovers about it a vague fascination such as is felt towards ghostly legend and the lore of fairyland … it is the vulgar supposition … that the thousand and one seductive stories contained in the Arabian Nights were composed by writers whose senses were steeped in it.[31]

Opium was becoming a poetic cipher for Chineseness that encompassed the allure of the illicit, the mysterious and demonic East of De Quincey and the erotic languor of the chinoiserie dream of Cathay. Whilst East End opium den narratives such as Dickens’ focused on “the opium den as a point of comparison between domestic English cultural elements and exotic Oriental ones”, the deviance of opium began to be enjoyed by a self-conscious and deliberate “recreational” use.[32] Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons attained the bliss of a dissolved identity and the raptures of a loss of agency in the dockland slum. This Lime house was a territory that held the dangerous appeal associated with the absolute foreignness of the Chinese. Milligan sums up the symbolic force of the Oriental den of vice as the mythic antithesis “of the sacred English hearthside”.[33]

As the Chinese Quarter became established, the “vile, uninhabitable tenements” of slumland representation became exoticised, “transformed into the homes of vicious, ruinous indulgence”.[34] One of Conan Doyle’s most atmospherically memorable scenes is when Sherlock Holmes visits an opium den in Lime house in ‘The Man With The Twisted Lip’ (1887). In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), the protagonist drives “towards the river” in the dead of night where: “There were opium dens, where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.” [35] The Lime house opium den had assumed mythic proportions. Directly following the publication of Wilde’s novel, the Surgeon-Major, addressing the annual meeting of the British Medical Association, proclaimed that the importance of getting rid of the “opium smoking saloons” in East London “could not be overestimated”.[36] At the same time, however, there were flickerings of cultural sensitivity. Some writers made light-hearted attempts to dispel the gloom of Lime house. Typical of such philanthropic irony was Walter Besant’s account:

We have read accounts of the dreadful place have we not? Greatly to my disappointment, because when one goes to an opium den for the first time one expects a creeping of the flesh at least, the place was neither dreadful nor horrible … Except for the smell of the place, which was overwhelming, the musical instrument was the only horror of the opium den.[37]

The Lime house of legend encompassed Ratcliffe Highway, Lime house Causeway, Pennyfields and Narrow Street, the East and West India Dock Roads, Amoy Place, and Pekin, Canton and Nankin Streets. The journalist George Sims was the first to use the term “China Town” with regard to this neighbourhood in 1905:

The ‘bus terminus — the West India Dock Station — is an excellent point from which to take a trip around Lime house. Close at hand is the Causeway, the Chinese quarter…in Lime house the Asiatic seafaring man is still a conspicuous note. You will find specimens of him — Oriental, mysterious, romantic — at almost every turn. At the corner of the Causeway, as we turn into it in search of ‘China Town in London,’ we come upon a group of Lascars in their picturesque little round caps chatting together… let us make our way through narrow, winding China Town. There is no mistake about the Chinese element. The Chinese names are up over the doors of the little shops, and as we peer inside them we see the unmistakable Celestial behind the counter and Chinese inscriptions on the walls. At the back of one little shop is an opium den. If we enter we shall find only a couple of clients, for this is not the hour. The ‘den’ is dark and dirty and reeks unpleasantly.[38]

The enlightened accepted as an inevitable consequence of empire that the humbler citizens of England’s trading concessions and the lesser employees of its steamship lines, might sojourn in the outposts of its mighty capital. These people were simply colourful it was concluded and the Lime house opium den, familiar to the Victorian reader had its horrors debunked:

the Chinaman in Lime house is a most peaceable, inoffensive, harmless character. He is on good terms with his neighbours, most of whom speak well of him. He is picturesque in a region where it is sadly needed; his street is unique in this country.[39]

The fact of mixed marriages was introduced, calmly explained and its offspring pronounced charming.

All the established Chinamen have married Englishwomen, and in their case marriage has not been a failure, for they seem happy. Their children look healthy and are comfortably dressed, and most of them are very nice-looking. These dark-haired, black-eyed boys and girls, with the rosy cheeks and happy looks, are real little pictures.[40]

The Boxer Rebellion of July, 1900, would prove a turning point in international relations with China however and newspaper articles about ‘Oriental London’ and ‘John Chinaman’ took on a decidedly different and lurid tone. The reportage of “horrible” events in which a Chinese “secret society” with the suspected collusion of the “wicked” Manchu Empress, employed sorcery in its attempts to annihilate all Westerners living in China, underscored the tenuous nature of imperial authority. What was to be so very significant about London’s Chinatown fiction, and what distinguishes it from other fiction with imperial themes, as Robert Bickers notes, was “the striking intersection of the metropolitan and the imperial in the Yellow Peril thriller and the Lime house tale.”[41] Jonathan Schneer describes the psychic significance of London’s docks area in 1900. He emphasises the physical magnitude which reinforced the symbolic role of the docks as a “Nexus of Empire … a crossroads of people and things entering and exiting not merely Britain, but what might be termed as the idea of British dominion.”[42] As urban popular culture had been “steeped in China and the Chinese” since the seventeenth century, the idea of China too, was “fully integrated into the narratives and visions of Empire that Britain evolved in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries”.[43] Despite a flickering awareness of American Yellow Peril rhetoric, London’s Chinese Quarter had generally been discussed in English periodicals as a benign curiosity. The July 1900 edition of Notes and Queries had already gone to press by the time the Boxer stories were to break. It carried what was by then a fairly routine feature, “The Chinese In London”. The American author of this piece expressed what was to prove a timely observation, that despite the undoubted fascination of the subject no novelist had yet “done for the London Chinatown what the author of the ‘Cat and Cherub’ did for New York”.[44] Whilst the opium dens in Lime house, Platt conceded, had been “several times more or less (generally less) successfully portrayed in works of fiction, from ‘Edwin Drood’ to ‘Sherlock Holmes’,” this was always with sole reference to gentlemen going there to smoke and not to any other aspect of Chinese life.

No novelist has divined what eccentric local colour might be brought into a story along with those quaint gaming tables, covered with Canton matting, and always surrounded by a polyglot crowd, which are as characteristic of the opium dens as the pipe itself.[45]

It would not be long before the “eccentric local colour” provided by the Chinese in Lime house would be exploited to the very utmost. Because the popular idea of London’s Chinese Quarter was inextricably linked with the opium den, changing attitudes towards opium and the control of drugs in general informed the ways in which the district was envisaged. As drug use became increasingly criminalised, Chinese Lime house became synonymous with crime. The Victorian gothic romance of opium was to develop into a sensational melodrama of the occult machinations of its twentieth-century Chinamen traffickers. [46]

Then she drifted down to China Town –
And you all know where that is –
Where slitty-eyed Chinks take 40 winks
And she’s known as Lime house Liz

And she lives on dope and tarry rope,
She’d never have started the racket
But one day she went on a charabanc ride
And ‘One Lung’ gave her a packet!

— from Limehouse Liz, a popular music-hall song

There was an implicit connection between perceptions of East End and West End that linked the Chinese Quarter by the docks with the recreational use of drugs amongst society revellers. According to the mythology, drugs were smuggled into London’s docks from Far Eastern ports by arch-criminals, invariably Chinese. They were stored in underground riverside warehouses and distributed to the fashionable salons and night-clubs of the West End. The Chinese Causeway in Lime house, however physically and culturally distant from the hub of the metropolis, haunted the West End and beyond. “No matter where his mysteries were set, whether they took place in England, the South of France or Egypt, [Sax Rohmer] worked in at least some mention of that infamous hellhole known as Lime house.”[47] The East End – West End division of the empire’s capital offered a microcosm of Britain’s imperial project. Rohmer described an East End down the Whitechapel Road and beyond, as “an underworld where squalor and vice went hand in hand…a melting-pot of the world’s outcasts” where,

Poles, Russians, Serbs, Roumanians, Jews of Hungary, and Italians…mingled in the throng. Near East and Far East rubbed shoulders. Pidgin English contested with Yiddish … Sometimes a yellow face showed close to one of the streaming windows; sometimes a black-eyed pallid face, but never a face wholly sane and healthy.[48]

At the opposite extreme geographically lay the West End of clubland and the theatre, although equally as promiscuous in its racial and social mix. Exclusive nightspots played host to

representatives of every strata of society … The peerage was well represented, so was Judah; there were women entitled to wear coronets dancing with men entitled to wear the broad arrow, and men whose fathers had signed Magna Carta dancing with chorus girls from the revues and musical comedies.[49]

Morality was the preserve of the middle-classes whose “voyeurism and excitable horror” was “crucial” to such accounts of the turbulent and cosmopolitan hedonism of London’s West End.[50] The Edwardian era had seen an increasing visibility of the rich and their flamboyant flaunting of convention. The newspapers pictured debutantes performing frenetic new dances to the music of “negro” bands and reported police raids on society nightclubs for evidence of drug-peddling or illicit gambling. London’s fashionable pre-War nightlife indeed developed an unprecedented egalitarianism. Avant-garde cabaret clubs like The Cave of the Golden Calf, started up by Frida Strindberg and Austin Harrison, saw chorus-girls, Fleet Street journalists, artist’s models, actors and musicians, mingle with titled ladies, American millionaires and minor royalty. Such places provoked establishment fears which intensified with the outbreak of a war which some welcomed for its “purifying fire”, that it might rid the country of morbid and degenerate foreign influence as disseminated by the likes of “Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and others. The futurists, the cubists, the whole school of decadent novelists”.[51] It was a tone taken by many journalists and writers of popular fiction who, like Rohmer, conveyed an image of the capital that gave provincial readers “a sense of venturing among the wealthy, the daring, the witty and the wicked.”[52] Stories like “Cocaine Curse — Evil Habit Spread by Night Clubs” highlighted the role of dissipated young women as a conduit for trafficking “foreign” drugs.[53] The vogue for doping facilitated the dissolution of social boundaries, including those, most worryingly, across the racial divide. In 1916, the gossip columnist of the Evening News reported on “the growing craze for opium smoking” and “the use of that exciting drug cocaine” amongst the girls of “West End Bohemia”, adding cryptically “no one seems to know why the girls … find the drug so easy to obtain”.[54] By the 1920s, a threepenny omnibus ticket from Ludgate Circus to “Limey-housey Causey-way” was symbolic to the suggestible of all manner of disreputable pleasures.[55] We “want you to take us one night to visit the particular Chinky who seems so obliging” was Austin Harrison’s excited response upon receiving Thomas Burke’s Lime house stories for inclusion in The English Review.[56] Whilst drugs were the new and deadly threat to civilised society, the mysterious vice of public speculation was just part of the Chinese seamen’s routine, “as unremarkable as lunch or breakfast: they would get up at seven or eight in the morning have their two pipes and then go off to work.”[57] The very mention of dope however sent shivers of excitement through the public. In the press, “stories about drugs and drug rings appeared every other day…Although they were seldom factual, repetition conveyed the impression that addiction was a national problem.”[58] The progression of war would intensify the grip of a moral Yellow Peril. At a time when “sexual secrets were considered commensurate with national ones” any visible independence of young women was targeted as tantamount to racial betrayal.[59] In Lime house the “problem” of interracial alliances was accounted for, not as it conceivably might have been by the almost total dearth of Chinese women, but by the giddy susceptibility of certain “types” of white woman to “Oriental” vices and hysterical appeals were made to the Home Office to do something about unhappy white girls fascinated by the yellow man.


[1] The Times Literary Supplement, 28th September,1916, p. 464. Unattributed book review.

[2] Thomas Burke, Limehouse Nights: Tales of Chinatown (London: Daily Express Fiction Library, n.d.),p.150.

[3] See Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 24.

[4] In the work of Mikhail Bakhtin a theory of transgression relies upon the carnivalesque to denote the destabilisation of cultural categories. See Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: Texas University Press, 1981)

[5] Burke, The Wind and The Rain: A Book of Confessions (London, Thornton Butterworth Ltd., 1924; New York: Doran, 1924), p. 20.

[6] See Barry Milligan, Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient in Nineteenth-century British Culture (Charlottesville & London: University Press of Virginia, 1995)

[7] See Richard Altick, The Shows of London (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 292-3. See also Arthur W. Hummel, ‘Nathan Dunn’, Bulletin of the Friends Historical Ass., 59 (1970), pp. 34-9.

[8] Illustrated London News, 24th May, 1851, p. 450.

[9] The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 4th November, 1899, p. 329.

[10] John Barrell, The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 7

[11] Burke, The Best Stories of Thomas Burke, selected, with a foreword, by John Gawsworth (London: Phoenix House, 1950), p. 16.

[12] Thomas Burke, Nights in Town (London: George Allen and Unwin, Popular Edition, 1917), extracts from reviews.

[13] Burke, Limehouse Nights, editor’s Preface to Daily Express Fiction Library edition, n.d.

[14] The Bookman, November, 1916, p. 50.

[15] Letter from H. G. Wells to Burke, n.d., Burke Mss. The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

[16] Boston Transcript, 18th August,1917. See Book Review Digest (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1917), p. 78.

[17] Los Angeles Herald, 2nd December,1919. 36.txt

[18] Grant Richards, Author Hunting by an Old Literary Sportsman (London: Hamish Hamilton,1934), ‘Remembering Thomas Burke’, pp. 236-7.

[19] George A. Wade, ‘The Cockney John Chinaman’, The English Illustrated Magazine, July 1900, 301-307 (p. 306). Chinatown File, Local History Archive, Tower Hamlets Central Library.

[20] ‘Yellow Peril in London’, Daily Express, 1st October,1920. Chinatown File, Local History Archive, Tower Hamlets Central Library.

[21] Barbara Hodgson, Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon (London, San Francisco: Souvenir Press Ltd., 1999), p. 74.

[22] ‘Opium Smoking: East End Dens’, South London Advertiser, 28th December, obscurely dated cutting, 1910s. Chinatown File, Local History Archive, Tower Hamlets Central Library.

[23] Terry M. Parssinen, Secret Passions, Secret Remedies: Narcotic Drugs in British Society 1820 – 1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983), p. 61.

[24] Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (London: The Classics Book Club,1942 (1870)), p. 2.

[25] Virginia Berridge, Opium And The People: Opiate Use and Drug Control Policy in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth – Century England (London, New York: Free Association Books, 1999), p.197.

[26] Jonathan Schneer, London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 39.

[27] Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of An English Opium Eater (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 (1822)), p. 38.

[28] Parssinen, Secret Passions, Secret Remedies, p. 53.

[29] Virginia Berridge, Opium And The People, p.196.

[30] Sadie Plant, Writing On Drugs (London: Faber and Faber Ltd,1999), pp. 214-222. The East India Company, traded opium without regard for Chinese law.

[31] ‘East London Opium Smokers’, London Society,14 (1868), p. 68.

[32] Milligan, Pleasures and Pains, pp.13-14.

[33] Ibid., pp. 12-13.

[34] ‘London opium dens. Notes of a visit to the Chinaman’s East-End haunts. By a Social Explorer’, Good Words, 26 (1885), 188-92, cited in Berridge, p.196.

[35] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1992), p. 146.

[36] Cited in Berridge, Opium And The People, p. 198.

[37] Walter Besant, East London (London: Chatto & Windus, 1901), pp. 205-206.

[38] George R. Sims, ‘In Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs’, Chapter 11, Off the track in London (London: Jarrold & Sons, 1911 ). Originally published in The Strand, July, 1905.

[39] Wade, ‘The Cockney John Chinaman’, p. 301.

[40] Count E. Armfelt, ‘Oriental London’, in Living London, Vol.1, ed. by George Sims (London: Cassell & Co. Ltd., 1902-3), 81-87 (p.84).

[41] Robert Bickers, Britain In China: Community, Culture and Colonialism 1900 -1949 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p. 9.

[42] Schneer, London 1900, pp. 39-40.

[43] Bickers, Britain In China, p. 9

[44] Chester Bailey Fernald, The Cat and the Cherub, and other stories (Century Co.: New York, 1896)

[45] Notes and Queries, 21st July,1900, pp. 42-3. Chinatown exposés were a staple of the London press. See Parssinen, p. 58, fn 55., for further citations.

[46] In 1908, Britain passed the Poisons and Pharmacy Act. In 1909, the first International Opium Conference was held in Shanghai calling for a stricter control of opiates, a second was held in 1912, and a third in 1914 in The Hague.

[47] Hodgson, Opium, p. 126.

[48] Sax Rohmer, The Devil Doctor (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.,1916), pp. 94-95.

[49] Rohmer, Dope: A Story of Chinatown and the Drug Traffic (London: Cassell, 1919), p. 182.

[50] Philip Hoare, Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy and The First World War (London: Duckworth, 1997), p.32.

[51] From a wartime lecture by the sculptor W. R. Colton, cited in Hoare,Wilde’s Last Stand, p.13.

[52] Watson, Snobbery With Violence, p.194.

[53] Evening News, 14th June, 1916, p. 3. Cited in Hoare, p. 36

[54] Evening News, 3rd January, 1916, p. 5. Cited in Marek Kohn, Dope Girls: the birth of the British drug underground (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1992), pp. 30-31.

[55] “If I had paid fifty pounds for my ticket I could not have travelled farther from the London that most of us know”. H. V. Morton,The Nights of London, (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.,1936 (1926)), p.16

[56] Letter from Harrison to Burke,18th January, 1915. Burke Mss. The Lilly Library.

[57] Lynn Pan, Sons of the Yellow Emperor: The Story of Overseas Chinese (London: Secker & Warburg, 1990), p. 87.

[58] Colin Watson, Snobbery With Violence: Crime Stories And Their Audience (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1971), pp.124-5.

[59] Jodie Medd, ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’: Anatomy of a National Scandal’, Modernism/modernity, 9:1 January (2002), 21-44 (p. 26).

To Cite This Article:

Anne Witchard,’Aspects of Literary Limehouse: Thomas Burke and the “Glamorous Shame of Chinatown”‘. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 2 (September 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access]