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  • A Threepenny Omnibus Ticket to ‘Limey-housey-Causey-way’:Fictional Sojourns in Chinatown
  • Anne Witchard (bio)

But O Cook, O Thomas Cook & Son, path-finders and trail-clearers, living sign-posts to all the world, and bestowers of first aid to bewildered travellers – unhesitatingly and instantly, with ease and celerity, could you send me to Darkest Africa or Innermost Thibet, but to the East End of London, barely a stone's throw distant from Ludgate Circus, you know not the way!

'You can't do it, you know', said the human emporium of routes and fares at Cook's Cheapside branch. 'It is so – ahem – so unusual.'

'Consult the police', he concluded authoritatively, when I persisted. 'We are not accustomed to taking travellers to the East End; we receive no call to take them there, and we know nothing whatsoever about the place at all.'

Jack London, The People of the Abyss (1903)1

The title of this essay is taken from The Nights of London (1926) by the travel writer and journalist H. V. Morton. In a piece about the docks entitled 'Ships at Night', Morton writes: 'Threepence. I gave it to the conductor at Ludgate Circus and left the omnibus at Limehouse. If I had paid fifty pounds for my ticket I could not have travelled farther from the London that most of us know'.2 Despite the hyperbole of this, Morton is actually reiterating what by the mid-1920s had become a commonplace. The melodrama of London's uncharted terrains had been familiar to readers since the 1890s, when works of social exploration such as William Booth's Darkest England likened London's proliferating immigrant ghettos to the outlying districts of empire – in Booth's case, the jungles of Darkest Africa.3 The expansion of the East End's Chinese Quarter in the 1910s heightened Booth's analogy.4 Here in Limehouse, as another London journalist, Thomas Burke, would put it, was 'the Orient squatting at the portals of the West'.5 It was ripe for exploration and Burke was to claim the territory. This essay will examine the ways in which Thomas Burke established himself as 'the laureate of Limehouse'. In works of fiction, verse and autobiography, as well as London travel writing, Burke [End Page 225] is the omniscient tour guide, a seasoned habitué of dark side streets that lead 'to far countries or to secret encampments of alien and outlaw'.6 The East End–West End division of the capital offered a microcosm of Britain's imperial project and in the manner of sons of empire who have 'knocked about the world' and seen a thing or two, Burke's claim is to have 'loafed and wandered in every part of London, slums and foreign quarters, underground, and docksides'.7 Today Chinese Limehouse retains its hold on our imagination as the shadowy London lair of Sax Rohmer's evil genius, Dr Fu Manchu.8 That Rohmer's unequivocally racist Fu Manchu series is still in print owes something no doubt to the Sinophobia that remains close to the surface of the Western psyche.9 By contrast, the relative obsolescence of Thomas Burke's Chinatown writing raises questions that point to particularities of socio-historical location. A much admired and popular author in his day, Burke seems remarkable now for the complex and contradictory ways in which he upset social orthodoxies. Far more than Rohmer, Burke's Chinatown writing was formative in establishing the 'queer spell' that the very mention of Limehouse came to exert on the public imagination during the inter-war years.10

By the time H. V. Morton was writing, the cultural divide was well mapped and 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. Investigative journalists in the last decades of the nineteenth century, intrigued by East London's promise of the exotic, the strange and the sordid, fascinated readers with hints of luxurious opium palaces hidden in the slums. The following newspaper description of 'a recognised establishment' hidden away in shabby Limehouse is typical:

The soft light of...