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Thomas Burke, the "Laureate of Limehouse": A New Biographical Outline The whole English-reading world knew every dark and dangerous alley of Limehouse as well as they knew the way to the corner grocery. —Karl Brown, Adventures With D. W. Griffith Anne Witchard Birkbeck College University of London A METAL SCULPTURE of a dragon commemorates what was once Chinese Limehouse, now largely erased from the physical site of Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway in London's Docklands. The idea of Chinese Limehouse, however, is charged with significance even today and the most evocative reminder of this vanished district is the Limehouse fiction of Thomas Burke (1886-1945). Burke's first collection of Chinatown stories, Limehouse Nights: Tales of Chinatown, was published in 1916 to instant notoriety. It was banned for immorality by the circulating libraries and Burke was condemned as a "blatant agitator" by the Times Literary Supplement for his evocative portrayal of a hybrid East End: "In place of the steady, equalised light which he should have thrown on that pestiferous spot off the West India Dock Road, he has been content. . . with flashes of limelight and fireworks ."1 At the same time Burke received letters of support and encouragement from literary luminaries, amongst them H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford, Eden Philpotts and Arnold Bennett.2 Some thirty years later, in his preface to a posthumous publication of Burke's Best Stories, the poet John Gawsworth found it difficult to imagine at a time when James Joyce's Ulysses is issued, and reissued in London ... that the accouchement of Limehouse Nights—surely some occasion in modern literary history?—was attended by acute anxiety both for the author and the publisher , that "Arnold Bennett told Burke that the possibility of securing a conviction was being seriously discussed at headquarters, and that he himself 164 WITCHARD : BURKE feared the worst." But so it was. For feelings still ran high at that time against frankness in fiction.3 So what was it, muses Gawsworth disingenuously, that had "occasioned the pother?" The sadistic motif underlying so many of his themes? No I do not think so: but would suggest, rather, that it was the novel, and to most unsavoury, implication that Yellow Man cohabited with White Girl in that East End of an Empire 's capital surrounding Limehouse Causeway.4 In 1916, the fact of relations between Chinese men and white women was fast becoming an issue of critical national concern. The form of yellow perilism that circulated in Britain during the early twentieth century was a demonology of race and vice, bound up with anxiety about degenerative metropolitan blight and imperial and racial decline. Limehouse Nights displays what seems in the light of its day, and in contrast with Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu thrillers, an unusual racial tolerance . Its absence of moral censure regarding miscegenation, or what Wells referred to as "rather horrible... 'sexual circulation,'" would play a significant part in the hysteria which peaked in the late 1920s with press appeals to the Home Office to stop "the hypnotism of white girls by yellow men" in London's East End. It contributed towards the book's renown in the United States5: "you were utterly behind the times if you were not intimately acquainted with Burke's stories of Limehouse."6 Accounts of Burke's life, few and brief as they are, have been largely inaccurate, taking at face value works that purport to be autobiographical yet contain far more invention than truth. Burke embarked on his writing career in the opening years of the century. He was of the lower middle-class, self-educated, a jobbing journalist who aspired to gain a foothold in literary life. He wanted "to tell a story as ably as Ambrose Bierce and to see and write as clearly as Stephen Crane."7 He managed successfully to anchor himself on London's literary fringes with the claim to a specialist knowledge. His first major publication, Nights in Town: A London Autobiography (1915) was a collection of observations on working-class London by night and included the seminal "A Chinese Night, Limehouse." Market-oriented professions proliferated alongside the late-nineteenth-century expansion of monopoly capitalism and...


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pp. 164-187
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Will Be Archived 2021
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