Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

2 - "Tentacle of the East": Race, Sex and Imperial Anxiety in Edwardian London

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Delaware Suite B, Lobby Level

London’s turn-of-the-century Chinatown at Limehouse spanned little more than a few streets, but it still managed to capture the imagination of Edwardian Britons.  Fascinating and repulsive in equal measure, Limehouse was considered a dark, mysterious and vice-ridden corner of the city, metaphorically as far from respectable London as one could travel.  For many years, Thomas Cook & Son ran a successful evening tour through Limehouse by Pullman motor coach, which featured carefully choreographed Chinese actors chasing each other with meat cleavers.


The disappearance of Limehouse in the inter-war period was largely a product of anti-opium and slum-clearance policies.  The Poisons and Pharmacy Act (1908) and the Defence of the Realm Act (1914) afforded police the power to search Chinese at will, and Limehouse was declared a “slum” and cleared in 1934.  Yet was Limehouse really clouded in opium smoke as Edwardian popular imagination suggested?  A careful reading of contemporary accounts suggests, in fact, that anxieties about miscegenation and racial pollution contributed more to anti-opium legislation and slum-clearing decisions than was ever acknowledged.  The Evening News had explicitly appealed to the British Government in 1920 to rescue “unhappy white girls fascinated by the yellow man,” and the Empire News warned in 1922 that “mothers would be well advised to keep their daughters as far away as they can from Chinese laundries.”  Such anxieties, which center on a perceived threat to Edwardian social order and racial hierarchy, are the focus of this paper.  

Stephen McDowall

University of Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom

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2 - "Tentacle of the East": Race, Sex and Imperial Anxiety in Edwardian London



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