China fights in Britain

22 January 2015

Area Studies | History | War and Conflict

In the British popular memory of the Second World War, China is largely absent. Japan had invaded and annexed Chinese Manchuria eight years before Nazi Germany marched into Poland, so in one sense the war began on Chinese soil. But perhaps it is because of this that we forget about them – they only became our allies because their war with Japan happened, after 1941, to coincide with ours.

From FO 371/41630 (1944). Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


In an attempt, presumably, to remedy this neglect, in March 1944 the Foreign Office assisted with the writing of Barbara Whittingham-Jones’s booklet China in Britain, ‘a factual survey of a fascinating colony in our midst’ contained in our resource Foreign Office Files for China. Much of the book is given over to lionising the men and women in occupied China and British efforts to help them, and to the Chinese seamen sailing with the British merchant navy – some 20,000 of them – who transported vital supplies for the war effort all over the world. Particular adulation is reserved for Wellington Koo, quondam prime minster, now ambassador in London, ‘grey-haired but tireless’, ‘the interpreter of New China to the Western world’.

From FO 371/41630 (1944). Image © The National Archives, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


But the most interesting passages of the book for me concern the Chinese community living in Britain, who numbered by the author’s estimate about 12,000. These were people whom most residents of Britain would never have encountered, and very possibly did not even know existed. Most British Chinese were descendants of sailors who had settled in port towns and the largest communities were clustered in the London docklands and in Liverpool. To my surprise the latter Chinatown was the larger, and boasted Chinese groceries, laundries (in which the bulk of the population made their living), curio shops for the passing Sinophile, and even a convalescent home for invalid sailors, in a red-brick mansion out on the Wirral. Liverpool suffered heavily from the Blitz, and Whittingham-Jones notes that many Chinese who had been bombed out of their homes received shelter in hostels set up in the old houses of the merchants who had established the city’s place in the China trade in the 19th century.

On a jollier note – though one that sits oddly with the privations of the British wartime diet the book’s readers would presumably be enduring – the final chapter acts as a guide to the Chinese restaurants of London’s West End, of which in 1944 there were eight. Wellington Koo’s favourite was apparently Ley On’s in Wardour Street, whose proprietor styled himself as ‘London’s Chop Suey King’ and, when not serving this delicacy (which a page earlier the author condemns as ‘wholly spurious’), appeared in films, most notably as Nick the Eskimo in 49th Parallel, starring Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier.


Foreign Offices Files for China, 1919-1980 is available now (full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence).

About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.