Chinatown: Western Europe’s Taste of the East

London’s Chinatown is the largest such neighborhood in all of Europe. Although it has relocated during the twentieth century, it is currently in the Soho area of Westminster and is concentrated in and around Gerrard Street. Tourists and locals alike come here to sample some of London’s best Chinese cuisine, see unique crafts from the Orient and witness several annual Chinese festivals.

Chinatown’s history is as colorful as the present-day neighborhood. In the early 20th century, most of the city’s Chinese population was in London’s East End, specifically around Limehouse, so that’s where there was a first semblance of a Chinatown. It mainly catered to Chinese dock workers and began to have a negative connotation for violence and opium usage. In the decades after World War II, the combination of many buildings in the area being destroyed in bombings and more and more Chinese immigrants entering the country led to a shift of the Chinese-centered settlement areas to the current zone around Gerrard Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. Chinatown today is still highly residential in addition to its restaurants and other attractions. One of the biggest residential blocks is called Vale Royal House, constructed in the 1980s, with the well-known China Town parking garage under it. Gerrard Street was later converted into a pedestrian walkway to further enhance Chinatown’s tourism prospects. The Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus stations are the closest tube stations to the neighborhood.

London’s Chinatown keeps many traditions alive. One is that on September 2 each year, businesses in the area still close their doors early to remember the death of Yelu Xian, the Liao Dynasty emperor. The red pagoda-style telephone booths are a fun characteristic to look out for. Watch the vibrant red decorations go up for Chinese New Year and enjoy the traditional Lion Dances and Dragon Dances. Late-night fireworks are the centerpiece of the holiday. It is estimated that nearly 500,000 people came to Chinatown for 2011’s Chinese New Year festivities on February 6. The Mid-Autumn Festival is also cause for celebration in Chinatown. During this festival you can try the ubiquitous and flavorful moon cakes. Food traditions from all over Asia are very much alive in Chinatown. You can find top-quality Cantonese, Mongolian, Szechuan, Malaysian dishes and more. There are more than 70 restaurants squeezed into this relatively small area. You can also check out its Asian markets to find exotic ingredients for your own kitchen. Cantonese dim sum and seafood specialties make great meals, and Shanghai dumplings, or Xiao Long Boa, are also a local favorite. If you’d like to have a true Asian dining experience and are planning to try your hand at chopsticks, there are a few rules and guidelines to remember. Never point at anyone with chopsticks unless you’re trying to insult your neighbor. Also don’t stick chopsticks vertically in a plate or bowl of food to leave them standing up. It resembles incense sticks burnt to honor ancestors. When you’ve finished a meal, always rest your chopsticks as a pair on top of your plate or bowl.

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