The Chinese in Leicester

Towards the end of my work on the dreaded book (I’m steeling myself for the reviewer’s comments due next week), I came across an intriguing photograph in Benson and Gomez’s The Chinese in Britain, 1800-present. It showed a group of Chinese children or, perhaps children of mixed Chinese-European heritage wearing Chinese-style suits and slippers, standing in front of a banner with the slogan (in both Chinese characters and English) ‘Anglo-Chinese Friendship’. The caption describes this photograph as depicting a group of Chinese children in Leicester in support of a demonstration organised by the China Campaign Committee (CCC) in July 1939. The image was reproduced from Arthur Clegg’s book Aid China.

This got me thinking. How long has there been a Chinese community in Leicester? This BBC article suggests that Chinese people (from Hong Kong) first came to Leicester in the 1960s – but Clegg’s photograph challenges this. I resolved to do a spot of research.

The Guardian archive threw out a gem: a write-up of a trial that took place in the city in 1927.* The national coverage is not surprising when one considers the lavish attention paid to what must have been a very small aspect of the case – the demonstration of what is described as a ‘lighted candle oath’ in front of the judge –  but one which, perhaps, confirmed extant imaginings of ‘the mysterious East’ in popular British imaginings of the time.

The plaintiff was a Mr On Lee of Hinckley Road in the city – a laundry owner – who sought to recover £171.10s from Mr Frank Wong of Doncaster, a fellow laundryman. The pair were members of a Chinese money club – the Guardian describes this as a kind of lottery – founded by Mr Wong. After the club failed, Mr Lee demanded recompense for loans made by him to Mr Wong. The latter claimed to have been threatened and signed the agreement to repay the loans under duress.

Mr Lee of Leicester’s barrister was recorded to have commented: ‘It sounds like a Chinese puzzle. My case is that these Chinese clubs have been in existence for hundreds of years and are known in all parts of the world’.*

Mr Lee was said to speak no English and gave evidence through an interpreter. He had an English wife and had converted to Christianity (which, no doubt, played well with the judge presiding). He denied having threatened Wong and won the case with costs.

Admittedly, this single report does not provide evidence of a ‘community’, but some digging about in the historical directories revealed that Mr Lee had been resident in Leicester for quite some time and, of course, as the photograph mentioned at the start of this post suggests, there were a number of Chinese or Anglo-Chinese families resident in, or in the environs of the city by the end of the 1930s.# I predict that I’ll be spending some time in the archives in the very near future…

* Anon., ‘Chinese Loan Club. Laundrymen’s Quarrel Over Share. Lighted Candle Oath’, The Manchester Guardian. 15 December, 16.

# Wright’s Directory of Leicester, 1914 records a Mr Stanley Lee, proprietor of a ‘Chinese laundry’ at #44, Andrewes Street, off King Richard’s Road (the street was sadly redeveloped in the 60s/70s, so no trace of his laundry appears to exist). Kelly’s Directory of Leicestershire and Rutland, 1916, confirms that two years later Lee Houng (or Huang?) On’s ‘Chinese Laundry’ was at the same address. Perhaps he moved the business to Hinckley Road (not too far away) in later years, or lived away from the business? It’s also interesting to note the differences in his recorded name. Perhaps he dabbled with the Anglicized ‘Stanley’, giving it up shortly afterwards, reverting to his Chinese name?

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Ross Whitley says:

    My grandmother was from Leicester and there have long been vague family stories about links with Chinese relatives and a Chinese laundry in Leicester.

    I’ve just had a look at the 1939 Register and can finally see that there definitely was a link! My grandmother’s half-sister, Edith Annie Atkins (b. 1899) is shown as living at 45 Melton Street with “Joe Lee, otherwise Chow Fun”. She is shown as married although I cannot find a marriage record for Edith Atkins. Joe Lee/Chow Fun is shown as a “laundry master”.

    In the same register, another of my grandmother’s half-sisters (unrelated to the other half-sister!) Vera Helps (b. 1907) was residing with On Lee (b. 1888) at 44 King Richard’s Road. He is shown as widowed and a “laundryman; owner”, she shown as single but appears to have taken his surname as she is recorded as Vera Lee. They appear to have had 9 children together between 1936-1949 and married in 1948. On Lee is recorded as marrying Mabel Ward in 1915.

    In the 1911 census, 44 King Richard’s Road was occupied by Edward Bradshaw, I’ve not been able to trace On Lee in the 1911 census at all, so I’m led to think he may have arrived in the UK some time between 1911-1914…

    1. This is wonderful information – thanks for sharing Ross!

  2. Carolyn Davis says:

    Vera Lee was my nana, I never knew my grandad as he passed away before I was born. My nana together with my mum and her brothers and sisters lived on King Richards Road, The Chinese Laundry.

    1. That’s fascinating Carolyn – thanks for getting in touch!

Leave a Reply