Your Stories

Yellow Earth Theatre explore Limehouse and other forgotten stories of the British Chinese

I am one of the 5 founder members of the British East Asian (BEA) theatre company, Yellow Earth. We were 5 actors who came together fed up with the paucity of roles available to us and keen to make our own work to change that.

Over the 22 years the company has undergone many changes. I am now the Artistic Director and as a theatre company our business is always to deal in stories. That has led me to explore and unearth the overlooked, forgotten and unheard stories and voices of the British Chinese and East Asian communities.

In 2011 we won a commission to create a new character interpreter for the Traders Gallery at the National Maritime Museum. His name was James Robson a British Chinese Sailor and the longest serving crew member of the Cutty Sark (1885-1895).

Whilst researching James Robson I became increasingly fascinated with the area around Limehouse and Poplar that was once the site of a small but significant ‘Chinatown’ with restaurants, Sunday schools and grocery shops. It began when Chinese Sailors arriving at the London docks in the 1800’s as part of the new trade between China, E Asia and Britain, were left waiting to work their passage back. There they met the local women who clearly showed a preference to the Chinese men over the local men and quite a number ended up staying, marrying and having families. Today there is little to suggest such an area ever existed save for a few street names such as ‘Amoy Place’, ‘Ming Street’ and ‘Canton Street’ and a dragon sculpture, easily missed.

Slum clearances in the 30’s and the Blitz pretty much destroyed everything, but not before the place had caught the imagination of writers such as Sax Rohmer who spawned the popular evil genius Fu Manchu. At the time Rohmer wrote, there was a lot of racism ,fear and mistrust of the Chinese in the media fuelled by the idea of the “Yellow Peril” and Limehouse represented to the British public all that was alien, sordid and fearful about the Chinese with it’s dark alleys and smoke filled opium dens.

We wanted to debunk those myths and present the real lives of those that had once lived there so we commissioned a new play, ‘The Last Days of Limehouse’ by Jeremy Tiang.

If you want to find out more, here is a great resource I worked on to explore the key locations of the old Chinatown in Limehouse: www.limehousechinatown.org and you can take an audio tour of the area voiced by characters from our play.

Kumiko Mendl, Artistic Director, Yellow Earth Theatre

‘Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kowk’ opens in Manchester on March 22nd and tours around the country until June. To see the show or find out more, visit www.yellowearth.org/mountains-dreams-lily-kwok/

In Autumn 2018 the Yellow Earth Theatre commemorate the end of World War 1 with a new play, Forgotten遗忘 by Daniel York Loh.