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Tales of Old Chinatown

Chinatown is as much an idea as a place. In the early 20th century British films imagined their own Chinatown, defined by mystery, fear and the exotic.

The most famous screen Chinatown is probably the Los Angeles setting of Roman Polanski's 1974 classic, but British filmmakers have long offered up their own Chinatown. This mythic place drew on early-20th Century moral panics, forged in 19th-century opium wars and the 1900 Boxer uprising. It had little connection to the real Chinese-British people who made their homes in London's East End, Birmingham, Liverpool or Aberdeen.

This screen Chinatown was exoticised, romanticised and coloured by imagined associations with vice and intrigue. It took shape in Sax Rohmer's lurid tales of the fiendish Dr Fu-Manchu - incarnated in his own mid-1920s film serial, and in the near-identical character of Dr Sin Fang, played by the same white actor). Other films, like the sensationalist Cocaine (1922), situate Chinese characters in a shadowy world of vice and drugs. Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong was allowed more complex roles, even if her characters remained tragic outsiders, shut out of British society.

In the end, these tales reveal less about Chinese people in Britain than about a largely uncomprehending British culture, transfixed by ideas of mystical oriental 'Otherness'. Even so, these little-known films add up to a fascinating record of a nation taking its first faltering steps towards multiculturalism.

"In Britain and the rest of Europe... the repertoire of 'Chinese characteristics' ... reflected anxieties about the decline of Empire and the rising dragon. The stories were about 'us' - they were not really about China at all."

Christopher Frayling, 'The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia'

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Tales of Old Chinatown

Recommended

View Piccadilly
Piccadilly
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Piccadilly 1929 PG

The glitter of Jazz Age clubland meets the Far East (of London) in this stunningly restored silent classic, starring Anna May Wong.

92 mins United Kingdom Director. E.A. Dupont

View Lieutenant Rose and the Chinese Pirates
Lieutenant Rose and the Chinese Pirates
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Lieutenant Rose and the Chinese Pirates 1910

Lieutenant Rose is kidnapped by Chinese pirates in this action-packed early adventure series.

12 mins United Kingdom Director. Percy Stow

View Cocaine
Cocaine
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Cocaine 1922

A decadent, controversial tale of London's seedy underbelly, where an elegant Chinese club host enslaves the weak with white powder.

80 mins United Kingdom Director. Graham Cutts

View Dr Sin Fang: The Adventure of the Torture Cage
Dr Sin Fang: The Adventure of the Torture Cage
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Dr Sin Fang: The Adventure of the Torture Cage 1928

An evil criminal doctor entraps and tortures a greedy trader in this only surviving episode of silent adventure serial Dr Sin Fang.

30 mins United Kingdom Director. Fred Paul

View Attack on a Mission Station
Attack on a Mission Station
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Attack on a Mission Station 1900

Dramatised account of Chinese rebels' violent confrontation with Christian missionaries, made in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion.

1 mins United Kingdom

View The Flame of Love
The Flame of Love
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The Flame of Love 1930 U

Chinese-American star Anna May Wong dazzles as a Chinese dancer forced to give herself to a Russian General in order to save her brother.

74 mins United Kingdom Director. Richard Eichberg, Walter Summers

View Lieutenant Lilly and the Splodge of Opium
Lieutenant Lilly and the Splodge of Opium
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Lieutenant Lilly and the Splodge of Opium 1913

The intrepid Lt Lilly is called upon to quell a Chinese Boxer rebellion in a spoof adventure serial.

10 mins United Kingdom Director. Hay Plumb

View The Woman from China
The Woman from China
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The Woman from China 1930

A young woman is persuaded to help a Chinese businessman to kidnap a naval officer in this fun and outrageous British thriller.

82 mins United Kingdom

View Cosmopolitan London
Cosmopolitan London
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Cosmopolitan London 1924

An extraordinary tour of Soho's French cafés, Clerkenwell's Little Italy and the lesser-trodden streets of Limehouse in the 1920s.

9 mins United Kingdom Director. Frank Miller, Harry B. Parkinson

View Beheading a Chinese Boxer
Beheading a Chinese Boxer
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Beheading a Chinese Boxer 1900

A grisly early fictional reconstruction inspired by atrocity stories from China's Boxer Rebellion.

United Kingdom

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