Liverpool's Chinatown: Europe's oldest Chinese community
Phil Lavelle

Liverpool, in the north of England, has many tourist attractions: the big one is the Beatles. It is where the Fab Four started out, and to this day thousands visit to see the city that inspired one of the most successful bands in popular music.

But there is another reason to visit the coastal port and it's nestled in the heart of the city: Chinatown. Geographically, it's not very big but Liverpool's Chinatown has one unique selling point: it is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe.

"The Chinese came over to this country about 200 years ago", explains Simon Wong. He runs the Liverpool Chinese Business Association and is a man everybody seems to know. As we walk through Chinatown, people stop and say 'hello' constantly. He's been here a long time.

"The main population came before the first and second world war", he adds, 

"because Liverpool is a a port city and during and before the war and after the war, there was heavy dependency on port transportation for food and ammunition. Liverpool was the biggest port of the time.”

He shows us around the Nook House: a pub at the heart of Chinatown. It's derelict now and definitely in need of a lick of paint, like many of the buildings around Duke Street and Nelson Street. Looking at it, you can sense the history and imagine just how it was bustling back in the day.

"Liverpool is not strange to Chinese people because everybody knows about Liverpool. Liverpool is such a big attraction, not just the Chinatown, but a lot of other diversity like football and music, the Beatles and a lot of different singers come from Liverpool. We have four universities bringing in a lot of Chinese students from all over" Mr Wong tells CGTN.

Liverpool's Chinatown arch has 200 dragons and five roofs. It was a gift from Shanghai, Liverpool's twin city and was shipped over piece by piece. (Photo: ilbusca / Marco Prandina)

Liverpool's Chinatown arch has 200 dragons and five roofs. It was a gift from Shanghai, Liverpool's twin city and was shipped over piece by piece. (Photo: ilbusca / Marco Prandina)

Chinatown is a massive focal point for the whole of Liverpool, whatever ethnicity. Terry Lim runs Yuet Ben, a Liverpool restaurant that looks out onto the huge arch that welcomes visitors into Chinatown. It was gifted to Liverpool by its twin city of Shanghai and said to be the largest arch of its kind outside of China. He proudly tells us "about 98% of our customers are non-Chinese."

Mr Lim inherited the restaurant from his father-in-law and runs it with his wife, Theresa. He explains why Yuet Ben is so popular with non-Chinese diners, "My father-in-law's style of cooking is from Northern China, Peking style. But he sort of modified and adapted it to make it more palatable to western tastes."

"My father-in-law was a very clever man. He realized that most of the English people wouldn't tolerate certain heavy spices or strong herbs.  He explained to me as long as there is sweet, sour and saltiness, that's OK. That's the secret."

And the most popular dish? He doesn't hesitate to answer, "crispy aromatic duck" he tells us with a grin.

Around the corner, the next generation of British Chinese are tuning up. They're called the Pagoda Youth Orchestra and range from six and seven year olds to teenagers. Most are British-born but have a deep love of Chinese culture. And to show it, they've been practicing non-stop with a special piece written especially to mark the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China.

"Not many of them speak Chinese," laughs conductor Zilan Liao, "They're all Scousers but I think the Chinese heritage is strong and the parents like them to go back to China to visit.”

Her father founded the orchestra and now she runs it. She says it's an important bridge to a massive generational gap, "I want them to know about the history of the Chinese people when they first came here." 

"We get the older generations to come to talk to them and the children did a concert a couple of years ago dedicated to the Chinese who came here to help with the war" says Zilan.

And so, a Chinatown with a history looks ahead to the Chinatown of tomorrow. What will this place look like in fifty or a hundred years? Simon Wong doesn't hesitate to offer his thoughts. 

"I can see Chinatown looking better because I can see China becoming the greatest nation on earth. Their economic power will bring a lot of tourists over, not just to Liverpool but everywhere in the world."

Editor's note: If you want to know more about Liverpool's Chinatown and Chinese arch, read visitliverpool