Brilliant Chang and the Sinophobia that birthed a moral panic in early twentieth-century London.
Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.
Four years after The Birth of a Nation, his love letter to the Ku Klux Klan, D. W. Griffith created what’s probably American cinema’s first-ever depiction of an interracial love affair. His 1919 movie Broken Blossoms centers on the relationship between a white woman and a Chinese man, a virtuous, loving couple driven apart by injustice, intolerance, and enervating poverty. The film was set in Limehouse, the notorious slum on the docks of the River Thames that was home to London’s Chinatown, and a synonym across the English-speaking world for the so-called Yellow Peril.
Griffith’s portrayal of Chinese London was more positive than most. From the late nineteenth century, Limehouse attracted Britain’s most famous authors, usually on the subject of opium dens and criminal intrigue. Dickens was one of the first with Edwin Drood; twenty years later Oscar Wilde used it as a backdrop to Dorian Gray’s debauchery, and Arthur Conan Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes there to infiltrate the capital’s underworld. But the writers most responsible for cementing Limehouse’s infamy were Thomas Burke, a British author inspired by Jack London’s take on the incipient danger of Chinese immigrants, and the pulp novelist Sax Rohmer. The latter created Fu Manchu, the evil Chinese genius bent on destroying white civilization, who became one of the most enduring literary characters of the twentieth century, inspiring a thousand and one inscrutable, amoral, and fiendishly brilliant Chinese baddies, including Dr. No and Ming the Merciless. Ridiculous caricature though he was, Fu Manchu tapped into genuine fears that white people on both sides of the Atlantic had about globalization and the Chinese diaspora.
In 1922, less than a decade after the publication of the first Fu Manchu novel, Londoners were horrified to discover that a real-life Chinese supervillain lived among them in the form of Brilliant Chang, a dealer of opium and cocaine, who briefly acquired a reputation as the biggest threat to the empire since Kaiser Bill. At the time, one of the reasons Chang terrified the British public was that—in keeping with the racist stereotypes—he seemed so mysterious; nobody quite knew who he was or where he came from, though in a sense London had spent the past two hundred years inventing him.
Chinese men had been a fixture of London’s docks since the mid-eighteenth century, when they arrived as sailors working for the East India Company, importing tea and spices from the Far East. Conditions on those long voyages were so dreadful that many sailors decided to abscond and take their chances on the streets rather than face the return journey. Those who stayed generally settled around the bustling docks, running laundries and small lodging houses for other sailors or selling exotic Asian produce. By the 1880s, a small but recognizable Chinese community had developed in the Limehouse area, to the consternation of white native-born Londoners, fearful of racial mixing and an influx of cheap labor. The entire Chinese population of London was only in the low hundreds—in a city of roughly seven million—but nativist feelings ran high, as evidenced by the Aliens Act of 1905, a bundle of legislation that sought to restrict entry to poor and low-skilled foreign workers.
Chang’s experience of Britain seems somewhat atypical. The fullest records of his life indicate that he was born Chen Bao Luan, the scion of a wealthy family that had made its money from legitimate trading operations based in Shanghai and Hong Kong. He left China in his early twenties, settling in Birmingham in 1913, the same year that the first Fu Manchu novel was published. Some accounts suggest that he arrived as an engineering student. If that’s true, a career in rivets and joists can’t have held much attraction for him; in 1917 he apparently emerged on the police’s radar for his acquaintance with a criminal gang. It may have been at this point he acquired his nickname, derived from “Charlie Chang,” slang for cocaine.
That same year, selling and possessing nonprescription narcotics was ruled illegal. Before the new laws, shoppers in Knightsbridge could buy cocaine from Harrods in special boxes designed to be sent as morale-boosting gifts to loved ones serving at the Front. As the war effort intensified, the government placed unprecedented restrictions on anything deemed to sap productivity or fray moral fiber. By law, pubs were obliged to close at nine thirty P.M., booze was watered down, and drugs of various sorts were banned, acquiring in the process an astringent moral dimension that stuck just as firmly once the guns fell silent.
On the evening of November 27, 1918, London celebrated the end of World War I with a gala ball at the Royal Albert Hall attended by every fashionable celebrity in town, including Billie Carleton, a young star of musical theater. The following day, Carleton’s maid found her dead from an apparent overdose of cocaine given her by a Chinese resident of Limehouse and his Scottish wife.
It was Britain’s first celebrity drugs scandal, and it flowed seamlessly into a moral panic about the threat posed to British women by the postwar surge of suffrage, jazz, and the attentions of nonwhite men. Limehouse in particular was identified as a beacon of this turpitude. “The time has come,” opined one male journalist, “to draw a cordon around this area of London and forbid any white women from frequenting it.” Unfortunately, he paid no recognition to the sacrifices made for Britain by ordinary Chinese people during the recent war. Between 1916 and 1918, the British government imported ninety-five thousand Chinese laborers to support British front-line troops. Two thousand of them were killed; many of them were left traumatized; all of them endured great hardship for little remuneration. None of them were allowed to settle in Britain.
Just a few months after Carleton’s death, Sax Rohmer used her story for as the basis of Dope, a lurid potboiler about a fragrant young woman led astray by a dastardly Chinese drug baron. The book was published just as anti-Chinese feelings ran viciously high. A false rumor that a white Englishman had been denied tenancy of a room sent a furious mob on Limehouse, where the homes of Chinese families were burned and locals were attacked in the street. That summer, in the port cities of Cardiff and Liverpool, similar attacks against Chinese and black people resulted in five deaths and many injuries.
Around this time, Chang moved to London, using family money to become a restaurateur, not in Limehouse but on Regent Street, one of the most desirable addresses in the city. He reveled in the cachet that came with his fashionable nightspot, and cultivated a corresponding image, dressing in finely tailored suits and fur coats, always with immaculately styled hair. Fancying himself a louche playboy, he trod a perilously fine line between twinkly-eyed ladies’ man and creepy womanizer. He kept a stash of handwritten, boilerplate letters of introduction addressed to “Dear Unknown,” which flunkies handed out to women who caught his eye, requesting the pleasure of “a little dinner and a quiet chat.” One of the women he hit on was Freda Kempton, a twenty-three-year-old “dance instructress,” a professional dancer paid to partner customers on the dance floor of a Soho nightclub. The job required limitless energy, undimming affability, and a permanent grin. It was an open secret that dance instructresses took various stimulants to keep them perky.
The precise nature of Kempton’s relationship with Chang is hazy, but it seems likely that he occasionally supplied her with cocaine, a service he offered to numerous people he met at his restaurant and in the nightclubs of Soho. On the evening of March 5, 1922, Kempton joined her friend at Chang’s, where she apparently took from him a tiny blue bottle filled with powder. The next evening, her landlady discovered her convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Within moments, she was dead.
Unlike the Billie Carleton case, Kempton’s fatal overdose was ruled suicide rather than misadventure. At the inquest into her passing, family and friends testified that she had long been an anxious introvert, susceptible to mood swings that might now be recognized as a clinical condition. In recent months, she had split from a beloved boyfriend and had been lucky to survive a nasty accident after which she had “never really been the same,” according to her mother. Then, just weeks before her death, Kempton’s close friend Audrey Knowles-Harrison took her own life. This litany of misfortune drained her; she half joked that she was contemplating following Audrey’s lead in order to stave off further misery. The press reaction to the inquest’s findings skirted these sad particularities, trying instead to frame Kempton as another carefree flapper who played with fire and got burned. Marek Kohn’s fascinating study of the case, in his book Dope Girls, highlights one obituary that referred to Kempton as “a foolish little moth whose wings were scorched by the flame of vicious luxury,” while the Reverend J. Degan dismissed her as a “jazz-bitten” flibbertigibbet who “put her head … right into the lion’s mouth with high-pitched laugh and frivolous joke.”
When Chang was called to give evidence, photographers gathered to take his picture, and journalists described his presence in the courtroom with fascination, disbelief, and disgust. “Undersized, yellow, with coal-black straight hair combed back from his wrinkled brow,” ran a description of Chang in the Empire News, “he was typical of the mysterious East.” He said he had frequently given Kempton money but denied ever supplying her with drugs. The police had no firm evidence to the contrary—even though his avowal that “I have never done anything wrong in my life” must have made him sound guilty as sin—and no charges were brought against him. Regardless, the papers assumed him guilty, not just of supplying a small group of West End partygoers but of flooding the nation with drugs and corrupting its women.
“What’s there about the yellow man,” asked the Evening News in the debate that Chang sparked, “that fascinates the white woman, holds her in a spell?” The journalist W. A. Mutch hypothesized that it must have some strange biological basis, as in Limehouse he claimed to have seen white women’s bodies “befouled” and their brains “benumbed of all moral sense” simply by being in the continued presence of Asian men. The Daily Graphic took the radical step of actually talking to the women in question, who simply said that Chinese men in Limehouse made good husbands: they drank little, worked hard, and spent more time in the home than Englishmen. The private detective Annette Kerner refused to believe it. She claimed that these women were bought and sold by pimps, though—somewhat confusingly—she also believed that “the slatterns … loved their dark masters” and their “unspeakable affections.”
Kerner had been sent to Limehouse on an undercover assignment for the Metropolitan Police, who spent close to two years trying to collar Chang, now widely known as “the Dope King” and having been described by one overeager journalist as “the most dangerous man London has ever housed.” Over the following months a number of Chang’s employees were convicted of offenses under the new Dangerous Drugs Act. But no evidence was obtained against Chang himself until 1924, when the police obtained a warrant to search his home and found a small stash of cocaine in a kitchen cupboard. It seems like a strangely sloppy mistake for one of the world’s master criminals, suggesting that Chang was a small-time dealer as opposed to Fu Manchu come to life, or that the evidence was planted—or, quite possibly, both. In any event, his conviction was hailed by the press as a great national victory: the kingpin of London’s underworld had been caught and the honor and purity of Britain’s young women had been saved. Elements of the press hoped Chang might spend his time behind bars contemplating “the ruin, the degradation and the death of hundreds of young girls upon his conscience,” although there is no hard evidence linking him to any more than about a dozen customers.
After a year in prison, Chang was released—and immediately deported. The press bid him good riddance, though the newspapers noted with irritation that several pretty young women came to the dock to wave him off.
Chang’s deportation marked the end of the postwar drug panic, but the Sinophobia persisted in various odd ways. Capitalizing on Brilliant Chang’s notoriety, the travel agent Thomas Cook began charabanc tours through the streets of Limehouse, staging fights between men with pigtails shouting in Mandarin, waving machetes in the air. George Orwell and Arnold Bennett joined hundreds of other Londoners in slumming expeditions to Chinatown, in much the same way that white thrill-seekers from downtown Manhattan made late-night trips to the clubs of Harlem. But most of those who went to explore Limehouse left disappointed. They discovered that the fabled Chinatown was tiny, effectively just two streets, and the vast majority of the few hundred Chinese who lived there were ordinary families who spent precisely no time in opium dens or S and M orgies. “If they have secrets,” wrote one deflated tourist, “they seem to keep them well.”
The great Chinese writer Lao She lived in London between 1924 and 1929, and was astonished by the gap between the reality of Limehouse and the myths that appeared in the newspapers. “If there were twenty Chinese living in Chinatown, their accounts would say five thousand; moreover every one of these five thousand yellow devils would certainly smoke opium, smuggle arms, murder people then stuff the corpses under beds, and rape women regardless of age.” In most cases, the inaccuracies weren’t the result of exaggeration but invention. Sax Rohmer boasted, “I made my name on Fu Manchu because I know nothing about the Chinese,” while Thomas Burke admitted that his supposedly penetrating descriptions of the real Chinatown were based on “no knowledge of the Chinese people … All I knew of Limehouse and the district was what I automatically observed.” As with the hysterical reporting about Chang, Yellow Peril fiction said far more about its writers and their readers than it did their subjects.
In the early 1930s, large portions of Limehouse were demolished as part of an urban-renewal campaign. Ten years later, Luftwaffe bombs flattened the area, and London’s first Chinatown disappeared along with the surrounding cavalcade of absurd mythology. Chang was never seen again, either, at least not on British shores, though his legend bobbed to the surface every now and then, with stories that he had returned, like some Asian Moriarty who could never be defeated.
Today, London’s Chinatown is in Soho, right in the heart of the city and permanently filled with sightseers. Its main thoroughfare is Gerrard Street where, coincidentally, one of Chang’s restaurants once stood. Understandably, it’s not an association that Chinese residents are keen to keep alive, but it is in some way fitting—a trace of Limehouse, and a timely reminder to Londoners that the city that now crows about being the most cosmopolitan place on earth was not so long ago anything but.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.