Archive for the ‘Chinatown’ Category

Chinatown, the Death of Billie Carleton and the ‘Brilliant’ Chang

Sunday, October 25th, 2009
Billie Carlton

Billie Carleton

Seventeen days after World War One had ended, a young pretty actress called Billie Carleton had a starring role at the huge Victory Ball held at the Albert Hall on 28th November 1918. One newspaper described her appearance:

It seemed that every man there wished to dance with her. Her costume was extraordinary and daring to the utmost, but so attractive and refined was her face that it never occurred to any one to be shocked. The costume consisted almost entirely of transparent black georgette.

Just a few months previously Tatler magazine had described one of her appearances on a London stage, saying that she had:

Cleverness, temperament and charm. Not enough of the first, and perhaps too much of the latter.

Carleton was well on the way to becoming a big star by now but her career was continually being held back by what was becoming a rather obvious and large drug habit. And, unfortunately, the girl with too much charm and the daring costume was found dead in her Savoy Hotel suite by her maid the morning after the Victory ball. She was just 22 years old.

A gold box containing cocaine was found at her bedside and at the inquest it was suggested that she had died of ‘cocaine poisoning’. Although it was more likely that a combination of cocaine and some kind of depressant helped end her short life.

Billie Carlton in 1916

Billie Carlton in 1916

The subsequent court case revealed a highly dubious way of life for a young woman of the time. Witnesses described her heavy cocaine and opium use and it became known that the London-born actress, who incidentally never knew her father, was involved with three ‘sugar daddies’. Two of these helped her financially – she had a very expensive life-style to maintain including a permanent suite at the Savoy Hotel – while the other, a married dress-designer called Reggie de Veulle, was more of a drug-taking partner.

The Daily Sketch front page January 24th 1919

The Daily Sketch front page January 24th 1919

It was de Veulle who had given Carleton the cocaine that apparently had killed her. He had bought the drug a few days previously from a Scottish woman called Ada and her Chinese husband Lau Ping You who both lived on the Limehouse Causeway. In court it came to light that de Veulle had been involved in a previous homosexual blackmail case and with a headline that read “An Opium Circle. Chinaman’s Wife Sent to Prison. High Priestess of Unholy Rites” the normally staid Times reported that both de Veulle and Carleton had been at an all-night ‘orgy’ in a Mayfair flat where the women wore flimsy nighties and the men silk pyjamas while smoking opium.

The press and the court, however, considered Billie Carleton a tragic innocent victim describing her as having:

“a certain frail beauty of that perishable, moth-like substance that does not last long in the wear and tear of this rough-and-ready world.”

Ada was sentenced to five months hard labour, her husband escaped with just a ten pound fine while, despite the judge’s direction, the jury acquitted Carleton’s friend Reggie de Veulle of her manslaughter. He admitted, however, to supplying Carleton cocaine and was imprisoned for eight months.

The death of beautiful girl from drugs combined with the involvement of a Chinese man created what was to become the first big drug scandal of the 20th century. The press, as they say, whipped themselves into a frenzy and the newspaper Pictorial News, for instance, ran a series of pieces about the East End of London and what they described as the encroaching ‘Yellow Peril’.

In the real world the so-called ‘yellow peril’ was actually a small, relatively law-abiding Chinese community which had been based around the Limehouse docks area from around the beginning of the 19th century. By the beginning of the twentieth century there were two separate communities in the area – the Chinese from Shanghai were based around Pennyfields and Ming Street (between the present Westferry and Poplar DLR stations) whereas the immigrants from Southern China and Canton lived around Gill Street and the Limehouse Causeway. By 1911 the whole area had started to be called Chinatown by the rest of London.

The East End Chinatown in 1911

The East End Chinatown in 1911

Three seamen on the West India Dock Road

Three seamen on the West India Dock Road

Bag and sack shop circa 1900

Bag and sack shop circa 1900

Considering that there were rarely more than a few hundred Chinese people living around Limehouse before and after the first world war (in fact Liverpool had a far larger Chinese population), the East End Chinatown had an extraordinarily bad reputation.

It wasn’t just the fault of a slavering press looking for scandal and writing lurid headlines about opium dens and the white-slave traders there were also numerous writers, novelists and even film-makers that were helping to greatly exaggerate the danger and immorality of the area. At times it seemed that Limehouse was almost singlehandedly responsible for corroding the moral backbone of the British middle-classes.

Limehouse in 1927

Limehouse in 1927


Shop in Pennyfields in 1924

Shop in Pennyfields in 1924

Limehouse in 1910

Limehouse in 1910

HV Morton the famous travel essayist and journalist wrote about Limehouse in his book ‘The Nights of London’ in 1926:

The squalor of Limehouse is that strange squalor of the East which seems to conceal vicious splendour. There is an air of something unrevealed in those narrow streets of shuttered houses, each one of which appears to be hugging its own dreadful little secret… you might open a filthy door and find yourself in a palace sweet with joss-sticks, where queer things happen in a mist of smoke……The silence grips you, almost persuading you that behind it is something which you are always on the verge of discovering; some mystery of vice or of beauty, or of terror and cruelty.

The fact that the Chinese community liked to gamble and smoke opium was bad enough but it seemed to be the fear of sexual contact between the races (which the drug-taking of course only exacerbated) that frightened so many people; especially the newspaper editors of the time. ‘White Girls Hypnotised by Yellow Men’ shouted the Evening News, writing that it was the duty ‘of every Englishman and Englishwoman to know the truth about the degradation of young white girls’.

Limehouse Nights a collection of stories by Thomas Burke

Limehouse Nights a collection of stories by Thomas Burke

Thomas Burke, writing for an apprehensive suburban readership that lapped up his writings, even in the US, wrote a number of ‘sordid and morbid’ short stories and newspaper articles about the Limehouse Chinatown. One of his stories, from a collection entitled Limehouse Nights, was called ‘The Chink and the Child’ and was actually made into a successful film called ‘Broken Blossoms by DW Griffiths starring Lilian Gish.


Broken Blossoms directed by DW Griffiths

Broken Blossoms directed by DW Griffiths in 1919, its alternative title was The Yellow man and the Girl. Lillian Gish was 26 at the time.

Another of the stories from Limehouse Nights was called Tai Fu and Pansy Greers and was about a young white woman who submitted her self to a ‘loathly, fat and old’ Chinese man:

He was a dreadful doper. He was a connoisseur, and used his selected yen-shi (opium) and yen-hok (a needle used to cook the opium pellet) as an Englishman uses a Cabanas…She went to him that night at his house in the Causeway. He opened the door himself, and flung a low-lidded, wine-whipped glance about her that seemed to undress her where she stood, noting her fault and charm as one notes an animal. He did not love her; there was no sentiment in this business. Brute cunning and greed were in his brow, and lust was in his lips… What he did to her in the blackness of that curtained room of his had best not be imagined. But she came away with bruised limbs and body, with torn hair, and a face paled to death.

Sax Rohmer was another former journalist that used his knowledge of Limehouse to write popular fiction, notably the incredibly successful Fu Manchu novels about a depraved Chinese man whose evil empire’s headquarters was based improbably in Limehouse:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present…Imagine that awful being and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.

Sax Rohmer

Sax Rohmer


The Mask of Fu Manchu released in 1932

The Mask of Fu Manchu released in 1932

Myrna Loy in Mask of Fu Manchu

Myrna Loy in Mask of Fu Manchu

Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories went on to inspire over thirty films and television series throughout the following decades. However Rohmer also wrote a novel called Dope in which a character called Rita Dresden was unashamedly based on Billie Carleton. A silly socialite in the same novel called Mollie Gretna envies the Scottish wife of the Chinese drug dealer:

I have read that Chinamen tie their wives to beams in the roof and lash them with leather thongs. I could die for a man who lashed me with leather thongs. Englishmen are so ridiculously gentle to women!

Freda Kempton in 1922

Freda Kempton in 1922

Four years after the death of Billie Carleton, a girl of roughly the same age called Freda Kempton, was found dead after an overdose of cocaine. At the inquest of the young nightclub ‘dance instructress’ the press found out that on the night of her death she had been with a notorious drug dealer called, rather brilliantly, Billy ‘Brilliant’ Chang at his Regent Street restaurant. He told the Coroner at her inquest “Freda was a friend of mine but I know nothing about the cocaine. It is all a mystery to me”. Chang during the inquest was portrayed as a man with a magnetic attraction to white women and one newspaper wrote that after the verdict:

“Some of the girls rushed to Chang, patted his back, and one, more daring than the rest, fondled the Chinaman’s black, smooth hair and passed her fingers slowly through it.”

According to the coroner there was no proof that he was linked to the death but the police, and the press, were convinced that he was. By now Chang had sold his restaurant in Regent Street and opened the Palm Court Club in Gerrard Street. There’s a strong possibility that Chang was the first Chinese man to open a business in the street which was to become the centre of the new Chinatown in London forty or so years later.

Billy 'Brilliant' Chang

Billy ‘Brilliant’ Chang during the inquest of Freda Kempton

Limehouse Causeway in 1924

Limehouse Causeway, the location of Brilliant Chang’s flat in 1924

Due to continuous police raids Chang sold up again and moved to Limehouse where he opened the Shanghai Restaurant. His flat was at 13 Limehouse Causeway (coincidentally just four doors away from where Mr and Mrs Lau Ping You lived) below a top floor let to two Chinese sailors and it was here in 1924 when his luck finally ran out.

The police had already twice raided his Limehouse flat and although they found no drugs on one occasion they found two chorus girls in his bed. On the third attempt however, and armed with evidence from a drug addicted actress called Violet Payne, they found a wrap of cocaine behind a loose wooden board and they arrested the man who may have been controlling 40 per cent of the London cocaine trade.

During the trial, the press, again pruriently slavering, had a field day. The World Pictorial News wrote:

“Sometimes one girl alone went with Chang to learn the mysteries of that intoxicatingly beautiful den of iniquity above the restaurant. At other times half-a-dozen drug-frenzied women together joined him in wild orgies.”

As well as the cocaine the police found at Chang’s home a pile of identical handwritten letters:


Dear Unknown – Please do not regard this as a liberty that I write to you, as i am really unable to resist the temptation after having seen you so many times. I should extremely like to know you better, and should be glad if you would do me the honour of meeting me one evening where we could have a little dinner and a quiet chat together. I do hope you will consent to this, as it will give me great pleasure, and in any case do not be cross with me for having written to you.

Yours hopefully, Chang.

P.S. – If you reply, please address it to me at the Shanghai Restaurant, Limehouse-Causeway, E14.

Chang was sentenced to fourteen months in prison after which he was deported. His ship left from the Royal Albert Docks and it was reported that one girl shouted out as he was leaving ‘Come back soon, Chang!’.

The local council, maybe because of the’Yellow Peril’ nonsense exaggerated by the wild press reports, lurid novels and films, started to clear the slums in the Limehouse area. This started to break up the original London Chinatown and a few years later the Second World War practically finished the job as the area was razed to the ground by the wartime bombing.



The Chinatown we know today began not long after the war when a few restaurants opened in Lisle Street, the road that runs parallel to Gerrard Street where Brilliant Chang briefly ran his nightclub. The area was on the edge of Soho where foreign restaurants had long been the norm and the rents were cheap for a West End central location.

The funeral of Chong Mong Young in 1964

The funeral of Chong Mong Young in 1964

Macclesfield Street in 1972

Macclesfield Street in 1972

The number of restaurants increased mainly because of returning servicemen who had discovered a taste for food from the far East. However, when in 1951 the UK government finally recognised Mao Zedong’s communist regime, the diplomats and staff of the now defunct Chinese Nationalist Embassy suddenly had to find new jobs. A lot of them, including the famous restauranteur and cookery writer Ken Lo choose to open Cantonese restaurants in the area we now know as Chinatown.

A lot of the information and inspiration for this post comes from the really excellent book Dope Girls by Marek Kohn.

George Formby – Chinese Laundry Blues

Django Reinhardt – Limehouse Blues


Chinatown, George Melly, Kate Meyrick and the Brilliant Chang

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Happening 44 and the Psychedelic Nudist Colony

Soft Machine fans in 1967

I’ve got an old and trusty blackened wok at home bought over 20 years ago for £4.50 in a Chinese Supermarket called Loon Fung situated at 44 Gerrard Street – the main thoroughfare of Europe’s biggest Chinatown in London’s West End. I, and I’m sure most of the, it has to be said, slightly grumpy staff certainly didn’t know the extraordinary musical history the building had. Incidentally the original Chinatown in London was actually at Limehouse in the East End but for various reasons the Chinese community slowly de-camped to the West End centring around a few streets between Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue. After the war it was a particularly seedy area at the edge of Soho but the rents were practically at peppercorn rates which suited the new Chinese restaurants that sprang up around the area.

Gerrard Street in the late sixties
In 1967, after being a bit of a dingy old strip joint, 44 Gerrard Street became known as Happening 44 – a trendy psychedelic club run by Jack Braceland, one of the earliest light show artists in the UK who’d worked on some of the early shows of Pink Floyd amongst others.
His light shows featured hand-assembled wet slides and Aldis projectors. His company called Five Acre Lights was actually named after a psychedelic nudist colony he ran with his wife at Five Acre Woods near Watford – which in reality, was a number of caravans in a sea of mud and a club house that featured a ‘trip machine’ and where Pink Floyd once played a gig on Guy Fawkes night in 1966. Braceland was a middle-aged, slightly weird beatnik character but for the relatively short while Happening 44 existed, it featured such bands as the Social Deviants and Soft Machine.
Soft Machine in 1967
Happening 44 also put on some of the earliest gigs of Fairport Convention – the folk-rock band that would soon become one of the most influential bands in the country. The band had recently placed adverts in the Melody Maker, presumably read by Jack Braceland, which read:

‘Friday; Fairport Convention stays home tonight. Saturday; Fairport stays home again, patiently waiting for bookings’.

Alas Happening 44 closed down within a few months of opening and Jack Braceland went back to his Watford nudist colony, and presumably his ‘trip machine’, and was never really heard of again.

Soft Machine 1967

Fairport Convention in 1967/68
King Of The Ravers and B-Bombs

Mick Mulligan and George Melly – Photograph by Terry Cryer
In the early fifties and fifteen years before Happening 44, 44 Gerrard Street housed The West End Jazz Club run by George Melly and the trumpeter Mick Mulligan, and it was here that the first ‘all night raves’ were held and, improbably, also where the term ‘all night rave’ was coined.
The word ‘rave’ (as in to ‘live it up’) was invented by Mulligan and took several forms: other than the verb ‘to rave’, there was the noun meaning a party where you raved, and finally a ‘raver’ – someone who raved as much as possible. A newspaper at one point called Mick Mulligan the ‘King of The Ravers’. George Melly wrote once that the original all night raves that had attracted beatniks, Soho layabouts and art school students, were an enormous social success but a financial loss.

In his autobiography Owning Up Melly described the end of a typical rave: “At seven a.m. the band played its final number and we’d all crawl up out of the sweat-scented cellar into the empty streets of a Sunday morning in the West End. Hysterical with lack of sleep, accompanied by a plump art student, her pale cheeks smeared with the night’s mascara, I’d catch the Chelsea bus and try to read the Observer through prickling red eyeballs as we swayed along Piccadilly, down Sloane Street, and into the King’s Road. Then a bath, one of those delirious fucks that only happen on the edge of complete fatigue, and a long sleep until it was time to get up and face the journey to Cook’s Ferry or whatever jazz club we were playing that evening.”

All all-night ravers, from whatever era, need a drug that keeps them awake. The drug of choice that allowed George and his fellow ravers to last the course was Benzedrine taken from broken up inhalers.
The Benzedrine inhaler was intended as a decongestant, but you could break it open, remove the paper strip inside and soak the strip in a cup of coffee or tea. This was called a ‘B-Bomb’ and the preparation got so popular the manufacturers had to withdraw the inhaler from over the counter use in the early fifties.

By the mid-fifties 44 Gerrard Street had become a folk club originally called The Good Earth but after the success of Lonnie Donnegan’s Rock Island Line it became the 44 Skiffle Club run by John Hasted – one of the earliest champions of skiffle which he saw as a form of teenage urban folk music. The house band was known as John Hasted’s Skiffle and Folksong Group and featured the young folk singer Shirley Collins. It’s easy today to be bemused about these clubs based around, as in George Melly’s case trad jazz and with Hasted skiffle and folk music, but these were the first youth movements based around music in this country. It wasn’t rock and roll that was the soundtrack for the first teenagers. Not in London anyway. Nor were they the first drug-takers in the capital.

The 43 Club – Useful For Early Breakfasts

At number 43 Gerrard Street in the 1920s there was situated an infamous nightclub run by an Irish woman called Kate Meyrick. She was famous back in Ireland for being the first woman to ride a bicycle, but in London she was well-known for running a string of nightclubs and evading the strict licensing laws whilst doing so. The most famous of which was the ’43 Club’ in Gerrard Street. It attracted bohemians like the artists Augustus John and Jacob Epstein and writers such as JB Priestley and Joseph Conrad as well as a good sprinkling of gangsters and aristocrats.
Tallulah Bankhead who often performed in London during the 1920s described the club as “useful for early breakfasts” and when asked “what time breakfast would be then?” she replied “about 10pm”. Tallulah Bankhead often admitted to her liking of cocaine and the ’43 Club’ was said to be the centre of drug dealing in the West End of London – the advantage for dealers, during the many police raids on the club, of a hidden escape route to Newport Place was obvious.
Corrupting The Womanhood of this Country

The most notorious cocaine dealer in London during the 1920s was a man known as ‘Brilliant Chang’ – his name is still used as slang for cocaine to this day.

In 1918 a popular young actress called Billie Carleton was found dead in her bed by her maid after attending the Victory ball at the Albert Hall. At her bedside was a gold box containing cocaine given to her by her boyfriend , the costume designer Reggie de Veuille. He had bought the drug from a Scottish woman called Ada and her Chinese husband Lau Ping You. Ada and de Veuille (the prosecution attempted to paint the worst possible picture and described him as ‘somewhat in foreign appearance and accent with an effeminate face and mincing little smile…’) were sentenced to five and eight months hard labour respectively but Lau Ping You escaped with just a £10 fine. The involvement of a Chinese man, however, whipped the press into a frenzy and the newspaper Pictorial News ran a series of pieces on the East End’s ‘Yellow Peril’. Very soon another Chinese man called ‘Brilliant’ Chang was brought to the forefront. Chang was a former Limehouse marine contractor but now ran a restaurant called ‘Shanghai’ in the same part of the East End. Limehouse was London’s original Chinatown but although the population reached its peak just after the First World War the population was probably only around 300 people.

The original Chinatown in Limehouse during the 1920s

The Pictorial News said that Chang ‘dispensed Chinese delicacies and the drugs and vices of the Orient.’ The paper continued that Chang ‘demanded payment for his drugs in kind’ and further enlightened its readers advising that women ‘who retained sufficent decency and pride of race’ turn down ‘this fellow with lips thin and cruel tightly drawn across even yellow teeth’. This description of Chang seems to have come directly from a Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novel – literature that didn’t exactly help the Chinese immigrant community’s cause and stoked Londoners fears of drugs, foriegners and crime – “Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government—which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

In 1922, Freda Kempton, a young nightclub dancer was found dead after an overdose of cocaine and the press soon found out that Chang had been with her the night before. He told the Coroner at her inquest ‘she was a friend of mine but I know nothing about the cocaine. It is all a mystery to me.’

According to the coroner there was no proof that he was linked to the death , but the police were convinced that he was. They raided his restaurant in 1924 and found a large quantity of the drug. He was jailed for 18 months and subsequently deported. The judge told him ‘It is you and men like you who are corrupting the womanhood of this country.’ While The Empire News wrote ‘Mothers would be well advised to keep their daughters as far away as they can from Chinese laundries and other places where the yellow men congregate.’

The Daily Telegraph reported a few years later that Chang had gone ‘blind and ended his days, not in luxury and rich silks, but as a sightless worker in a little kitchen garden.’

The womaniser and drug dealer ‘Brilliant’ Chang

In the thirties, probably encouraged by the atmosphere of ‘yellow peril’ hysteria whipped up by the popular press, the local council decided to clear the ‘slum area’ around Limehouse and many of the Chinese shops, restaurants and gambling dens were swept away. This, and the extensive bombing of the area during the Second World War encouraged the gradual migration of Chinatown from the East End to the West End.

Kate Meyrick, meanwhile, after several spells in Holloway prison due to repeated licensing laws offences and the bribing of policemen, died in 1933 – dance bands in the West End, apparently, fell silent for two minutes in tribute.