That I should find this so utterly vile surprised me, I’m not sure if the surprise came more for its intrinsic vileness or for my own reaction. As a lover of noir I’ve been trying to figure what separates this from the books I love because it is not its subjects or its violence, or the pulp aspect. It is partly the intensity of its racism; but at the same time I don’t believe writers should shrink from exposing that in all of its ugliness.
I realised it come down to the author’s stand. I realised what I love about noir is that the authors tend to write as though they share the same ground as their characters — and many of them do. They do not consider themselves above or below, but as capable of the evil as well as the vaguely heroic acts that may be committed in the face of shared cynicism. This makes glimpses of integrity brighter as the world grinds on and grinds down and they explore the dark places, but if there is any judgment it is hard earned on people’s actions, not skin colour or class position or an outdated set of morals.
This to me is noir at its best, the further a book departs from this, the less I like it. The constant treachery of women is, sadly, usually the biggest departure, but racism runs sexism a close second.
I wouldn’t call Limehouse Nights noir, it is a prurient telling of tales of exoticised others, an exercise in orientalism. The line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ seems clear, and they are there for our amusement even though it is written with a false jocularity that seemingly takes their side. It surprised me, published in 1916, that it should contain such open references to drug-use, rape, interracial sex, pimping, child kidnapping and rape. It physically sickened me that all of it should be so obviously written to titillate, the racial lines drawn only to make their transgression amongst the lowest and criminal classes more exciting. Soft violent porn for the white, middle-class lads at the expense of Limehouse’s population.
No wonder D.W. Griffiths of Birth of a Nation fame used a couple of these stories for his movie-making efforts (Broken Blossoms and Dream Streets).
I started reading it for its geography — misled terribly by the blurb which you can find at the end of this post — got through it a story at a time with distance in between, because I hate not finishing what I start and decided maybe I should try to understand a mentality that I won’t be coming back to.
It constantly refers to place, names streets like Pennyfields, Poplar High Street and Blackwall over and over again, it circles around the Blue Lantern Pub. Yet despite this attempt at ‘realism’, these places still remains the exoticised docks of white imagination, and could be anywhere:
You know, perhaps, the East India Dock, which lies a little north of its big brother, the West India Dock: a place of savagely masculine character, evoking the brassy mood. By daytime a cold, nauseous light hangs about it; at night a devilish darkness settles upon it.
You know, perhaps, the fried-fish shops that punctuate every corner in the surrounding maze of streets, the “general” shops with their assorted rags, their broken iron, and their glum-faced basins of kitchen waste; and the lurid-seeming creatures that glide from nowhere into nothing–Arab, Lascar, Pacific Islander, Chinky, Hindoo, and so on, each carrying his own perfume. You know, too, the streets of plunging hoof and horn that cross and re-cross the waterways, the gaunt chimneys that stick their derisive tongues to the skies. You know the cobbly courts, the bestrewn alleys, through which at night gas-jets asthmatically splutter; and the mephitic glooms and silences of the dock-side. You know these things, and I need not attempt to illuminate them for you.
— The Father of Yoto
There are minds to which the repulsive–such as Poplar High Street–is supremely beautiful, and to whom anything frankly human is indelicate, if not ugly. You need, however, to be a futurist to discover ecstatic beauty in the torn wastes of tiles, the groupings of iron and stone, and the nightmare of chimney-stacks and gas-works.
–The Father of Yoto
For all that he names the streets, ultimately you have no sense of place, only the sex and violence that takes place there:
Hardly the place to which one would turn as to the city of his dreams; yet there are those who do. Hearts are broken by Blackwall Gardens. The pity and terror and wonder of first love burn in the blood and limbs of those who serve behind the counters of East India Dock Road or load up cargo boats at the landing-stages. Love-mad hands have buried knives in little white bosoms in Commercial Road, and songs are written by the moon across many a happy garret-window in Cable Street.
From Pennyfields he drifted over West India Dock Road, passed a house where a window seemed deliberately to wink at him, and so swung into that Causeway where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West.
–Beryl, the Croucher and the Rest of England
Ah yes — where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West. The people living in these generic dock streets are as typecast, as empty, as much evoked in our imaginations entirely for our amusement — this passage refers to a fourteen year old dance hall girl uncomfortably sexualised to the hilt:
From him she had inherited a love of all raw and simple things, all that was odorous of the flesh. She hated country solitudes, and she loved Poplar and the lights and the noise of people. She loved it for its blatant life. She loved the streets, the glamour, the diamond dusks, the dirt and the perfume…Every street was a sharp-flavoured adventure, and at night each had a little untranslatable message for her. Everywhere she built romances. She was a mandarin’s daughter in Pennyfields. She was a sailor’s wife in the Isle of Dogs. In the West India Dock Road she was a South Sea princess, decked with barbaric jewels and very terrible knives. She did not like western London: it wasn’t homey. She loved only the common joys of the flesh and the common joys of the heart; and these she found in Poplar.
–Gina of the Chinatown
She dies in childbirth at fifteen.
Not only are streets and people cut off (and happily so) from the rest of the city, but from the country and from nature itself, an island of unnatural connections and natural desires:
Beyond London, amid the spray of meadow and orchard, bird and bee were making carnival, but here one still gambled and waited to find a boat. Limehouse has no seasons. It has not even the divisions of day and night. Boats must sail at all hours at the will of the tide, and their swarthy crews are ever about. It has no means of marking the pomp of the year’s procession. Lusty spring may rustle in the hedgerows; golden-tasselled summer may move on the meadows. In Limehouse there are only more seamen or less seamen. Summer is a spell of stickiness, and winter a time of fog.
Over and over again it licks its lips at the thought of white women with Chinese and Indians and Africans — but mostly the Chinese because this is Chinatown after all. They are loose women because this class knows no better. He mocks their drudgery — more annoying because he has actually bothered to find out what it might consist of and this is one of the only places he describes it to the extent to which it is possible for him:
Pansy was in trouble, and wanted money, of which he had none, for he was a destitute Oriental. Often they had gone about together, and in his way he had loved her. The girls of this quarter have a penchant for coloured boys, based, perhaps, on the attraction of repulsion.
Pansy lived in Pekin Street. About her window the wires wove a network, and the beat of waters, as they slapped about the wharves, was day and night in her ears. At evenings there came to her the wail of the Pennyfields Orient, or the hysterical chortlings of an organ with music-hall ditties. She worked at Bennett’s Cocoa Rooms in East India Dock Road; and life for her, as for most of her class, was just a dark house in a dark street. From the morning’s flush to the subtle evening, she stood at steaming urns, breathing an air limp with the smell of food, and serving unhealthy eatables to cabmen, draymen, and, occasionally, a yellow or black or brown sailor.
She was not pretty. The curse of labour was on her face, and she carried no delicacies wherewith to veil her maidenhood. From dawn to dusk, from spring to spring, she had trodden the golden hours in this routine, and knew, yet scarcely felt, the slow sucking of her ripening powers. Twenty-one she was; yet life had never sung to her. Toil, and again toil, was all she knew–toil on a weakened body, improperly fed; for your work-girl of the East seldom knows how to nourish herself. Pansy lived, for the most part, on tea and sweets.
–Tai Fu and Pansy Greers
This gives too, one of his explanations for miscegenation I think — girls that can get no one else can, by virtue of their skin colour, snare a foreign sailor.
Written always from a comfortable point of superiority, Burke manages to deride many a remarkable achievement — in this case stripping everything away but the fact of a woman who speaks four languages to a greater or lesser extent, I wonder just how much in reality this interracial intercultural exchange took place? But this is not Burke’s point, instead these passages give you a sense of the slime crawling across his pages:
Poppy was fair in the eyes of a Chinaman; she was an anaemic slip of a girl, with coarse skin and mean mouth, a frightened manner and a defiant glance. She had scarce any friends, for she was known to be a copper’s nark; thus came the fear in her step and the challenge in her eyes. Often she had blown the gaff on the secret games of Chinatown, for she spoke Cantonese and a little Swahili and some Hindustani, and could rustle it with the best of them; and it was her skill and shrewdness in directing the law to useful enterprises, such as the raiding of wicked houses, that caused her to be known in all local stations and courts as the Chinese Poppy.
She lived in the tactfully narrow Poplar High Street, that curls its nasty length from Limehouse to Blackwall, and directly opposite her cottage was the loathly lodging of Sway Lim–one room, black and smelly with dirt–next the home of the sailors of Japan.
She was a bad girl, mean and treacherous; everybody knew that; but she was young and very pale; so that Sway Lim, wet-lipped, would gloat upon her from his window.
— The Sign of the Lamp
Of everything — and apparently people have some appreciation of his craft — I really liked only one sentence, and you cannot separate it from the vileness that comes before (or after):
And suddenly, on a bright Sunday, he lost her for all. She went from him to a yellow man in Pennyfields, leaving a derisive note of final farewell. The brutality of the blow got him like a knife on a wound. Something fouled within him, and for an hour or so he was stupid–a mere flabby Thing in a cotton suit.
Nor can he claim ignorance for the casual insulting racism of his language:
“Here–steady on, Chinky!” she cried, using the name which she knew would sting him to the soul. She was disconcerted and inclined to be cross, while half laughing. “Don’t take liberties, my son. Specially with me. You’re only a yellow rat, y’know.”
Nor can he be forgiven for the terrible end of the boy described below — betrayed by his own failings — and Burke’s inability to find a trace of empathy for his characters:
Now while the Captain remained drunk in his cabin, he kept with him for company the miserable, half-starved Chinky boy whom he had brought aboard. And it would make others sick if the full dark tale were told here of what the master of the Peacock did to that boy.
Nor does this phrase make any sense in describing that bright fourteen year old music hall singer that everyone loved until you start to vaguely think through the conflation of race and class and gender within others out there to amuse ‘us’:
She was as distinctive as a nigger in a snowstorm…
–Gina of the Chinatown
There is one curious tale that is also used to bring the aristocratic socialist and female reformer down a notch or two. A collection of sentences from this story ‘The Kinght-Errant’:
Wherefore it was stupid, stupid, with that ostrich-like stupidity that distinguishes the descendants of noble families who have intermarried with their kind; I say it was stupid for Lady Dorothy Grandolin to choose this, of all places, for her first excursion into slum-land, in order to gather material for her great work: Why I am a Socialist: a Confession of Faith; Together with some Proposals for Ameliorating the Condition of the Very Poor; with Copious Appendices by the Fabian Society. Far better might she have fared in the Dials; in Lambeth; even in Hoxton. But no; it must be Limehouse–and at night. Really, one feels that she deserved all she got.
However, she was determined to do a book on the Very Poor; nothing would stop her. Her little soul blazed in a riot of fine fire for the cause. Yesterday, it was Auction; the day before it was Settlements; to-day, the Very Poor. And in papa’s drawing-room there was no doubt that the Very Poor was a toy to be played with very prettily; for it is the one success of these people that they can do things with an air.
For he was Ho Ling, fat and steamy; and he sidled to her out of the mist, threatening and shrinking, with that queer mixture of self-conceit and self-contempt which is the Chinese character…She had heard that the Chinese quarter offered splendid material for studies in squalor, as well as an atmosphere of the awful and romantic. Her first glances did not encourage her in this idea; for these streets and people are only awful and romantic to those who have awful and romantic minds. Lady Dorothy hadn’t. She had only awful manners.
She is robbed of her watch and a kiss by a pair of dim thieving brothers, one of whom falls in love with her and helps her escape by calling the cops on the other.
As this is a voyeuristic view of Chinatown, drugs are always part of the backdrop. This is from back in the day when cocaine was used medically — here poor little Gina is dying, and you couldn’t ask for a more cloying end:
“Mumdear… ask them for some more of that cocaine… cos… it… it hurts… so.”
–Gina of the Chinatown
It is opium that is used for pleasure, and Burke is clearly describing something he has seen (you are not sure about any of the rest):
Presently Lois swung herself from the lounge and began to “cook” for her boy. On a small table she spread the lay-out; lit the lamp; dug out the treacly hop from the toey and held it against the flame. It bubbled furiously, and the air was charged with a loathsome sweetness. Then, holding the bamboo pipe in one hand, she scraped the bowl with a yen-shi-gow, and kneaded the brown clot with the yen-hok. Slowly it changed colour as the poison gases escaped. Then she broke a piece in her finger, and dropped it into the bowl, and handed the stem to Batty. He puffed languorously, and thick blue smoke rolled from him.
–The Gorilla and the Girl
In this story she cooks it up in the Blue Lantern Pub for her boyfriend while her father looks on.
I’ll end with a passage that collects all of the ‘characters’ from these stories into the Blue Lantern:
All those who were well seen in Limehouse and Poplar were here, and the informed observer could recognise many memorable faces. Chuck Lightfoot and Battling Burrows were engaged in a comparatively peaceable game of fan-tan with Sway Lim and Quong Tart; at any rate the noise they were making could not have been heard beyond Custom House. Tai Ling and his Marigold were there, very merry, and Pansy Greers, with an escort from the Pool, attracted much attention in a dress which finished where it ought to have begun. Ding-Dong was there: Perce Sleep; Paris Pete; Polly the Pug; Jenny Jackson’s Provence Boys, so called because they frequented that café; the Chatwood Kid, from whom no safe could withhold its secrets; and, in fact, all the golden boys and naughty girls of the district were snatching their moment of solace. Old Foo Ah lolloped on a chair, slumbering in the heavy content of a kangaroo. That masculine lady, Tidal Basin Sal, sprawled on a shabby private-bar lounge with a little girl, whom she would alternately kiss and slap proprietorially. A nigger from the Polynesians made himself a nuisance to the air and the company; and on a table at the extreme end stood little Gina of the Chinatown, slightly drunk, and with clothing disarranged, singing that most thrilling and provocative of rag-times:
“You’re here and I’m here, So what do we care?”
–The Gorilla and the Girl
I believe that shall be the end of my forays into this kind of ‘literature’. But before I end, this is the blurb found on goodreads:
One of the most frankly and brutally realistic books that has appeared in our tongue in a long time. But Burke has cast a glamour over his pages that prevents his stories from being merely studies in the sordid and the morbid. Somehow he makes you feel that he has viewed life with pity and tenderness and loving comprehension.
One of the worst blurbs I’ve read really, as though naming some streets were realism, or patting someone on the head for their appetites and watching with barely-if-at-all-repressed excitement at their descent into sexualised violence and death were tenderness and compassion.
And who was Thomas Burke? Someone cared enough to change wikipedia to reflect his complexities and his own falsified autobiographies, citing an article I shall have to go find (Witchard, Anne. “Thomas Burke, the ‘Laureate of Limehouse,”):
These romanticised tales of Burke’s early life were often accepted by the literary critics of the day and went largely unchallenged by his contemporaries. Although Burke’s later writing, including the book Son of London more accurately describes his youth in the suburbs, the majority of his autobiographies attest to his supposedly intimate knowledge of lower-class life. These fabricated autobiographies enabled Burke to establish his authority as an expert on the Chinese in London, allowing him to create a persona that he used to market his fictional works on Limehouse. As Witchard notes, Burke, through his writing, positioned himself as a “seer” in an “occult process” of representing London’s sub-cultural ‘Others.’
I am rather fascinated at this mythological remaking of self and author, this forging of credentials. It is almost enough to make me want to read Son of London but life is short, and there are plenty of authors who have something worthwhile to say.