Debord & Jorn in Limehouse — and the best single objection to planning you will ever read

In 1955, the London Times published this piece of garbage:

London’s Chinatown is threatened with extinction. That labyrinth of squalid streets, mysterious passages, and shuttered hovels a mile or two east of Aldgate pump is doomed. The planners have been told to go ahead. By the end of the year much of Pennyfields will have been demolished to make room for blocks of flats. After that, it is only a question of time before the rest of it will vanish like an opium smoker’s dream.

Tenacious as the type of Oriental who jumps ship and settles within the purlieus of London’s Docklands is, he is helpless under the New Order. Whatever he and his compatriots may feel, they cannot hope to frustrate the designs of the modern builder. The series of rabbit warrens, from which a Chinese head was once wont to pop out with disconcerting suddenness, must give place to neat and tidy dwellings fitted with “h. and c.” and a sanitation calculated to make the old time denizens of London’s Chinatown shudder.

For it has never been the dwelling place of the Mandarin, much less the hiding place of the communist plotter. But it has been, and still is, the home-from-home of the Chinese Common Man, who, sick of the sea, had found the precarious existence to be derived from gambling, catering for his fellows, or pandering to curious visitors much to his liking. (49)
–anonymous, “Limehouse Nights in the 1930s: Chinatown of Romance and Fable Receives its Death Blow from the Planners.” London Times, August 31, 1955

In response, Bernstein, Debord, and Wolman write in Potlatch no. 23 (October 13, 1955):

We protest against such moral ideas in town-planning, ideas which must obviously make England more boring than it has in recent years already become.

***

Anyway, it is inconvenient that this Chinese quarter of London should be destroyed before we have the opportunity to visit it and carry out certain psychogeographical experiments we are at present undertaking.

Finally, if modernization appears to you, as it does to us, to be historically necessary, we would counsel you to carry your enthusiasm into areas more urgently in need of it, that is to say, to your political and moral institutions. (52)

Bam. I almost like them again.

3621776_0bcc87ccIn McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, he describes their brief stay in Limehouse, in the building that formerly housed the British Sailor’s Society. A building on Newell Street, one of my favourite streets in all of London, and this building one I have puzzled over after noticing the plaque. Wark quotes a 2008 property advert that describes what it has become — and then goes on to describe what it once was:

“Newell Street, London, E14 7HR. £1,250,000: A beautiful Grade 2 listed house formerly headquarters of The British Sailors Society. Built circa 1802 for one of Horatio Nelson’s captains, the property retains many naval features including one of London’s only Victorian swimming pools, originally built to teach sailors to swim. The property is laid out over three floors and consists: large entrance hallway, drawing room, conservatory, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, studio room, sauna, private garden and two parking spaces. The property has also been used for filming, including Beginner’s Luck and Dead Cool and has been graced by stars such as Rosanna Arquette, Liz Smith, and Julie Delpy.”1

It’s easier to sell a property with a story, but beneath these stories lie others. The ad neglects to mention that the same address formerly housed the homeless, or that it was once disgraced by the anti-celebrities of the Situationist International. In preparation for the 1960 London conference, Debord and Jorn embarked on a dérive of the city looking for a suitable venue. They settled on this hall in the Lime-house district, mythologized by Charles Dickens as a seedy warren of opium dens. (253-254)

It’s so much more than that of course, I don’t much care for Edwin Drood, but I quite love knowing more about this little piece of it.

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