Writer: Joel Tan
Director: An-Ting Chang
Developer: Donald Shek
This audio tour of London’s Chinatown will open your eyes. Amid the orange lanterns hanging above the streets is a vibrant history stretching back centuries to when this area of the capital was once a green field. It comes as a surprise to learn that the Chinatown we see now, as we walk its narrow and colourful streets, is a modern invention, a neighbourhood officially created in the 1980s.
Our guide is writer Joel Tan, a Singaporean of Chinese descent who found solace when he first visited the district as an immigrant to Britain. Even though he was seduced by the smells and the tastes of the area he was also aware that it was a facade as it ignored the differences and diversity of the Chinese and presented the culture as homogenous.
Things haven’t improved, Tan suggests at the start of the tour as we stand in Newport Square. We begin near a grey hexagon that is all that is left of the pagoda that once stood here. It was knocked down recently, without consultation, to make way for fancier shops and draw more tourists. This gentrification is ruining the tone of the area, and developers have allowed more chain restaurants to set up here, and with the introduction of Japanese and Korean restaurants Chinatown is in danger of becoming Asiatown, again disregarding the huge differences between East Asian cultures. This is food for thought as we walk pass the restaurants and the grocery stores.
But these streets, few may they be, have other histories, too, of Dryden and Johnson. Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club started off in Gerrard Street before it made its way to Soho’s Frith Street. Although Tan doesn’t mention it, Gerrard Street was also the home of El Morocco, the nightclub run by the Kray twins. And who is old enough to remember the Dive Bar, the basement drinking hole, so popular in the 1980s?
The best part about the tour is how it encourages one to look anew at possibly a familiar territory. Above the shop fronts elegant houses rise, and at pavement level mosaics hint at grander entrances. These palimpsests demonstrate the layered history of the area in a way that text books may struggle to describe. Looking closer at the newest Chinatown gate will reveal that it’s made from precious stones.
What is less successful is the series of plays that you can listen to in selected points along the route. It is with these that the augmented reality of the title comes into play. While listening to the drama you can look at the location through the camera of your phone and appearing on screen are graphics, some of which you can play along with. Although it’s a neat treat they add little to the story and by looking at the phone you’re not really appreciating the views for real. The plays are well done, especially the one about the a new arrival from Hong Kong, but they seem a little long and on a busy evening or weekend standing still for five minutes may be awkward.
The app itself works well, but the instructions on which tabs to press could be clearer, especially after listening to the plays. You may find yourself at the final destination before you’ve really begun. Also the links to the plays could be signposted better, as this reviewer only realised that he’d missed two plays completely when he was homeward bound on the tube. Bring an auxiliary power charger, as this eats up your battery.
Any attempt to make us more aware of our surroundings and our history, both of which we often take for granted, is to be commended. And this app succeeds in this mission. The plays try to provide a personal angle to the history, and perhaps they could be integrated into our walking journey rather than having us remain in one place. It’s very difficult to stand still in a city, but this may be Tan’s point. We need to stop and take note before this area changes once more.
App available from the Apple Store. Also from Google Play but with no augmented reality.