Yellow Earth Theatre Explores Forgotten Stories of the British Chinese

By Kumiko Mendl, Artistic Director, Yellow Earth Theatre

I am one of the five founder members of the British East Asian (BEA) theatre company, Yellow Earth. We were five actors who came together fed up with the paucity of roles available to us and keen to make our own work to change that.

Kumiko Mendl with the cast of ‘The Last Days of Limehouse’ posing for a group photo on a stairway with wrought iron banisters.
Kumiko Mendl with the cast of ‘The Last Days of Limehouse’

Exploring forgotten and unheard stories and voices

Over the 22 years the company has undergone many changes. I am now the Artistic Director and as a theatre company our business is always to deal in stories. That has led me to explore and unearth the overlooked, forgotten and unheard stories and voices of the British Chinese and East Asian communities.

British Chinese sailor James Robson

In 2011 we won a commission to create a new character interpreter for the Traders Gallery at the National Maritime Museum. His name was James Robson a British Chinese Sailor. He was found as a baby floating in the South China Seas. Rescued by a Captain and his wife and brought up in Poplar East London, he was the longest serving crew member alongside Captain Woodget on the Cutty Sark serving for 10 years between 1885 and 1895.

Actor Johnny Ong playing the part of James Robson on Cutty Stark, leans in a doorway that would lead below deck, looking out and surveying the scene.
This photo is of Johnny Ong playing James Robson, a regular character on the Cutty Sark. Devised and written by the Yellow Earth theatre company, and directed by Kumiko Mendl

Chinatown in Limehouse and Poplar

Whilst researching James Robson I became increasingly fascinated with the area around Limehouse and Poplar that was once the site of a small but significant 'Chinatown' with restaurants, Sunday schools and grocery shops.

It began when Chinese sailors arriving at the London docks in the 1800's as part of the new trade between China, East Asia and Britain, were left waiting to work their passage back. There they met the local women who clearly showed a preference to the Chinese men over the local men and quite a number ended up staying, marrying and having families. 

Today there is little to suggest such an area ever existed save for a few street names such as 'Amoy Place', 'Ming Street' and 'Canton Street' and a dragon sculpture, easily missed.

Black and white photo of Chinese children seated in classroom style with some adults looking on from chairs at the edge and back of the room.
Sunday school in Chinese Mission, Pennyfields, 1935. Irene Ho Tung set up The Chung Hwa Club, to teach Chinese language, culture and history © Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

Inspiration and fear

Slum clearances in the 1930s and the Blitz pretty much destroyed everything, but not before the place had caught the imagination of writers such as Sax Rohmer who spawned the popular evil genius Fu Manchu.

At the time Rohmer wrote, there was a lot of racism, fear and mistrust of the Chinese in the media fuelled by the idea of the 'Yellow Peril'. Limehouse represented to the British public all that was alien, sordid and fearful about the Chinese with its dark alleys and smoke filled opium dens.

A new play: 'The Last Days of Limehouse'

We wanted to debunk those myths and present the real lives of those that had once lived there so we commissioned a new play, 'The Last Days of Limehouse' by Jeremy Tiang.

A scene from the play 'The Last Days of Limehouse'.
A scene from The Last Days of Limehouse' by Jeremy Tiang performed at the Old Limehouse Town Hall, Limehouse, London. Directed by Gary Merry and Kumiko Mendl. Design by Moi Tran. Music by Ruth Chan. Cast included Jonathan Chan, Sara Houghton, Matthew Leonhart, Amanda Maud and Gabby Wong © Robert Workman

If you want to find out more, here is a great resource I worked on. Explore the key locations of the old Chinatown in Limehouse Chinatown Rediscovered and you can take an audio tour of the area voiced by characters from our play.

‘Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kowk’ opened in Manchester on 22 March 2018.

See the trailer and find out about future shows

Marketing image for Yellow Earth Theatre
' Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok' by In-Sook Chappell, adapted from the family memoir ‘Sweet Mandarin’ by Helen Tse, a story of love, sacrifice and survival. It opened at The Royal Exchange, Manchester 22 March - 7 April 2018, continued at Stratford Circus, London 18 - 21 April and then on tour until June 2018 © Yellow Earth theatre company

In Autumn 2018 the Yellow Earth Theatre and Moongate Productions commemorate the end of World War 1 with a new play, ‘Forgotten 遗忘’ by Daniel York Loh at Plymouth Theatre Royal (17-20 October) and Arcola Theatre London (23 October - 17 November). ‘Forgotten 遗忘’ is inspired by the little-known story of the 140,000 Chinese Labour Corps who left their homes and families to travel half way around the world to work for Britain and the Allies behind the front lines during World War One.

Black and white photo of nine officers and men of the Chinese Labour Corps posed for a group photo.
Officers and men of the Chinese Labour Corps. Part of a poorly-treated multinational labour force building the railways, trenches, camps and roads for the Allied war effort in World War 1.
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