Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros261. Living together : migration an...Branding Chinatown and the opposi...

1. Living together : migration and diversity in the UK

Branding Chinatown and the opposition between national and local politics in the United Kingdom

Quôc-Dung Dang
p. 13-33


Despite the rolling back of multiculturalism at government level, the realities of a diverse society remain very much visible at the local level. In the current context of globalisation and cosmopolitanism and as part of a broader effort to globalise London, the English capital still resorts to de facto multiculturalist policies to enhance its diversity in terms of ethnic groups. London’s Chinatown is one representative example of this phenomenon. The neighbourhood presents an important economic opportunity resulting from its cultural landscape. Thus, both public authorities and the corporate world seek to profit from the area’s cultural wealth, hence their attempts to negotiate Chinatown as a product by engaging a narrative that fits Western imagination. London’s Chinatown has thus been marketed and packaged for consumption through different branding strategies that focus on its cultural representation.

The study of this ethnic enclave adds to the existing empirical and normative literature of multiculturalism by exploring the contrast in local and national politics in terms of integration and multicultural policies in the United Kingdom, thus participating in the debate on “Living together in the UK”.

Haut de page

Texte intégral


  • 1 Roy, J., 1967, p. 267
  • 2 ibid
  • 3 Latour, V., 2014, p. 19
  • 4 Translated by the author: “un nouveau vocabulaire politique sur l’immigration, la citoyenneté et la (...)

1Since 1945, under the heading of decolonisation and globalisation, the British approach towards immigrant integration has been marked by policies of supporting the visibility of different minority identities as an acknowledgment of cultural diversity. From the 1960s onwards, British multiculturalism was promoted by the government to encourage different ethnic groups to peacefully coexist within society, all the while being able to preserve their original cultures. As defined by Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in 1967, multiculturalism means that integration should not be synonymous with “the loss of their [the immigrants’] own national characteristics and culture”1 or “a melting pot which will turn everybody out in a common mould”2. Albeit resilient for a long time, this model has become increasingly controversial and even viewed as a failure since the late 1990s -especially after the urban riots in the summer of 2001, the attacks of 9/11 in the US, and the London bombings of July 2005. Concerns were raised that this might threaten social cohesion. Therefore, anti-multicultural discourses began to emerge in national debates, and government discourses and policies have since shifted towards notions such as community cohesion and Britishness–a shift that Vincent Latour (2014) qualifies as an “integrationist turn” (virage intégrationniste)3. 2001 was, according to Romain Garbaye and Olivier Estèves (2017), a major turning point as the New Labour government started to undertake a “new political vocabulary on immigration, citizenship and cultural diversity”4 with a view to rebuilding a national identity.

  • 5 Westminster City Council, A Design Strategy for Chinatown, 2008, p. 2

2Although British multiculturalism has been said to be in a crisis, multicultural policies have still been popular at the local level. Westminster City Council, the London local authority, continues to work on the promotion of different neighbourhoods within the capital, including ethnic neighbourhoods, as a way to embrace ethnic and cultural diversity, and in an effort to enhance London’s cosmopolitanism. This multicultural approach is highly perceptible through the ways in which Westminster City Council seeks to construct London’s Chinatown, an Asian-ethnic neighbourhood situated in the West End. Along with other local actors, such as local associations, business owners and especially the neighbourhood’s landowner Shaftesbury PLC; the Council issued a series of action plans in the early 2000s, dedicated to renovating and conceiving the ethnic enclave as “the best Chinatown in the world”5.

3In this article, we will examine the strategies employed by Westminster City Council for tackling the promotion of London’s Chinatown, with a particular focus on a phenomenon known as ‘cultural branding’ which will be the starting point of our reflections on this neighbourhood. Derived from the word ‘brand’, branding is mostly used in the field of marketing and tends to indicate “a process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumer’s mind, mainly through advertising campaigns […] to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market…”6 In the case of London’s Chinatown, branding is very much about cultural commodification and ‘touristification’, as per which the neighbourhood is marketed as a cultural attraction for the general public. This process is made possible by different urban regeneration projects of the neighbourhood, in connection with the cultural representation of the ethnic group. London’s approach to cultural diversity remains very much influenced by a multiculturalist understanding of urban regeneration and economic development, despite widespread national criticism of multiculturalism. In our exploration of London’s Chinatown through the prism of cultural branding, we will scrutinise this opposition between national and local politics of integration in the United Kingdom.

The ‘British model’ towards diversity governance in crisis

  • 7 Esteves, O., Garbaye, R., 2017, p. 10
  • 8 ibid
  • 9 Roy, J., 1967, p. 267

4After the Second World War, the United Kingdom experienced a significant demographic change due to an influx of migration from the Caribbean, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and China. Furthermore, the 1948 British Nationality Act acknowledged the civil, political and social rights of populations from British colonies and agreed on legislating the citizenship of Commonwealth citizens. The population, once predominantly white and British, became more diverse ethnically and culturally. Hence the unfolding of multicultural policies by successive national governments and local authorities, especially under the Labour government of Harold Wilson in the 1960s and later under Ken Livingstone, Mayor of the Greater London Authority. According to Romain Garbaye and Olivier Estèves (2017) the term ‘multiculturalism’ can be understood in three different ways: it can refer to the notion of ‘cultural diversity’ that is best exemplified by the socio-cultural reality in the United Kingdom; it can also mean a “philosophy of recognition of ethno-cultural identities” (philosophie de reconnaissance des identités ethnoculturelles)7, either in the private or public sphere; or it can indicate the various public policies of social diversity management (politiques de gestion de la diversité)8. Such policies can be found at the national level, for instance in the constitution, which is the case of Canada; or in local and regional strategies or legislation, as in the United Kingdom. More specifically, British multiculturalism encompasses a variety of initiatives that range from education policies (Local Education Authorities) and anti-discrimination laws (Race Relations Acts 1965, 1968, 1976), to local policies implemented by authorities such as London boroughs or Metropolitan counties. In 1967, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins (1967) defined integration “not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”9, which contributed to the development of the multiculturalist approach of immigrant integration to which the United Kingdom would be so attached for decades.

5In the late 1990s, especially after the urban riots in the North of England in 2001, criticisms of multiculturalism started to emerge, and the concept of community cohesion became a focus in the politics of integration. In 1997, under Tony Blair’s New Labour, a Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain was established by the Runnymede Trust -a British race equality think tank chaired by the political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh- to analyse the contemporary reality of multicultural Britain and offer recommendations to help reconcile with anti-multiculturalist views and rethink Britishness. The Commission was regarded by the Independent as “one of the biggest ever projects on multi-ethnicity in Britain”10. The Parekh Report, published in 2000 following the commission, defines the “multicultural post-nation” of Britain as “both a community of citizens and a community of communities”11: a multiculturalist ideology that was soon deemed so scandalous and controversial by the conservative media that Tony Blair’s government had to abandon the Commission that they had once supported. The post-multicultural age has been characterised by attempts to revise and reaffirm a shared British identity. Furthermore, in the wake of the 2005 terrorist attacks in London, Ruth Kelly, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, condemned multiculturalism for causing social segregation. She claimed in a speech in 2006, “In our attempt to avoid imposing a single British identity and culture, have we ended up with some communities living in isolation of each other, with no common bonds between them?”12, stressing the importance of engaging in “a new and honest debate about integration and cohesion in the UK”13. Her statement was not a novelty as it buttressed what had been discussed in national political debates. For instance in the Cantle Report (2001), the phenomenon of communities living “parallel lives”14 was observed to be one of the dilemmas of multiculturalism, which contributed to tensions between local communities; or in 2002, Home Secretary David Blunkett made a statement against multiculturalism, calling it “an unbridled multiculturalism which privileges difference over community cohesion”15. These examples show that members of the New Labour such as Kelly or Blunkett found the logic of multiculturalism problematic for ‘living together’ in the United Kingdom.

6From the 2000s onwards, allusions to the demise of multiculturalism have become legion. German political sociologist Christian Joppke claimed in 2004 that there was a formal “retreat of multiculturalism”16 in the United Kingdom. The same year, Trevor Phillips, Head of the Commission for Racial Equality and who was once member of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, warned of the growth of “fully fledged ghettos” as Britain was “sleepwalking into segregation”17. With the arrival of David Cameron’s coalition in office in 2010, multiculturalism was officially declared a failure. In 2011, the then Prime Minister delivered a speech at Munich Security Conference, putting an emphasis on the mistake of state multiculturalism:

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values18

7In addition, state multiculturalism has been blamed for undermining community cohesion. In 2015, in a review conducted under the heading of the Conservative government, Louise Casey observed:

  • 19 Casey, D.L., 2015, p. 19

Despite the growing diversity of our nation and the general sense that people from different backgrounds got on well together, community cohesion did not feel universally strong across the country. Numerous reports on community cohesion and integration had been produced in the preceding fifteen years but the recommendations they had made were difficult to see in action19

  • 20 ibid, p. 167
  • 21 Modood, T., 2011, p. 2

8A series of recommendations was identified in the review to help build cohesive communities, such as the promotion of the English language, the emphasis on British history and values, the revision of the route to British citizenship, and also “a clear focus on reducing segregation identified with local areas”20. In a nutshell, these observations tend to suggest that a vision of the British model of multiculturalism has been in crisis since the late 1990s. Although such interpretations are not groundless, they should nonetheless be clarified and qualified. Many theses have been conducted to put forward the idea that British multiculturalism is still holding up very well. Sociologist Tariq Modood (2011) claimed that multiculturalism was not dying despite being continually criticised by successive government ministers because “there are very few policies at stake”21 and that

  • 22 ibid

Many people worry about residential segregation and inward looking communities. But these are not the result of policies and population distribution could only be achieved by, to coin a phrase, muscular illiberalism. Residential concentrations have resulted more from poverty, fear of racism, natural growth and ‘white flight’ than self-ghettoisation.22

9In the following section, we will explore the making of London’s Chinatown through a multiculturalist approach promoted and executed at local level by the London authority, Westminster City Council. The analysis of this ethnic enclave through the prism of cultural branding will help highlight the opposition between national and local politics of integration in the United Kingdom and contribute to the debates over cross-Channel multiculturalism.

London’s Chinatown, the multicultural makeover of an ethnic neighbourhood

10Located around Gerrard Street in central London’s West End, between Soho to the North and Leicester Square to the South, London’s Chinatown is not simply an ethnic neighbourhood characterised by high concentrations of South-East Asian communities and their businesses. It has also become a tourist destination which continually benefits from investments and image strategies introduced by different actors, among which Westminster City Council is an active decision-maker. The ‘brand’ identity construction of London’s Chinatown epitomises on the one hand a sustainable economic structure, and on the other hand a multiculturalist approach that London still applies to ethnic neighbourhoods despite the national criticisms over social segregation. The exploration of the multicultural agenda of the London local authority will shed light on the entrenchment of multiculturalism in Britain’s political landscape.

  • 23 By the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory, promulgated in 1898, Great Britain leas (...)
  • 24 Benton, G., Gomez, E.T., 2008, p. 180

11The history of the current London Chinatown traces back to the 1950s. It was when the first Chinese neighbourhood in Limehouse was torn down by the Blitz and its inhabitants, mostly Chinese mainlanders, had to move to another part of the capital. Their relocation from Limehouse to Gerrard Street was joined by large numbers of Hong Kong’s local Cantonese who emigrated to Britain from the New Territories23 under the British Nationality Act of 1948; and later, in the late 1970s, by Vietnamese Chinese refugees. At that time, the area around Gerrard Street, which is part of Soho, had a seedy reputation due to its sex industry, its relatively high levels of crime and dilapidated conditions, despite its strategic location at the heart of London. Property rents were thus low, leases short, attracting newcomers, especially Chinese investors24. They started to form a cluster of Chinese businesses in Gerrard Street, most of which specialised in the exotic catering industry and were family-owned. Whereas the sex industry in Soho started to decline in 1985 with bills and restrictions against prostitution, the food business in the emerging Chinese neighbourhood experienced a rapid growth–a phenomenon which can be attributed on the one hand to the return of British soldiers from South East Asia who had developed a fondness for Asian cuisines; and on the other, to Britain’s new fondness of eating out, which developed from the mid-1950s, and the growth of Chinese takeaway. As explained by historian Panikos Panayi:

  • 25 Panayi, P., 2008

Expansion would continue after this time [mid-1960s] with the development of the takeaway, which a Chinese family could open for a ‘fraction of the price’ of a restaurant in large city. Writing in the early 1980s Anthony Shang identified the ‘Chop Suey House’, offering a range of adapted Chinese fast-food dishes palatable to Westerners’ taste buds. […] Roberts has most perceptively revealed the fact that the post-war growth in Britain represented part of a global phenomenon, ‘Chinese Food Abroad’ in the words of Kenneth Lo, whereby a distinct product surfaced for western tastes.25

  • 26 Portes, A., Manning, R., 2008
  • 27 Benton, G., Gomez, E.T., 2008, p. 184
  • 28 Benton, G., Gomez, E.T., 2008, p. 181

12The catering industry soon became a niche market, on which the majority of employment within the neighbourhood relied; and which served as an “alternate mode of incorporation”26. Indeed, the development of the food business allowed the neighbourhood to sustain its enclave economy and thus better incorporate it into that of the host society. With a solid and flourishing economic structure, the ethnic enclave managed to move from marginalisation to a more ‘institutional’ position, accomplished with a formal recognition as the Chinatown of London by the local authority. This recognition was translated by the opening of pedestrianised Gerrard Street in 1985 with the presence of the Duke of Gloucester, which “signalled the royal approval for the makeover”27. Other institutionalised features such as the Chinese gates, pavilions, stone lions and a pagoda were soon added to the landscape of the area. Over time, the high concentration of different businesses (retail, financial, medical and professional services), coupled with the exotic architecture, both contributed towards shaping the unique cultural landscape of the area. As described by sinologists Benton and Gomez, “Throughout, Gerrard Street remained a service centre rather than a place of Chinese residence. At most, it was an ‘imaginary ghetto’ – a public space where Chinese identity could be celebrated on special occasions, a place of fanciful belonging in which to renew one’s sense of community and culture”28.

13Despite the formal recognition of the area, there was no particular urban planning dedicated to the neighbourhood until the early 2000s, and concerns were raised about cleanliness and security. From 2003, a series of action plans were established by Westminster City Council in coordination with the local community -business owners, local associations and companies in particular. The first strategic plan was called Chinatown Action Plan – Working for the future of Chinatown (CAP), published in 2003 under the guidance of Councillor Simon Milton, then leader of Westminster Council, and the West End team from the Council. The CAP is a 24-page official document in which the Council sets up a variety of strategies to renovate London’s Chinatown, while preserving its unique identity. Throughout the CAP, the London authority formally recognises the role of London’s Chinatown within the English capital as

  • 29 Westminster City Council, Chinatown Action Plan – Working for the future of Chinatown, 2003, p. 3

One of the most central and bustling districts of its kind in Europe. As an important focal point for the UK’s Chinese, East Asian, and South East Asian culture and community, and a destination for residents, workers, and visitors to central London, Chinatown has become an integral part of what makes this a world class city.29

  • 30 ibid, p. 4
  • 31 ibid, p. 15

14At the same time, the Council warns of a possible loss of identity if the services are not administered, as stated in: “the area’s identity could be eroded if the bar and club culture of Soho is allowed to progress unchecked into Chinatown”30. With this in mind, a series of recommendations are outlined to better secure the area (lighting, CCTV, police patrolling); ensure cleanliness (rubbish collection, cleansing machines, waste processing system); refurbish the area to enhance its attractiveness (new gates, street furniture such as lanterns or banners); and improve its accessibility (parking, signposts, dedicated underground exit). An emphasis is placed on tourism through culture, as affirmed by the Council: “the backbone of Chinatown is its unique culture. It is this Chinese, East Asian and South East Asian identity that we want to encourage and celebrate”31. This celebration of cultural differences and ethnic tourism is highly indicative of the London authority’s multiculturalist approach in managing diversity, which is at odds with the anti-multiculturalist sentiment at the government level.

  • 32 Westminster City Council, Chinatown Economic Development Study, 2004, p. 4
  • 33 ibid, p. 27

15In order to complete the CAP, which has delivered improvements to the area with over 75% of the actions either completed or ongoing, further plans were laid out over the following years. In September 2004, Westminster City Council enacted the Chinatown Economic Development Study (CEDS), in which it attempted to “assess the state of the current economic, social and cultural standing of London’s Chinatown and to consider its importance and contribution to the wider London and UK economy”32. Indeed, the study tries to identify possible threats that might impact the area -for instance the rise of non-Asian businesses- as well as economic opportunities for Asian businesses to grow. This 30-page document constitutes a thorough analysis based on land use data, property market data in Chinatown, and also interviews with business owners and the community; and provides a better understanding on how the area has been commodified. A tourism literature is also conducted to highlight Chinatown’s opportunity for tourism, with a particular emphasis on the “importance and contribution of Chinatown to central London”33 and on its authenticity, as conceded:

  • 34 ibid

There is evidence from the survey findings that the ‘uniqueness’ of Chinatown is valued, albeit considered a bit grubby and rundown by some. It undoubtedly has a strength in the sense that its character is considered ‘real’ as opposed to a contrived ‘theme park’ approach that some of the newer mini Chinatowns have.34

  • 35 Westminster City Council, Conservation Area Audit, Soho & Chinatown, 2005, p. 5
  • 36 Conservation Area Audits, accessed 10/04/2020
    < (...)
  • 37 Westminster City Council, Chinatown Supplementary Planning Guidance, 2009, p. 8
  • 38 ibid, p. 13
  • 39 ibid, p. 16

16As part of a broader multiculturalist policy, Chinatown was designated by Westminster City Council as one of London’s ‘conservation areas’ in 2005, which are areas “of special architectural and historic interest, the character and appearance of which it is desirable to preserve and enhance. They are areas which are recognisable for their distinctive and interesting townscape”35. In doing so, London’s Chinatown will benefit from extra conservation plans and planning controls whenever undertaking development to help safeguard its unique character and function. The fact that an ethnic enclave is labelled as a conservation area, along with other London’s sites such as Covent Garden, Strand, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square36 is quite revealing about Westminster City Council’s attachment to equality in terms of cultural diversity and representation. This process strengthens the positive narrative of Chinatown and contributes to shaping it as an institutional place in its own right. Further to this designation, the Council established a Chinatown Supplementary Planning Guidance (CSPG) in 2009, providing a clear guidance to “help applicants to produce designs which will enhance the existing character of Chinatown, whilst respecting its special architectural and historic interest”37. The recommendations range from improvements of unattractive buildings that make a “negative contribution to the streetscape of Chinatown”38, to the management of public space, including the street environment, art, and special events. Those measures will inure for the benefit of the area’s visibility, with a particular focus on open spaces that are under-utilised in Chinatown, such as Newport Place, Horse and Dolphin Yard and Dansey Place39.

  • 40 Westminster City Council, A Design Strategy for Chinatown, 2008, p. 2
  • 41 ibid

17On the 1st of November 2007, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall visited London’s Chinatown. Following the visit, the Prince of Wales announced that his Foundation for the Built Environment would be working with Westminster City Council on improving Chinatown “by encouraging the use of traditional Chinese architectural practices and by drawing on the expertise and skill of craftsmen in China and the United Kingdom to help Chinatown become more authentically Chinese”40. In 2008, this cooperation resulted in the elaboration of a strategic plan called A Design Strategy for Chinatown, the contents of which vary from an emphasis on the historical context of the neighbourhood and its spatial analysis, to a variety of solutions for optimal accessibility and visibility of the area. In the document, the Prince of Wales firmly conceded that “The aspiration that emerged was quite simple; for London’s Chinatown to be ‘the best Chinatown in the world’ and to recognise Asian culture and diversity”41–a discourse which very much suggests a multiculturalist narrative, conflicting with the national narrative of multiculturalism at that time. We also note that the historical context provided for London’s Chinatown in this particular document was purposely incorporated into the history of London. By tracing the urban evolution of the area from 1585 St. Martin’s Field to the creation of Gerrard Street in the 1670s and the arrival of the Chinese community in the 1950s, this strategy is indicative of the authority’s effort to institutionalise the neighbourhood’s history within the context of cosmopolitan London. It is also observable in those different strategic plans that the stigmatised image with which London’s Chinatown used to be associated is discarded. Laying emphasis on history and making it an exploitable asset is, in destination branding, a concept known as ‘storytelling’, which, in this particular case, aims to fit a story of urban evolution into that of a multicultural London.

18Apart from those exhaustive plans, the promotion of Chineseness and Chinatown identity is delivered through a variety of special events, among which the annual Chinese New Year Parade speaks volumes about London’s multiculturalism. This unique event which dates back to the 1970s and is usually held in late January or early February, depending on the Lunar calendar, is the result of a coordination between the local authority, community associations and stakeholders. It has been formally valued by successive Mayors of London. For instance, Boris Johnson used a rhetoric of ‘living together’ in his speech during the Chinese New Year in 2015:

London is one of the most exciting places in the world to celebrate Chinese New Year, hosting one of the biggest celebrations outside China. This year we are marking the Year of the Sheep, an animal said to symbolise peace and harmonious co-existence. In our diverse city, with people from every culture and background living side by side, such qualities make a huge difference in helping to promote a spirit of mutual respect and friendship. As Londoners we are proud to welcome Chinese New Year and celebrate the contribution that the Chinese community makes to the cultural and economic life of our city. 'Gong Xi Fa Cai42. Kung Hei Fat Choy43.'44

19With the presence of local authorities, such as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Lord Mayor of Westminster Lindsey Hall, as well as messages of congratulations from Queen Elizabeth and the Prime Minister; the event is all the more a symbol of recognition for cultural differences in the public sphere in the United Kingdom. In 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a message celebrating the Chinese New Year,

  • 45 Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United-Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Irela (...)

I would like to take this opportunity to share my appreciation of the Chinese Communities in London and the rest of the UK. The UK and China share a long history and as I said to President Xi Jinping when I visited China last year, we are enjoying a Golden Era in our relationship. I am delighted that this year the events marking Chinese New Year are celebrating the friendship between the UK and China. The community’s expanding business expertise, scientific inquiry, and cultural heritage and traditions are of immense value to our society today and I commend the efforts of the LCCA, who through hard work and dedication, have made London’s Chinatown a strong beacon for the Chinese community in the United Kingdom.45

20The study of these documents and discourses has proved that London’s Chinatown constitutes an economic opportunity highly attractive for political actors such as Westminster City Council. It has also shown that the way local authorities approach the identity construction of ethnic neighbourhoods still falls under the heading of multiculturalism. London's approach is decidedly focused on minority groups and their visibility. Nothing shows this more clearly than the efforts of the municipality of Westminster, with their in-depth demographic and economic surveys and urban plans of Chinatown. In line with its serious commitment to the politics of multiculturalism, London's authorities recognise the city's Chinatown as a political and sociological reality and have striven to make it more attractive and accessible to visitors and tourists as part of London’s landscape. Not only is London’s Chinatown emblematic of Chineseness and Chinese culture, it has also become an experience specific to cosmopolitan London as its construction is affected by a strong partnership between non-Chinese and Chinese organisations: British authorities, British corporations and the local community.

21Indeed, Westminster City Council work closely with Chinatown’s landowner -Shaftesbury PLC, a British real-estate trust with significant holdings in London's West End and London’s Chinatown amounting to 80% of the area’s property46. This is the most important economic actor that constantly invests in and innovates the neighbourhood and without which Chinatown would not be branded to the extent that it is today. As London’s Chinatown constitutes up to 22% of the total value of Shaftesbury’s portfolio, the corporation has been trying to transform the area into a true tourist destination, focusing on restaurants, leisure and retail. Shaftesbury PLC also controls the neighbourhood’s tenancy, deciding who is eligible to open a business in the area. Their aim is to create an ethnically distinct and modern neighbourhood labelled as “London’s Chinatown”, with a sustainable economy based on rents for the landowner and tourism for the place itself. The neighbourhood thus benefits from creative projects, branding strategies and funding from the landowner to develop itself into a Western brand, or more specifically, a London brand. Sociologists Benton and Gomez share this view:

  • 47 Benton, G., Gomez, E.T., 2008, p. 182

Chinatown lacks a solid base in property and its future is largely in the hands of the non-Chinese investors who own the leaseholds on Gerrard Street and the surrounding area. The idea that it is self-directing does not bear scrutiny. Actually, it is ‘shaped, owned and controlled in a complex interaction between Chinese entrepreneurs, non-Chinese investors and city councils, which through various forms of bargaining and contracts balance their different interests and power’47

22These examples have shown that even though discourse on the failure of multiculturalism really has made its way into the British mainstream political arena since the events of the early 2000s, there is still a profound multiculturalist entrenchment in Britain’s political landscape. The recognition and representation of ethnicity in the public sphere pertinently justify this multiculturalist approach.

Concluding remarks : reasons for the opposition between national and local politics of integration ?

  • 48 Sassen, S., 1996
  • 49 Esteves, O., Garbaye, R., 2017, p. 45

23Under the heading of globalisation, London’s economy has been responding to the dynamics of a ‘global city’: a term coined by the urban theorist Saskia Sassen to designate cities such as London, New York and Tokyo, in which “spaces are inscribed with the dominant corporate culture but also with a multiplicity of other cultures and identities, notably through immigration.”48 As a global economy, it would be difficult for London to dispense with multicultural policies since there will be a constant need for the labour force, hence the need to embrace diversity. Romain Garbaye and Olivier Esteves put forward the argument that in cities such as London, immigration is the “pillar of a deregulated market”49. This means that the multiculturalist approach is anchored in market policies, contended as follows:

  • 50 Translated by the author : “Paradoxalement, ce sont les mêmes gouvernements critiques du multicultu (...)

Paradoxically the very governments that criticise multiculturalism have opened politics of immigration to a new workforce in order to meet the needs of a firmly globalised economy. This is how London has become a true cosmopolitan global city which epitomises a “super-diversity” associated with a globalised and deregulated labour market. In spite of criticisms, many policies, associative partnerships and local practices keep reflecting the pervasiveness of the multiculturalist paradigm.50

  • 51 Esteves, O., Garbaye, R., 2017, p. 45
  • 52 ibid

24The authors construe that a global city presents racialised markets in which workers from immigrant communities become a ‘reserve army of labour’ (armée de réserve de travailleurs)51, especially in sectors such as restaurants and hotels. This reserve army has been built following the capitalistic logic of responding to the job market and cutting down wages52. We should also bear in mind that London’s Chinatown is one of the few neighbourhoods to benefit from constant investments and funding from a public company, which has paved the way for the success of multiple projects and development plans. If the neighbourhood’s economy is in full swing, the larger economy also benefits. As Westminster City Council is not able to offer long-term financial support, the partnership with Shaftesbury PLC is an opportunity to be seized and maintained. In so doing, the Council can still manage the image of the neighbourhood with much less financial involvement.

25The same argument that diversity is contributing to the British economy is also highlighted in the Parekh Report. The Commission contends that,

  • 53 The Parekh Report, 2000, p. 10

The diversity of its population gives Britain important opportunities in the global markets that now shape the world economy. Britain’s potential to become a community of communities is not something to shy away from -its people should celebrate it. In the world developing now, it is perhaps the country’s biggest single national advantage53

  • 54 Greater London Authority, The London Plan – Spatial Development Strategy for Greater London, 2004, (...)
  • 55 Greater London Authority, The London Plan – Spatial Development Strategy for Greater London – Conso (...)
  • 56 ibid

26This diversity is thus an identifying trait of London’s cosmopolitan identity and is celebrated in different London Plans as another way of tackling multiculturalism. For instance, in the 2004 London Plan, the term “multicultural” shows no occurrence and is sidestepped by “diversity” which can be seen numerous times; and is repeatedly described as “one of London’s greatest strengths, accounting for its world city status in the truest sense”54. Similar uses of the term can be found in the 2008 London Plan which seeks to support “London’s unique strengths as a diverse world city”55. The attachment to and emphasis on diversity in London from the 2000s were part of a broader scheme to renovate the West End as a preparation for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics which, according to the plan, will be “a celebration of London’s diversity.”56 The preparations for these events, urging to promote London’s world-city identity, relevantly explain the establishment of the various Chinatown plans in the 2000s as a way to symbolise the municipal attention towards ethnic communities and cultural diversity, thus managing to present multicultural London as a successful model to the world.

27Secondly, the promotion of London’s Chinatown was initiated and carried out mostly under Mayor Ken Livingstone (2000-2008), a staunch advocate of multiculturalism since the early 1980s when he was dubbed ‘red Ken’ by Mrs Thatcher. Although the government became increasingly less favourable to the promotion of multiculturalism, Ken Livingtone still showed full support to this mode of diversity governance which, according to him, “merely asserts that the right of a person to live their life as they wish includes the cultural dimension”57. In other words, according to the former Mayor, the core value of multiculturalism is defined as individual liberty. But his defence of multiculturalism also has an economic resonance in relation to tourism. In 2004, Ken Livingstone found the model of Chinatown so successful and economically sustainable that he unveiled development plans to construct a second Chinatown in the east of London in order to create further economic opportunities for the city. In his words,

We will build a new Chinatown just north of Billingsgate fish market. We want to tap into the Chinese economy, which is the second-largest in the world in real terms. We want London to be the Chinese economy's gateway into Europe. It is a great opportunity.58

28Finally, the national discourse against multiculturalism that emerged in the late 1990s and was reinforced after David Cameron’s famous Munich speech in 2011 is more likely to be an attack on Muslims, not on multiculturalism as such. Indeed, the whole speech had a clear focus on Muslims and the question of identity. The former Prime Minister asserted that some young Muslims were “rootless” as they found it difficult to identify with Britain, and that “the search for something to belong to and something to believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology”59. According to Vincent Latour (2012), this speech is not a novelty as it echoes what Tony Blair said before in a Press Conference in 2005; it also recalls David Cameron’s own views back in 2005 when he compared Muslim extremists with Nazis60. Furthermore, when David Cameron delivered his speech, an anti-multiculturalist sentiment was already well-established, in the sense that other heads of state also spoke about the failure of the model, such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s assertion that the ‘multikulti’ has “utterly failed”61. It had become a trend to refer to multiculturalism as a mistake at that time in Europe, and David Cameron’s speech was used as a means to comfort to his European counterparts. Olivier Esteves (2014) contends that there was “a sense of European cohesion”62 between France, Germany and the United Kingdom over the failure of multiculturalism. However, the debates were particularly focused on issues of terrorism and the radicalisation of Muslim youths. As explained by Romain Garbaye and Olivier Esteves (2017), contemporary multiculturalism is simplified in a context of antiterrorism and reduced to the “restriction on immigration on security grounds” (sécuritisation de l’immigration)63. Tariq Modood shared the same view about David Cameron’s simplification of multiculturalism in his speech which, according to Modood, “despite its emphatic rhetoric has very little policy content.”64 There have been no real policies running counter to traditional British multiculturalism, characterised by the respect of different cultures. In addition, the representation and the empowerment of London’s Chinatown does not consist of controversial or problematic aspects of ethnic diversity. The place itself is more of an open flourishing commercial centre where there is a dynamism of people coming to work and visit, rather than an enclosed neighbourhood or a ghetto. On a whole, diversity is still celebrated in the United Kingdom despite the ascension of anti-multiculturalist discourse in the political arena. The study of London’s Chinatown has shown that the logic of multiculturalism is still pervasive both in local politics of diversity governance and in the UK’s political landscape as a whole.

Haut de page


Primary sources

Casey, D.L., The Casey Review: A review into opportunity and integration, Department for Communities and Local Government, 2015.

David Cameron’s speech at Munich Security Conference, 2011
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

Greater London Authority, The London Plan – Spatial Development Strategy for Greater London, 2004.

Greater London Authority, The London Plan – Spatial Development Strategy for Greater London – Consolidated with Alterations since 2004, 2008.

The Parekh Report, Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, Profile Books Ltd, 2000.

Westminster City Council, A Design Strategy for Chinatown, 2008.

Westminster City Council, Action Plan Chinatown: Working for the Future of Chinatown, 2003.

Westminster City Council, Chinatown Economic Development Study, 2004.

Westminster City Council, Conservation Area Audit, Soho & Chinatown, 2005

Westminster City Council, Chinatown Supplementary Planning Guidance, 2009.

Websites & Newspaper articles

Blunkett, D., Integration with Diversity: Globalisation and the Renewal of Democracy and Civil Society, The Foreign Policy Centre, 2002
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

Business Dictionary
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United-Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

Encyclopaedia Britannica
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

Mayor of London, Mayor of London welcomes London's Chinese New Year celebrations, 2015
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

Shaftesbury PLC
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

The BBC, Merkel says German multicultural society has failed, 2010
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

The Guardian, Livingstone looks east for new Chinatown, 2004
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

The Guardian, Britain 'sleepwalking to segregation', 2005
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

The Guardian, Ruth Kelly's speech on integration and cohesion, 2006
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

The Independent, Multi-ethnic Britain comes under microscope, 1998
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

The Independent, Ken Livingstone: To defend multiculturalism is to defend liberty, 2006
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

Westminster City Council, Conservation Area Audits
<>, accessed 10/04/2020

Secondary sources

Benton, G., Gomez, E.T., The Chinese in Britain, 1800-present Economy, Transnationalism, Identity, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Cantle T., “Parallel lives – the development of community cohesion” in Citizenship, cohesion and solidarity, Smith Institute, 2008.

Esteves, O., ““The M… word” : multiculturalism under Cameron”, Observatoire de la société britannique [Online], 15 | 2014, Online since 01 November 2014. <>, accessed 17/10/2020

Esteves, O., Garbaye, Romain., Le multiculturalisme britannique au 21e siècle. Enjeux, débats, politiques, Paris, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2017.

Joppke, C., “The retreat of multiculturalism in the liberal state: theory and policy”, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 55, issue 2, 2004, p. 237-257

Latour, V., “‘Muscular liberalism’ : surviving multiculturalism ? A historical and political contextualisation of David Cameron’s Munich speech”, Observatoire de la société britannique [Online], 12 | 2012, Online since 01 August 2013.
<> , accessed 17/10/2020

Latour, V., Le Royaume-Uni et la France au test de l’immigration et à l’épreuve de l’intégration : 1930-2012, Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, Pessac, 2014.

Modood, T., Multiculturalism and Integration: struggling with confusions, European University Institute, 2011.

Panayi, P., Spicing up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food, Reaktion Books, 2008.

Portes, A., Manning, R., “The Immigrant enclave: Theory and empirical examples”. In Grusky David et Weisshaar Katherine (dir.) Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective, Taylor & Francis Group, 2008, chap. 82, p. 710-720.

Roy, J., “Racial Equality in Britain”, in (ed) A. Lester Essays and Speeches by Roy Jenkins, London, Collins, 1967.

Sassen, S., Ethnicity and space in the global city: a new frontier, 1996.
<> , accessed 17/10/2020

Haut de page


1 Roy, J., 1967, p. 267

2 ibid

3 Latour, V., 2014, p. 19

4 Translated by the author: “un nouveau vocabulaire politique sur l’immigration, la citoyenneté et la diversité culturelle”
Esteves, O., Garbaye, R., 2017, p. 33

5 Westminster City Council, A Design Strategy for Chinatown, 2008, p. 2

6 Business Dictionary, accessed 10/04/2020

7 Esteves, O., Garbaye, R., 2017, p. 10

8 ibid

9 Roy, J., 1967, p. 267

10 The Independent, 1998, accessed 10/04/2020

11 The Parekh Report, 2000, p. 47

12 The Guardian, 2006, accessed 10/04/2020

13 ibid

14 Cantle, T., 2008

15 Blunkett, D., 2002

16 Joppke, C., 2004

17 The Guardian, 2005, accessed 10/04/2020

18 David Cameron’s speech, 2011, accessed 10/04/2020

19 Casey, D.L., 2015, p. 19

20 ibid, p. 167

21 Modood, T., 2011, p. 2

22 ibid

23 By the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory, promulgated in 1898, Great Britain leased these territories from China for 99 years and expanded its control of Hong Kong territory beyond the former boundary line (later known as the Old Frontier Line) set up by the Convention of Beijing in 1860. This was the origin of the name New Territories. Although much of the terrain in the area is mountainous, the valleys are among the region’s most productive farmlands. There are some major commercial and residential towns in the area as well, such as Sha Tin, Tsuen Wan, and Tai Po.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 10/04/2020

24 Benton, G., Gomez, E.T., 2008, p. 180

25 Panayi, P., 2008

26 Portes, A., Manning, R., 2008

27 Benton, G., Gomez, E.T., 2008, p. 184

28 Benton, G., Gomez, E.T., 2008, p. 181

29 Westminster City Council, Chinatown Action Plan – Working for the future of Chinatown, 2003, p. 3

30 ibid, p. 4

31 ibid, p. 15

32 Westminster City Council, Chinatown Economic Development Study, 2004, p. 4

33 ibid, p. 27

34 ibid

35 Westminster City Council, Conservation Area Audit, Soho & Chinatown, 2005, p. 5

36 Conservation Area Audits, accessed 10/04/2020

37 Westminster City Council, Chinatown Supplementary Planning Guidance, 2009, p. 8

38 ibid, p. 13

39 ibid, p. 16

40 Westminster City Council, A Design Strategy for Chinatown, 2008, p. 2

41 ibid

42 Happy New Year in Madarin Chinese

43 Happy New Year in Cantonese

44 Mayor of London, 2015, accessed 10/04/2020

45 Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United-Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, accessed 10/04/2020

46 Shaftesbury PLC, accessed 10/04/2020

47 Benton, G., Gomez, E.T., 2008, p. 182

48 Sassen, S., 1996

49 Esteves, O., Garbaye, R., 2017, p. 45

50 Translated by the author : “Paradoxalement, ce sont les mêmes gouvernements critiques du multiculturalisme qui ont ouvert la politique de l’immigration à une nouvelle main d’œuvre pour satisfaire aux besoins d’une économie très insérée dans la mondialisation. C’est ainsi que Londres est devenue une véritable ville-monde cosmopolite” exemplaire d’une « superbe-diversité » corollaire d’un marché du travail globalisé et dérégulé. Et, malgré les critiques, nombre de politiques, partenariats associatifs et pratiques locales continuent de refléter la grande prégnance du paradigme multiculturaliste (Esteves, O., Garbaye, R., 2017, p. 13)

51 Esteves, O., Garbaye, R., 2017, p. 45

52 ibid

53 The Parekh Report, 2000, p. 10

54 Greater London Authority, The London Plan – Spatial Development Strategy for Greater London, 2004, p. 70

55 Greater London Authority, The London Plan – Spatial Development Strategy for Greater London – Consolidated with Alterations since 2004, 2008, p. 16

56 ibid

57 The Independent, 2006, accessed 10/04/2020

58 The Guardian, 2004, accessed 10/04/2020

59 David Cameron’s speech, 2011, accessed 10/04/2020

60 Latour, V., 2012

61 The BBC, 2010, accessed 10/04/2020

62 Esteves, O., 2014

63 Esteves, O., Garbaye, R., 2017, p. 65

64 Modood, T., 2011, p. 2

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Quôc-Dung Dang, « Branding Chinatown and the opposition between national and local politics in the United Kingdom », Observatoire de la société britannique, 26 | 2021, 13-33.

Référence électronique

Quôc-Dung Dang, « Branding Chinatown and the opposition between national and local politics in the United Kingdom », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 26 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 17 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Quôc-Dung Dang

Doctorant en civilisation britannique et ATER à l'Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Observatoire de la société britannique

Haut de page
  • Logo Université de Toulon
  • Logo Laboratoire Babel
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search