China town

A new book co-edited by Belsize Park’s own Paul Bevan seeks to remind readers what Chinese immigrants contributed to the artistic reputation of the country in general and the capital in particular

Thursday, 4th August — By Paul Bevan

Chiang Yee reading

Chiang Yee reading

IN the 1930s, Belsize Park was home to one of the most vibrant creative communities in the UK and its reputation as an area of artists and writers lasted well into the 1990s.

This artistic fecundity was largely the result of the arrival of many European artists, writers, and musicians who were escaping Nazi persecution. It is not widely known that a number of Chinese artists and writers also lived in the area.

Painter, writer and poet, Chiang Yee, and playwright and novelist, Shih-I Hsiung, lived for a number of years in and around Upper Park Road, before they were forced to re-locate to Oxford, following the destruction of their homes as a result of the London Blitz.

Both Chiang and Hsiung initially came to London to study. Despite knowing little English, Chiang soon gave up his studies and began to teach Chinese at the School of Oriental Studies (now SOAS), while at the same time pursuing his new-found career as a writer and painter.

Shih-I Hsiung was already in London when Chiang arrived, and was able to offer him rooms in a flat he rented in Upper Park Road. Their immediate neighbours included other Chinese friends and colleagues, historian Tsui Chi, journalist Hsiao Ch’ien, poet Wang Lixi (known to English speakers as Shelley Wang) and Wang’s wife, Lu Jingqing, who was also a notable poet.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the British public’s knowledge of China and “the Chinese” was limited. Exposure to China through films and novels, more often than not, showed Chinese people in a less than complimentary light. The evil genius, Fu Manchu; the murderous Mr Wu; Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights: Tales of Chinatown, all displayed highly exoticised versions of an imagined “Orient” that persuaded a British audience of the iniquities of China and the Chinese people.

Chiang Yee, and Shih-I Hsiung were among a growing number of people in the 1930s who were able to present another side of China to the British public. They did this partly through the broadcasts they made for BBC radio on various aspects of Chinese culture, but also through their writings.

One example of this was Shih-I Hsiung’s play, Lady Precious Stream. Even though this showed a watered down and somewhat distorted version of traditional Chinese drama, it was never Hsiung’s intention to display China in a bad light, and it became highly popular at a time when something of a China craze had taken hold in fashionable London society. So successful was it that it played for as many as 1,000 nights at the Little Theatre in the West End.

Chiang Yee, Shih-I Hsiung, and their Chinese colleagues shared the streets of Belsize Park with sculptors Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth, who, together with Ben Nicholson, were dubbed “A Nest of Gentle Artists” by their friend, poet, and art critic, Herbert Read.

Another local artistic group was formed of architects and designers, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy – members of the Bauhaus who had fled Germany to escape the Nazis, all of whom lived for a time in or around the Isokon flats in Lawn Road.

From the point of view of sheer numbers, though, perhaps the most notable group of artists in the extended area was the lesser-known, Artists’ International Association (AIA), the mostly left-wing members of which aligned themselves with the Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union.

Although not politically minded, Chiang Yee was a member of the AIA, as were other locals, Naum Slutzky, Francis D. Klingender, Roland Penrose, and Herbert Read. It was Read who was the single figure who linked these diverse groups of artists together. A member of the AIA, close friend and colleague of the “Nest” and well-known to Isokon residents, Read was also a friend of Chiang Yee.

In the mid-1930s, Chiang Yee was able to carve out a niche for himself as a writer and artist, with the publication of a series of highly popular illustrated books that sold themselves on the notion of Britain seen through Chinese eyes – The Silent Traveller series.

In The Silent Traveller in London, Chiang wrote about Herbert Read and other friends, the local streets of Belsize Park, his daily walks on Hampstead Heath, and his life as a Chinese intellectual figure in the English capital.

After moving to Oxford in 1940, Chiang was able to keep up with many of his London friends. Among them was Noel Carrington, a Hampstead resident who was responsible for the publication of The Story of Ming for Puffin Books, one of several of Chiang’s books on panda themes. He kept in touch with Herbert Read too, and just before Chiang left Oxford for the USA in 1955, Read wrote the preface for the second edition of his book Chinese Calligraphy, in which he compared this most revered of Chinese artforms to Western abstract art.

Shih-I Hsiung moved to Oxford with his family in 1943 and continued writing novels, but never again achieved the success of Lady Precious Stream.

These Chinese writers and artists have received far less attention than their British and European colleagues who lived in the area, but their story is of equal importance.

Chiang Yee’s Circle: Chinese Artistic and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1930-1950 goes some way to revising the conventional view of what made Belsize Park famous as a flourishing artistic area of London.

Chiang Yee and His Circle: Chinese Artistic and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1930-1950. Edited by Paul Bevan, Anne Witchard and Da Zheng, Hong Kong University Press, £55

Related Articles