Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Here is the wonderfully evocative pen and ink illustration from the cover of Thomas Burke’s The Song Book of Quong Lee of Limehouse (1920). The growth of London’s Chinatown and deaths of the actress Billie Carleton and dance hostess Freda Kempton after taking cocaine they had apparently bought from the Chinese dealer Brilliant Chang meant Limehouse occupied a prominent position in the public imagination in the decade after the Great War. Viewed with fear and fascination in equal measure, interest Limehouse was fueled by the excesses of tabloid sensationalism and the efforts of novelists and filmmakers seeking to exploit the notoriety of the neighborhood. For a jobbing journalist and writer (and self-proclaimed cockney) like Thomas Burke it was always going to be a hot topic. It was Burke’s short story “The Chink and the Child” that provided the outline for DW Griffiths’s classic film “Broken Blossoms” (1919). A year later Burke returned to the subject with this short volume of songs or poems he claimed to have “transcribed” from the song book of Quong Lee of Limehouse.
My copy of the book is signed by Burke himself. It was given to me by a former student a couple of years ago: one of those amazing, generous gifts that make it all worth while.