»  Taki's Magazine

April 10th, 2014

  Chinatown Memories


I'll be speaking to the American Renaissance conference at the end of this month. (What, you haven't signed up yet? Still time!) Title of talk: "China, America, and the Chinese in America." I should be able to work some topical references into the last part, what with California state senator Leland Yee having apparently brought some traditional Chinese politics over to the Golden Mountain with him, and the sleeping giant of college-crazy Chinese American parents that's been stirred awake by the prospect of affirmative action being reinstated.

AmRen's Jared Taylor recently emailed me with some questions about my China connections, so that he could put something relevant in the conference literature. One question was: How had I, a math major from a sleepy English country town, gotten mixed up with China?

I gave him a brief account. In giving it, memories stirred from long ago. Jared's question is one I get asked a lot, so I thought I'd tell the little tale, to have something on the web I can direct people to when I get asked again.

It's early 1968 in Liverpool, a big old port city in northwest England. I had finished my education a few months before and was working as a schoolteacher. The pay wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either, so I was on the lookout for some supplementary income. A friend who knew this told me he'd been drinking in a pub that was short a bartender.

I wasn't enthusiastic. I'd done bartending work during my college vacations. The pubs I had worked at were in prole districts, places where local men — mainly dock workers — would go of an evening to escape their wives, sell stuff they'd filched from cargoes, and drink themselves insensible.

The common degree of insensibility was at an unhappy medium point where they were alert enough to be obnoxious and pick fights, but not alert enough to take a dump accurately. (Keeping the head clean was part of a bartender's duties.) The beer — low-grade stuff from local breweries — didn't help in this latter aspect. Of one brand, the local quip was: "Do you feel that the bottom has dropped out of your world? Drink a pint of Bent's Ale and feel the world drop out of your bottom!"

But to show willing to my friend, I went along to the pub he recommended: The Nook in Nelson Street, down by the waterfront. I was surprised to find it quite well-appointed: clean, with nice fixtures and a well-dressed clientele. As well as the public bar, there was a lounge with eight or ten tables for the better class of patron. The bartenders doubled as waiters, taking orders from the tables. I signed up, and worked there part-time for a year and a half.

Nelson Street was at the heart of Liverpool's small Chinatown. This was in the age before Chinatowns prettied themselves up with pailou arches (originally erected in China for symbolic purposes, like honoring chaste widows) and statues of Confucius. The Nook sat in the middle of a nondescript-looking downtown neighborhood with a couple of Chinese restaurants and a Chinese Seamen's Mission for company.

The pub's male customers were a mix of Chinese merchant mariners, some naturalized Chinese who had settled permanently in the neighborhood with English wives, and some white Englishmen of the upper working and lower middle class — mechanics, owners of small businesses, clerks from the shipping companies, and such.

The females were wives and girlfriends, all white, and a small cadre of white hookers — regulars, jealous of their turf, and fond of their Chinese customers, who, as I heard them say more than once, "really know how to treat a lady."

The proprietress of the place was an old Irish woman named Mrs Jones. She was a local "character" periodically written up by the city newspaper when they needed a filler story. Although well into her seventies, if not eighties, she took great pride in her appearance, tottering in on high heels a half hour before closing time, swathed in acres of bright pastel tulle (and in winter, furs), wearing an enormous hat bedecked with feathers.

But the place was run by Mrs Jones' two sons, Gerry and Coleman. They had diametrically opposite personalities: Coleman jovial and easygoing, Gerry a spinsterish control freak. (Gerry has a walk-on part here.) This actually worked well with the patrons and staff in a good-cop, bad-cop way. At closing time — 10:30 most nights — Coleman would ring a little handbell and call time in Cantonese ("gau jung!") with a thick Irish accent. Once heard, never forgotten.

When the last customers had left and we'd restocked the shelves, cleaned the tables, and washed the glasses, Mrs Jones would sit us down and treat us to drinks. At this point the local plainclothes police would show up, and would of course be let in and given drinks. We'd sit around with Mrs Jones and the cops (mostly Ulstermen — it was hard to make detective in Liverpool if you weren't in a lodge), getting tipsy and listening to cop stories. No one has better stories than cops.

Well, I got friendly with one of the customers, an ex-seaman from Shanghai who ran a local fish-and-chip shop. His sister in Taiwan had a son, aged 15. The law in Taiwan was that males of 16 or more could not leave until after completing compulsory military service. Could I find a local private school that would take the lad? I made inquiries and got the boy out. In gratitude the sister invited me to Taiwan as her houseguest.

After that, Kipling kicked in: "If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else." By such little accidents is our life course set.

Is The Nook still there, I wondered in some idle Internet browsing? Barely. It's being turned into a museum. I doubt I'll rate an exhibit, but if they want to copy this off and post it on the wall, I have no objection.