Welcome to the latest stop on our literary tour through the pages of my novels. We’re parking up by this magnificent Chinese Arch as the coach driver has reminded me that we finished our tour of Toxteth with a promise to come back and visit Liverpool’s famous Chinatown. Here we are at the gateway.
Opened on Chinese New Year in 2000, the Arch was manufactured in Shanghai and shipped over to Liverpool in sections together with the Chinese workers who assembled it from 2000 pieces. It stands 13.5 metres (44 ft) high and boasts 200 hand carved dragons of which 188 are ordinary and 12 are pregnant, the meaning of which is to symbolise good fortune between Liverpool and Shanghai.
Liverpool’s Chinatown is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe. Their sailors were the first to arrive in the city in the 1830s when Chinese vessels arrived carrying silk and cotton. Many more came in the 1860s when the Blue Funnel Shipping Line was established by Alfred Holt, creating strong links between Liverpool, Shanghai and Hong Kong. By the 1890s, the Chinese were setting up their own businesses to cater to the needs of their own community. Many also married local women, often Irish immigrants.
During the Second World War, Liverpool became the headquarters of the Western Approaches which monitored and guarded the crucial lifelines across the Atlantic. Thousands of the Chinese sailors lost their lives to the Atlantic during attacks from German submarines and as part of the British fleet the Chinese sailors played an important role to Britain’s victory in the war. If you ever visit Liverpool, I strongly recommend a visit to the Western Approaches Museum.
Beyond the Chinese Arch is Nelson Street, where most of Liverpool’s Chinese restaurants are concentrated. There was always a brisk lunchtime trade, and I have fond memories of having lunches with intruder alarm reps, customers and colleagues, in particular a surveyor from Malaysia, who was desperately missing his ‘rice fix’. But the street really comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights when people pile in from the pubs and clubs in search of a late night meal.
My favourite of the many restaurants which line both sides of Nelson Street was the New Capital, formerly the Blue Funnel’s shipping and recruitment office, one reason being that I never carried out an insurance inspection of the kitchen! Believe me, there was more than one establishment on Nelson Street that I would definitely avoid. Let’s take a look at what’s on the menu. Looks good, doesn’t it?
Another of my favourite businesses was the Chung Wah Supermarket. Originally housed in a dilapidated three storey Victorian building, which was packed to the rafters and incredibly untidy (and virtually uninsurable), it was fortunately in the process of moving to a purpose-built premises, when I first carried out my inspection. The shiny new building was much more appealing insurance risk. The owner was a charming young man with some very interesting (Triad?) tattoos on his neck and wrists who, following my second inspection, insisted on giving me a lift into town as I’d arrived on the bus because my new company car had rolled off the transporter the previous day and stubbornly refused to start. I did a lot of grocery shopping in his store over the years!
But back to Nelson Street where, next door to New Capital restaurant, is The Nook. Sadly now closed, it was famous for being the only Chinese pub in England, and was a favourite with the Chinese seafaring community from the 1940s. I remember it being dark and dingy, with a pool table in the back room where a load of dodgy-looking Chinese characters used to hang out. The landlady was a very small but formidable woman who called ‘last orders’ in Cantonese. You wouldn’t argue with her or her ‘boys’!
In You’ll Never Walk Alone, I took a little bit of a liberty and placed ruthless Triad boss, Albie Chan’s office on the upper floor of the building. The basement also belongs to him.
Now, imagine it’s night time. It’s dark but the street and pub are still alive with the last of the late night revellers. Our hero, Pierre, has entered the building from the back entry and climbed the stairs to Albie Chan’s office. This is where the trouble really starts…
Excerpt from You’ll Never Walk Alone
“Mr Chan, Mr Chan, Mr Chan!” Arms stretched wide open, the man who called himself Pierre Bezukhov strode across the floor, his high black boots raising dust from the carpet. “I have a new proposition for you.”
“Where is the necklace you promised me, Mr Bezukhov?” said the Asian man sitting behind the desk.
Pierre put his hands on the desk and leaned over towards Mr Chan, his long dark hair tumbling over his shoulders. “I’ve found something which I know you’re going to like so much better.”
“I commissioned you to procure a particular necklace. Where is it?”
“I’m afraid I no longer have it.” Pierre walked over to the grimy window. He stared out at the dark Liverpool rooftops. “I found a better home for it.”
Mr Chan frowned. “A better home? I do not understand you.”
“Listen, I have something else for you. Something better.”
“Mr Bezukhov,” Mr Chan said quietly. “I paid you a substantial sum to obtain a very specific item. I will accept no substitute.”
Turning to face him, Pierre reached into the pocket of his long brocade jacket and took out a small velvet bag. He held it up between thumb and forefinger. “Mr Chan, you don’t know what I’m offering. If you just care to…”
Mr Chan banged his fist on the desk. “No!” His eyes widened. “No substitutes.” He looked over at his tall henchman who had been lurking in the shadows by the door. “Ju-long!”
Ju-long stepped forward and smiled revealing two gold front teeth. Mr Chan nodded and Ju-long advanced on Pierre.
“Bring me the ruby necklace. I give you one week.”
“Well, if you’re not prepared even to look.” Pierre shrugged. Pocketing the little velvet bag, he turned back to the window. In one swift movement he threw it open and swung onto the roof below. “Ta-ra, gentlemen!” And he was gone, skittering over the rooftop below and onto the wall of the back-alley, disturbing a cat which yowled indignantly.
“I’ll go after him, Mr Chan. Don’t worry, I’ll get the necklace from him.”
Albie Chan stood up and went to the window. He gazed across the inky black roofs. “Good. Find him and identify any associates he may have. Retrieve the necklace but do not harm him unduly. He may be useful to us.”
“Very good, Mr Chan.” Ju-long bowed and quietly left the room.
Image credits: Juan Jorge Arellano, liverpoolecho.co.uk