3 Pitt Street c1935

14 Pitt Street, 1930s



14 Pitt Street after the May 1941 Blitz
(Photo courtesy of Maria Lin Wong/NML)

When I started my blog, my intention was to establish it as a forum for understanding how photography has recorded the city since 1850. I welcome contributions that further this aim and today’s post comes courtesy of Francesca Aiken, Assistant Exhibition Curator for Global City at the soon to be opened Museum of Liverpool.

The first photograph, by Father D’Andria captures the innocence of children playing in the doorway of Low Chung’s grocery at the heart of what was then Chinatown. The second photograph is of Kwong Shang Lung’s grocery on the opposite side of the road. The final photograph is of the same building after a direct hit.

Seventy years ago this month, a devastating aerial bombardment struck Liverpool, ending lives, demolishing homes and displacing whole communities. It is in tribute to ?the spirit of an unconquered people? that Liverpool?s Anglo-Chinese community were part of the effort to keep calm and carry on, piecing back together not just buildings but homes and livelihoods.

Pitt Street before the war, shaped by tall converted warehouse buildings and cobbled streets, stretched out under the constant watch of St Michael’s Church spire, busy with dozens of Chinese businesses, from boarding houses to grocers and tobacconists. This was the birthplace of Liverpool?s Chinese community, the destination for seamen from all over the world including Spain, the Philippines, Italy, the West Indies and Scandinavia ? to name just a few. To the people who lived and grew up there, this was ?world?s end.? Pitt Street was the place to go, bustling with shops and cafes all within easy reach of the docks. Kwong Shang Lung was one of the city?s earliest grocers to specialise in Chinese food, trading from 1915 until the bombs fell in 1941.

During the Second World War, the local population swelled to take on thousands of seamen working for Britain?s war effort, including up to 20,000 Chinese seafarers ? risking their lives on Merchant Navy convoys. Pitt Street became a comfort zone for thousands of transient seamen to while away their two weeks of shore leave, and for the many resident Chinese to manage Liverpool life with their partners and children.

Elsie Kuloi was just six years old and her family lived on Dickinson Street. When the war came, their top floor flat was less than desirable when the sirens sounded. Elsie and sister Lan, then in their teens, were not evacuated but would go with their parents to stay at a neighbours on the ground floor. Out of curiosity, Lan stayed behind, only to witness St Michael’s Church take a direct hit from an incendiary bomb. She watched it fall, streaking down to earth and was terrified by what she saw. Hundreds were killed in Pitt Street and Cleveland Square alone, including 30 people at 14 Pitt Street, next door to where Kwong Shang Lung served his customers.

Instead of dispersal, the old Anglo-Chinese community shifted, making Nelson Street the new centre of activity.
What exists today in Nelson Street is the legacy of that early community, with the children of those first Anglo-Chinese families still meeting round the corner in what would have been Pitt Street. The strong Chinese character of that early global community is now firmly established within Liverpool with the regeneration of a Chinatown district in the 1990s after decades of slow decline. The Chinese Imperial Arch, the largest of its kind outside mainland China, is a proud symbol of the growth of the Liverpool Chinese community from those uncertain days in May 1941 and marks the entrance to an area once home to seafarers from all over the world.

Pitt Street and the Blitz

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