Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dope Girls and Brilliant Chang


I just listened to the excellent Bishopsgate Institute lecture by Marek Kohn entitled Cocaine Girls in the West End. For those not familiar with him Kohn is the author of the excellent Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground (Granta, 2001) and a Visiting Fellow in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Sussex, and in the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics at the University of Brighton. An academic yes; but not one of the all too common dreary ones fortunately.

I've long been interested in the drug panic that erupted in London’s West End during and just after the First World War - cocaine possession was banned, but cocaine became the dominant drug in the jazz and nightclub scene that thrived in the years after the Great War. Its use by women was a source of particular alarm and was often used to illustrate how women were unable to cope with the independence they were pursuing. My grandmother was a waitress at the Charing Cross Lyons Corner House (they were known as 'nippies') and remembered the Flapper girls who turned up late at night after partying hard.

One of the interesting bits of fall out from this period was the case of Brilliant Chang (pictured above), a Chinese guy who had pitched up in Limehouse (then London's Chinatown) as a sailor like so many others. He moved into the restaurant trade and opened a place called 'Shanghai' but also sold dope to the flappers. This kind of ethnic cross-over, drug dealing and quite possibly, so the press fulminated at the time, inter-racial sexual shenanigans outraged many.
Chang was then implicated in the overdose and death of a young nightclub singer in 1922, hauled into a court and in a sensational trial in 1924 (plenty of 'Yellow Peril' from the ever reliably racist Daily Telegraph) sent down and eventually died in poverty.

I've long wanted to head back to my old stamping grounds of the East End and look into Brilliant Chang's life - nobody much has written about him except Kohn and, as far as I know, nobody has gone back to find out how, why or when he first came from China to England. He remains a bit of an enigma.

20 comments:

Sascha Auerbach said...

Actually, you might want to check out my new book, "Race, Law, and "The Chinese Puzzle" in Imperial Britain," which puts the Brilliant Chang case in the context of the general anti-opium hysteria of the post-war years. Chang's trials are also central to the the final chapter of my second book, which should be available in the next year or so. That chapter focuses on race and the anti-vice campaigns of 1919-1930. If you do find out anything interesting about Chang or similar cases in the meantime, please let me know!

Sascha Auerbach
Asst. Professor
Virginia Commonwealth University
ajauerbach[at]vcu.edu

Paul French said...

Thanks - I'll check it out - I've long been interested in Brilliant

Shame these academic books cost so much though - does put them rather beyond the reach of us ordinary folk without access or living anywhere particularly near an academic library.

I'll keep an eye out for it though

PS: had to move this blog to www.chinarhyming.com as China blocked blogspot.

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