Thomas Burke's Dark Chinoiserie Limehouse Nights and the Queer Spell of Chinatown
Focusing on Thomas Burke's bestselling collection of short stories, Limehouse Nights (1916), this book contextualises the burgeoning cult of Chinatown in turn-of-the-century London. London's 'Chinese Quarter' owed its notoriety to the Yellow Perilism that circulated in Britain at the fin-de-siècle, a demonology of race and vice masked by outward concerns about degenerative metropolitan blight and imperial decline. Anne Witchard's interdisciplinary approach enables her to displace the boundaries that have marked Chinese studies, literary studies, critiques of Orientalism and empire, gender studies, and diasporic research, as she reassesses this critical moment in London's history. In doing so, she brings attention to Burke's hold on popular and critical audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. A much-admired and successful author in his time, Burke in his Chinatown stories destabilizes social orthodoxies in highly complex and contradictory ways. For example, his writing was formative in establishing the 'queer spell' that the very mention of Limehouse would exert on the public imagination, and circulating libraries responded to Burke's portrayal of a hybrid East End where young Cockney girls eat Chow Mein with chopsticks in the local cafés and blithely gamble their housekeeping money at Fan Tan by banning Limehouse Nights. Witchard's book forces us to rethink Burke's influence and shows that China and chinoiserie served as mirrors that reveal the cultural disquietudes of western art and culture.
’Anne Witchard's study is a partial but impressive examination of an obscure, "reforgotten" figure whose work sometimes bordered on genteel puilp, but tapped into large contemporary currents.’ Times Literary Supplement ’...painstaking and thoughtful...’ English Literature in Transition