Cavendish Mews is a smart set of flats in Mayfair where flapper and modern woman, the Honourable Lettice Chetwynd has set up home after coming of age and gaining her allowance. To supplement her already generous allowance, and to break away from dependence upon her family, Lettice has established herself as a society interior designer, so her flat is decorated with a mixture of elegant antique Georgian pieces and modern Art Deco furnishings, using it as a showroom for what she can offer to her well heeled clients.
Today however we are not in Lettice’s flat, and whilst we have not travelled that far physically across London, the tough streets of Limehouse in London’s East End is a world away from Lettice’s rarefied and privileged world. Yet it is in Pennyfields in Limehouse* that Lettice now walks with her old childhood chum, Gerald, also a member of the aristocracy who has tried to gain some independence from his family by designing gowns from a shop in Grosvenor Street. The narrow street lined with old Victorian era buildings is busy and energetic, full of people of Chinese heritage going about their business and the cacophony of chatter in a different language spoken forcefully around them is palpable. The air is filled with a distinctive smell: a combination of spices, fried food, joss sticks and coal, all not able to hide the pervasive stench coming from the busy river Thames not far away.
Gerald looks anxiously over his shoulder as he and Lettice walk down the street past Chinese restaurants and grocers. Asian people standing in shady doorways and walking down the street glare at he and Lettice with distrust, or in a few cases outright curiosity. “When you asked me if I’d care to go for a drive with you on an excursion, Lettuce Leaf,” he hisses at his friend. “I was expecting a trip to Surrey or the South Downs for a jolly picnic – not Limehouse.”
“Don’t call me that Gerald!” Lettice scolds her friend. “We aren’t children anymore, and you know I don’t like it.”
“Well, I don’t much like walking around here, Lettice.” Gerald hisses. “The Morris** is likely to get stolen.”
“Don’t be such a worry wart, Gerald.” Lettice replies in an unconcerned fashion as she strides purposefully down the street slightly ahead of her friend, gliding elegantly around the citizenry of the street, seeming oblivious to their stares. “Nothing will happen to it.”
“Well, the locals don’t look very friendly.” Gerald counters anxiously in a mutter between his teeth as he hurries his pace to keep up with her. “Haven’t you heard of white slavery before, darling?”
“Oh, don’t talk such rubbish!” she replies with a dismissive flap of her hand. “We aren’t in ‘The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu’***. We’re perfectly safe. The Chinese residents of Limehouse are relatively law abiding I’ll have you know, Gerald. Ahh! Here we are.”
Lettice stops in front of a large red brick warehouse with a heavy wooden door painted a rusty red colour. Gerald looks up and sees writing in Chinese characters above the doorway.
“It’s in foreign.” he remarks screwing up his nose with distaste.
“Please don’t be such a bore, Gerald.” Lettice replies, rolling her eyes. “I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t asked you to come.” She knocks boldly on the door with her grey glove clad hand.
“No-one else you know with a car would have been brave enough to come down here with you.”
“You’re about to meet a very good business colleague of mine, Gerald,” Lettice scolds with a wagging finger. “So do try and remember your manners.”
The pair are silenced by a deep creaking as the door opens. A pretty Chinese face appears from behind the grimy painted door. The girl’s dark eyes are framed by a lustrous straight jet fringe.
“What opium den have you brought us to?” hisses Gerald.
“Why ‘ello Lettice!” the Chinese girl cries with a pure Cockney accent as she smiles brightly, revealing a beautiful set of white teeth.
Gerald’s mouth falls open and his eye bulge in shock.
“Hullo. How do you do Ada.” Lettice turns to Gerald, then turns back hurriedly at the sight of his obviously startled face, a flush of embarrassment colouring her cheeks. “Err, Ada, this is my old childhood chum, Gerald. He seems to have left his manners in the car, I’m afraid.”
“Ah! Don’t worry Lettice. I’m used to it.” Ada opens the door, revealing her slim figure wrapped in an elegant red and gold brocade cheongsam. “No-one can believe a Chinese girl from Lime’ouse was actually born in Lime’ouse. ‘Ow do ya do, Gerald. C’mon in, bowf of ya.”
Lettice and the stunned Gerald step through the door which Ada closes behind them with a loud thud. The trio are enveloped by silence as the heavy door keeps at bay the cacophony of the street outside.
“Welcome Mr. Gerald, to Ada May Wong’s Oriental Emporium!” the Chinese girl says in a meek faux Anglo-Chinese accent, walking before them with open gestures as she indicates to their surrounds.
“Oh my goodness!” Gerald gasps.
Before him Gerald sees a beautiful array of imported Asian furnishings, ornaments and objet d’art all tastefully presented in a large, albeit crowded, showroom. Cabinets of Japanese tea sets and Asian ornaments jostle for space with ornately carved tables weighed down with cloisonné vases, Satsuma bowls and porcelain statues. Giant ginger jars on wooden feet stand about atop oriental carpets whilst the walls are covered in richly patterned wallpaper.
“So what can I do ya for?” Ada asks cheerily as she slips back behind a large wooden counter where she starts unpacking some garishly painted plates from a small wooden box. “Ere, I don’t s’pose ya want any of this cheap export ware from China, do ya?” She holds up a plate and a vase hopefully.
Lettice glances at the offending pieces, scrunches up her nose and winces in distaste. “No. Thank you, Ada.” she replies distractedly as she starts scanning the room for potential pieces for her newest interior designs.
“Nah. I thawt not. Youse a lady wiv good taste Lettice. You don’t want none of this trash. Can’t believe Dad sent this lot back. ‘E knows I runs a decent emporium, wiv discerning clientele like yerself. Nah. I’ll see if I can’t flog this lot down at Chong Chu’s restaurant down Lime’ouse Causeway.”
“Where is your father, Ada?”
“Dad? Shanghai, last I ‘eard.”
“Shanghai,” Lettice remarks with a smile. “How opportune.”
“Yes, you see that’s why I’ve come to you. I’m decorating for an American woman who has been living in Shanghai for the last six months in the International Concession and has developed the taste for the exotic. She wants her love of the Oriental décor she enjoyed there reflected in her new home.”
“Well, youse knew where to come.” Ada beams. “So what are yer after?”
Lettice looks up from investigating a beautifully carved chair. “I think some dark wood furnishings and some ceramics.” She looks over at Ada. “Oh, she especially likes yellow, so any yellow porcelain would be of interest.”
“I’ve got a nice pale yellow celadon vase ‘round ‘ere somewhere. It’s got gold bamboo leaves on it.”
“That sounds promising.” Lettice remarks eagerly as she sizes up a tall blue and white vase.
Ada looks across at Gerald oddly as he wanders the room, silently admiring all the beautiful objects crammed into such a small space. “Why’d ya bring ya friend then Lettice? ‘E’s not much of a conversationalist, is ‘e?”
“She brought me, Miss Wong,” Gerald pipes up, shattering his silent contemplation. “Because I’m the only one of her friends in London with a Morris tourer readily available for her to requisition for shopping expeditions, who is willing to take her wherever she wants to go, foolishly without question.”
“Youse does talk then!” Ada remarks with a gleeful smirk. “Miss Wong! You’se a classy gent ‘n all.”
“You usually can’t shut Gerald up with his witty banter,” Lettice remarks looking back over at Gerald. “And, I’ll have you know that this is a business trip, Gerald. I’m shopping for Miss Ward.”
“And if you see something you just happen to like?” Gerald cocks an eyebrow.
“Then it will go in the rear seat of the Morris, along with anything else I wish to take away with me today.” Lettice smiles back.
“So, you run this import enterprise then, Miss Wong?” Gerald turns his attention to Ada.
“Well, technically it’s my Dad’s business, but ‘e’s always orf sailin’ ‘round the world like a pirate lookin’ for treasures for me to sell, so yes, I runs the London henterprise.” She looks down at her red fingers and polishes her red painted index fingernail with the pad of her thumb. “And I’m a pretty dab ‘and at it too, ain’t I Lettice?”
“You are Ada. You’re the finest importer of oriental antiquities I know. I’ll never shop anywhere else.”
“Gawn!” Ada laughs, waving her hand dismissively at her English customer. “Youse as much of sweet talker as me, Lettice!”
“Do you deliver, Miss Wong?” Gerald enquires.
“Of course I does! I’m a proper hestablishment.” Ada remarks loftily, sliding back from around the counter and gliding over to Gerald with fluid movements as he picks up a cloisonné vase. Lowering her lids she smiles and continues, “Why? See sumfink yer like, Gerald?”
“Perhaps, but I was just ascertaining whether there was really any need for me to come down here with the Morris.” He looks accusingly over at Lettice.
“Oh Gerald, you needed an excursion.” Lettice smiles back pretending innocence, running her fingers lazily around the opening of a large Chinese porcelain vase which she considers might make a good umbrella stand. “And I needed you for the company. Consider it an educational experience. Just think of the stories you can tell our coterie about how you visited the East End and lived to tell the tale! You’ll be able to dine off that for weeks!”
“That’s not fair, Lettice.” Gerald defends himself.
“I bet it’s true though.” pipes up Ada. “You toffs are all alike: nevva set foot past Tower ‘Ill, ‘cept when yer want a taste of the elicit or exotic. Do ya?”
“Do I what, Miss Wong?” Gerald asks, looking at her Chinese girl in alarm.
“Do ya fancy somefink exotic?”
“Well… err…” Gerald replies in a fluster, hurriedly putting down the vase he holds as he blushes under Ada’s sudden and obvious attentions. “Ahh, no thank you Miss Wong.”
“Gerald will be immune to your feminine charms and wicked wiles, Ada.” Lettice gives Ada a knowing look with her right eyebrow cocked.
“Oh pooh!” Ada looks crestfallen.
“Lettice!” Gerald gasps, blushing bright red at his friend’s indiscreet disclosure.
“Don’t worry Gerald. Ada’s seen far worse on the streets of Limehouse. Haven’t you Ada?”
“’Ave I ever!”
“I just wanted to save you breaking Ada’s heart.” Lettice teases her friend. “And save you both from embarrassment.” She winks at Gerald, giving him a warm smile that implies that no harm will come to his reputation.
“Oh, you are awful sometimes, Lettice!” Gerald huffs in a disgruntled fashion, his face still flushed with embarrassment.
“I know Gerald.” Lettice pouts teasingly. “But you really are too easy to bait sometimes. You make sport of yourself, really you do.” She pauses and thinks for a moment. “Think of it as a payment in kind for all the times you call me Lettuce Leaf.”
“You deserve to walk home with all your purchases, Lettuce Leaf.” Gerald sulks, enunciating Lettice’s hated nickname especially clearly.
“But you’re far too much of a gentleman to that to me Gerald.” Lettice adds.
“You’re just lucky we’re such good old childhood chums.” He looks at her with a mixture of exasperation and love.
“I know Gerald, and I’ll always be grateful for that.” Lettice replies in earnest.
The pair smile at one another and then chuckle, knowing that all is forgiven, and that their strong bond of friendship remains undamaged.
“Your secret’s safe wiv me Gerald.” Ada assures him with a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Pity. Youse a good lookin’ chap.” She looks Gerald up and down appraisingly and then sighs. “We could’ve ‘ad some fun, rufflin’ a few feathers wiv yer and Lettice’s fancy friends up the West End. Still, yer can’t win ‘em all.” She puts a finger to the cheek and thinks with her head cocked to one side. “’Ere, I could introduce ya to a couple of Chinese sailor friends of mine, if ya does fancy somethin’ exotic.”
*The mid-1880s had seen the beginnings of a Chinatown in Limehouse in London, with the establishment of grocery stores, eating houses, meeting places and Chinese street names in the East End. It was the only place in London where Chinese restaurants could be found. By 1890 two distinct yet small Chinese communities had developed: Chinese migrants from Shanghai had settled around Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street (in Poplar) and those from Canton and Southern China around Gill Street and Limehouse Causeway. The 1881 Census had recorded one hundred and nine Chinese migrants in London, the majority of whom resided in Limehouse. By 1891 the numbers in London had risen to three hundred and two but those in Limehouse to just eighty-two. Thereafter, the Chinese migrant population of Limehouse gradually increased, reaching three hundred and thirty seven by 1921.
**Morris Motors Limited was a privately owned British motor vehicle manufacturing company established in 1919. With a reputation for producing high-quality cars and a policy of cutting prices, Morris’s business continued to grow and increase its share of the British market. By 1926 its production represented forty-two per cent of British car manufacturing. Amongst their more popular range was the Morris Cowley which included a four-seat tourer which was first released in 1920.
***’The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu’ was a 1913 novel by prolific writer Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward under the non-deplume Sax Rohmer that portrayed Chinese as opium fiends, thugs, murders and villains. His book was so successful that he wrote a whole series of sequels between 1914 ad 1917 and then again from 1933 until 1959.
You might be surprised when I tell you that you could easily fit the entirety of Ada May Wong’s Oriental Emporium into the back of Gerald’s Morris four-seater tourer. This is because this emporium is made up entirely with items from my 1:12 miniatures collection and various Asian antique miniatures, some of which I have had since I was a child.
Fun things to look for in this tableau include:
The wooden Chinese dragon chairs and their matching low table I found in a little shop in Singapore whilst I was holiday there. They are beautifully carved from cherrywood.
The large blue and gold vase featuring geishas on the cherrywood table is really a small Satsuma export ware vase from the late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century. It is six centimetres in height. Also Satsuma ware is the autumn leaves bowl on the counter which is three centimetres in diameter. It is from the 1920s. The blue grapevine patterned vase behind the Satsuma bowl is also a small piece of Satsuma export ware. It is late Nineteenth Century and was the first piece of Satsuma ware I ever owned. I have had it since I was eight. Satsuma ware (薩摩焼, Satsuma-yaki) is a type of Japanese pottery originally from Satsuma Province, southern Kyūshū. Today, it can be divided into two distinct categories: the original plain dark clay early Satsuma (古薩摩, Ko-Satsuma) made in Satsuma from around 1600, and the elaborately decorated export Satsuma (京薩摩, Kyō-Satsuma) ivory-bodied pieces which began to be produced in the nineteenth century in various Japanese cities. By adapting their gilded polychromatic enamel overglaze designs to appeal to the tastes of western consumers, manufacturers of the latter made Satsuma ware one of the most recognized and profitable export products of the Meiji period.
The various vases standing about on the floor are all small Chinese or Japanese vases that I have acquired through auction. The blue and white one to the left of the photo in front of the counter is Japanese and is Nineteenth Century. The blue and white one on a china pedestal in front of the counter in the middle of the photograph is Chinese and I believe is Eighteenth Century.
The little sterling silver rickshaw sitting on the counter I bought in a box of odds and ends at an auction many years ago, so I don’t know any of its provenance, other than it is marked silver and also has Japanese characters stamped into it, so it must have been made in Japan. It is one centimetre in height and only marginally longer, and it has fully functioning wheels!
The three vases, teapot and plate in the crate on the shop counter top are 1:12 size miniatures that I acquired at the same time and from the same stockist as the Chinese style cherrywood china cabinet.
The mirror backed Chinese style cherrywood china cabinet in the background I have had since acquiring it as a teenager from a specialist dollhouse supplier. The yellow and peach floral Japanese tea set on the top shelf I have also had since a teenager after I bought it at an Asian emporium in London, perhaps not dissimilar to ‘Ada Wong’s Oriental Emporium’! The blue and white Japanese tea service on the second shelf I acquired from a tea shop in Kallista in the Dandenong Ranges. The red and white elephants on the third shelf are actually glass beads and used to be part of a necklace which fell apart long before I bought them. They came in a box of bits I thought would make good miniature editions that I bought at a flea market some fifteen years ago.
The two oxblood cloisonné vases with floral panels on the table to the right of the china cabinet I bought from the Camberwell Market in Melbourne many years ago. The elderly woman who sold them to me said that her father had bought them in Peking before he left there in the 1920s. She believed they were containers for opium. The stoppers with tiny, long spoons which she said she remembered as a child had long since gone missing. The larger white cloisonné floral vase is from the early Twentieth Century. I bought when I was a child from a curios shop. Cloisonné is an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects. In recent centuries, vitreous enamel has been used, and inlays of cut gemstones, glass and other materials were also used during older periods. The resulting objects can also be called cloisonné. The decoration is formed by first adding compartments (cloisons in French) to the metal object by soldering or affixing silver or gold wires or thin strips placed on their edges. These remain visible in the finished piece, separating the different compartments of the enamel or inlays, which are often of several colours. Cloisonné enamel objects are worked on with enamel powder made into a paste, which then needs to be fired in a kiln. The Japanese produced large quantities from the mid Nineteenth Century, of very high technical quality cloisonné. In Japan cloisonné enamels are known as shippō-yaki (七宝焼). Early centres of cloisonné were Nagoya during the Owari Domain. Companies of renown were the Ando Cloisonné Company. Later centres of renown were Edo and Kyoto. In Kyoto Namikawa became one of the leading companies of Japanese cloisonné.
Behind the counter is a Chinese screen dating from the 1930s featuring hand-painted soapstone panels of scenes with mountains and pagodas. It is framed lacquered wood and is remarkably heavy for its size. The reverse features panels of flowers.
The Chinese lantern hanging from the ceiling was a Chinese New Year party favour that I was given in 1981 which I kept with all my other miniatures as I built up my collection. It collapses and lies flat in a presentation box. This is the first time I have ever used it in one of my miniature photos.
The carpet in the middle of the showroom floor is a copy of a popular 1920s style Chinese silk rug made in miniature by hand by Mackay and Gerrish in Sydney, Australia. The wallpaper is beautiful hand printed Japanese paper featuring a pattern of cherry blossoms given to me by a friend, who encouraged me to create the “Cavendish Mews – Lettice Chetwynd” series.
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