Giant images tell Chinatown history

A row of terraced houses in Duke Street has formed the backdrop to a unique piece of public art reflecting an important part of the city’s history.

Giant photographs which tell the story of Chinese sailors and their families have been installed on the houses which are next door to the Wah Sing Chinese School.

The buildings, next to Iliad’s development East Village at the top of Duke Street have been derelict for many years but the properties have now been given a new lease of life.

The artwork ” Opera for Chinatown” – has been created as part of a year-long project to create a digital archive of oral histories and family photographs of the Chinese community by artists and oral historians John Campbell and Moira Kenny also known as The Sound Agents.

The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with the city council providing additional funding for the Duke Street project which was completed in time for the International Festival for Business which will attract thousands of visitors to Liverpool. Liverpool property developers Iliad have also worked on the Duke Street project

John explained the background to the oral history project  “Liverpool Chinatown Oral History focussed on three themes: The Blue Funnel Sailors, the Forced Chinese Repatriation and the Liverpool Chinese children who took part in the Hollywood film The Inn of Sixth Happiness starring Ingrid Bergman in 1958 based on the missionary Gladys Alyward who at one time was based in Nelson Street. Gladys went to China and saved hundreds of Chinese children from a Japanese invasion. ”

The centrepiece of  Opera for Chinatown features a photograph of opera singer Grace Liu in a beautiful costume. “Grace performs internationally with the Cantonese Opera”, said Moira “We are aiming to write an opera based on the art work on the buildings and we are in talks with the Cantonese Opera to bring the group over to Liverpool next year for a special performance.”

Another person featured is Mr Sing Zhay Woo who was 90 years old on 8 June. He is one of a handful of surviving Shanghai sailors who came to Liverpool during or just after WW2. “We are so lucky as they all live in Liverpool and have told us stories about their time working deep sea and coasting around Europe. I suppose we could say Opera for Chinatown is an early birthday present for Mr Woo,” said Moira.

The arts duo have worked with Jim Kenny, Individual Graphic Design, Moira’s brother on the designs for the building. Mr C.K.Cheung Headmaster of the Wah Sing provided the calligraphy for the art work. They have also worked with the terrace owner Iliad.

An app for people to access the stories and music behind the images is being created.

The Sound Agents are aiming to set up a living Museum in Nelson Street in the Nook Pub to create a base for people to pop in to Chinatown and tell their story adding to the archive of the oldest Chinese community in Europe.

More immediately, they have written and will direct a play, “The Curious Disappearance of Mr Foo”, It will be performed at the Unity Theatre on 21 June and stars Tina Malone of TV’s Shameless and London actor Simon Wan.

The Verbatim Theatre work reflects on the hardship and strength of Liverpool Irish women left behind after the Forced Chinese Repatriation that took place in Liverpool in 1946 and the parallel journey of a young man deported after WW2.

This performance has already sold out.

Peter Foo in the Inn of Sixth Happiness
Peter Foo in the Inn of Sixth Happiness

What they say about Opera for Chinatown

 “This is a fantastic way for Liverpool to show an important part of its history to the World when the IFB comes to Liverpool. As a Council we wanted to dress the city for the IFB and the Sound Agent’s record in bringing back to life the history of Chinatown made them a perfect partner. It’s been good to work with them and Iliad to tell this story at a perfect location in Duke Street.”

Councillor Steve Munby, Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods 

 “We’re really pleased to support this Duke Street artwork as an IFB Cultural Commission. It tells a significant story in a beautiful way and really improves the look of the area. Many local people have been involved in the research, and many more residents and visitors will enjoy the finished work”.

Nick Birkinshaw, IFB Culture Programme Co-ordinator

 “This artwork is a fantastic asset for the Duke Street area of RopeWalks, adding a splash of colour and brief photographic history of Liverpool’s important Chinese community and marine heritage. These buildings have become a beautiful and thought-provoking piece of artwork, completely transforming the top end of Duke Street to become a much more vibrant landscape for diners in the opposite restaurants and residents living within Iliad’s surrounding developments. Iliad are proud to have been a vital part of the installation with the talented and inspirational Moiraand John, along with our partners at Liverpool City Council, IFB and Liverpool Vision. We look forward to hosting Anna Chen at Il Forno on China Day as part of the IFB on 18tJune.”

Ryan Cullen of Iliad

 “I can’t believe it, thank you all very much. It looks lovely some of our children have never seen these photographs”

Mr Lang Kong Lau, Blue Funnel Shanghai sailor

“It is very nice, very good”

Mr Te Hay Yue Blue Funnel Shanghai sailor

“My niece Stephanie came to see me and said ‘your picture is on a building in Duke Street’. I did not think it would be so big. I said ‘it must have been Moira and John who put it there’. It looks all right like!”

Mr Sing Zhay Woo ,Blue Funnel Shanghai sailor

“I cannot tell you how happy I was to see my dad’s documents on display and photographs of my Mum and Dad, Aunty Em, Uncle Wong and other family members on the wall for all to see”.

Viv Smith

“I am totally gobsmacked!”

Joan Peterson (nee Ku Loi)


Liverpool Waterfront