Writing a River

On George Clark’s Sunless Haven

Xiaolu Guo

Sunless Haven
Year 2024
Country UK

How would you sum up a film in a tagline? Here’s a go: death in a foreign river or, the Chinese at the door … These phrases perhaps speak to some of the content of this visually exquisite and historically informative film. But even richer descriptions would fall short in the presence of this film’s textured archives and layered soundscapes.

Sunless Haven, by artist George Clark, explores a hidden aspect of London’s past: its entanglement with the Chinese immigrants of Limehouse and the subcontinental populations of east and south London. Another filmmaker might have made an interview-based documentary about the British colonial legacy. Clark’s visual essay employs neither interviews nor any of the traditional investigative procedures. Words in his film are reserved for poetic expression. His use of archival images provides a feast of meaning. Life flows on along the river, water carries memory forward.

This is a short, dense film, rich in allusions and detail. Clark has dug out archives depicting the Chinese and Indians’ life in the docklands in the 1910s and 20s, including police records concerning the seamen's lodging houses in east London. The records reveal the changing demographics of lodgers and increasing persecutions of Chinese labourers at the time. A proprietor of one of these lodging houses, Ah Ling, was prosecuted on several counts but was unable to pay his fines; the reason given was that he had been a victim of the Titanic disaster. We know that there were eight Chinese seamen on the Titanic, and that six of them survived. But we hardly knew that from a shabby London boarding house, one of them was sent to jail, his legendary past notwithstanding. All invisible, all untold, the imperial narrative pays no attention to these footnotes. Sunless Haven lays them out for us.

In the film, an old London newspaper reports on the life of ‘Ayahs and Amahs’. What are these strange words? The meaning of Ayah or Amah seems to be as blurry as the 16mm grainy stock Clark used to capture a faded past. In Chinese, Ayah and Amah are the words for ‘aunt’ or ‘nanny’, written as 阿姨 and 阿妈. The sound ‘A’ is a casual way to address someone you know but without knowing their actual name: ‘Mah’ is mother, ‘Yah’ adult women. These words are perfectly commonplace in China today, and carry no negative connotations. The Ayahs and Amahs were oriental women who, beginning in the 19th century, worked as domestic labourers, often as cleaners or nannies, all over Britain, but especially in Liverpool and London. Clark worked with historians Simeon Koole and Ben Mechan to unearth a handful of archival police documents detailing the diseased and injured bodies in the Thames, and the hopeless living conditions in east London. These Ayahs and Amahs were only a passing note in imperial narrative, their arduous voyages from the South China Sea or the Bay of Bengal, as early as the 18th century, barely known or told. The film shows the docklands’ grimy streets and dilapidated houses, rain drenched spaces haunted by ghosts and hidden sagas. I was struck by signs such as ‘Nankin Street’ or ‘Pekin Street’ (Nankin or Pekin are old colonial spellings used by earlier European missionaries and merchants, rather than the modern spelling of ‘Nanjing’ or ‘Beijing’).

One image shows the faded sign of ‘Amoy Place E14’, which makes my heart ache. Chinese myself, as well as an Eastender, I’ve walked on Amoy Place in the dockland, which was part of old Chinatown. In the early 19th century, Chinese seamen and their families began to establish small communities here and in Liverpool. Europe's first Chinatown was established in Liverpool in the 1860s, followed by London's Chinatown in Limehouse. The East India Company also brought Asian sailors and labourers, who were lodged in this area. Chinese women worked in the sunless warehouses and basements of the Amoy Place laundry and textile industry during the 1920s. There, they slaved to earn a meagre livelihood until the bombs of WWII dropped, and Chinatown then moved to Soho. The film reflects the tragic interaction between foreign bodies and the Thames, and we learn how the ill-fated foreigners lived by the river. There is one historical detail not fleshed out in the film that I append here: in 1850, forty people from India were found dead in their lodgings because of cold and starvation. The bleak conditions of the labourers in London led the missionary Joseph Salter to open the 'Stranger's Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders' in Limehouse. ‘Stranger’ is a key word here. Only a few politicians these days would dare to use it.

Clark’s images are anything but drily journalistic; he shows us melancholic London skylines at dawn and dusk, scored with an experimental soundtrack. These images have the quality of filtering everything through a soft swirl of English fog, undetermined, elusive, and intangible. Indeed, the film opens with a poem, The Great London Fog, by a certain ‘stranger’ Huang Zunxian. How fitting are the lines: “Vast and boundless is the city’s desolation of dimming light, benighted and hazy, like a dark kingdom of sweet dreams”? Of course, it's not clear for whom such sweet dreams could be realised.

Another literary text in the film is an excerpt from Lao She's 1929 novel Mr. Ma and Son. Lao She, a giant figure in pre-Mao era contemporary Chinese literature, came to London in 1924 and wrote about this dark and foggy city in a dramatic form. The reading is well mixed with the performances of artists in London’s misty streets.

As arresting as the 16mm footage of the city’s light is the imaginative sound design. In the opening, we hear streams of water and distant horns, transporting us to a past: an old map of the Thames Flooding Points appears. We see the old flood routes, Greenwich pier, Wapping, Bermondsey, Woolwich—the unpredictable twists and turns of the Dickensian waterway. The unfolding of the river map before Clark’s camera reminds me of the unfolding of a traditional Chinese painting scroll—the landscape in the painting reveals itself partially and gradually, through time. Perhaps that’s what a beautiful essay film should do. It’s all about unfolding.

Xiaolu Guo is a renowned Chinese British filmmaker and novelist. She has directed a dozen films, including How Is Your Fish Today, UFO In Her Eyes, She, A Chinese, We Went to Wonderland, The Concrete Revolution, Once Upon A time Proletarian. Her novels include A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and I Am China. Her memoir Once Upon A Time In The East won the National Book Critics Circle Award 2017. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of Sunless Haven at ICA, 24 April 2024.