Xin Nian Kuai Le!

As we welcome in the Year of the Dog, librarian Ross Horsley looks back over some of the ways Leeds Libraries has worked with the city’s Chinese community over the past twelve months, exploring local history in what was the Year of the Rooster. 

The Leeds Is My Home project is a collaboration between Leeds Libraries and the University of Leeds, using online spaces to share reflections and discoveries about the history of the Chinese community in Leeds.

We began with a physical workshop, which took place at the Leeds Chinese Community School, where we annotated a map of the city with memories relating to traditions and family life. From the street in Harehills where, decades ago, “Grandfather took a job at a bakery” to the present-day restaurant where elderly Chinese-Vietnamese relatives go each Sunday to “meet friends so close they are practically family”, we explored the geographical locations that give residents a sense of belonging to Leeds.

A map of Leeds is overlaid with handwritten notes about local venues
Notes on places significant to members of Leeds’s Chinese community

Eventually, these notes will form the basis of a guided tour of online images we hope to create using our photographic archive, Leodis Collections. And it’s not too late to join in… If you have any memories or pictures to share, please do get in touch.

We’ve also been making use of the lovely storytelling website Yarn to highlight lesser-known aspects of the city’s history, uncovered by delving into library collections and resources. The 1911 census, for instance, provides a snapshot of Leeds on Sunday 2 April, 1911. Each householder completed a personal census form for their address, recording everyone present there that evening, from family members and servants, to boarders and visitors. Ancestry.com makes it easy to search for Leeds residents whose place of birth was given as China and, in our Yarn story Chinese People in Leeds in 1911, we take a peek into their lives – including where they lived, who they lived with, and what they did for a living.

Page from the 1911 census listing the members of the Lee family of Leeds
This 1911 census record possibly shows a Chinese-English family. Jim Lee (33) from China is married to Mary Jane (25) from Runcorn, and they have a 3-month-old son called Willie who was born in Leeds.

Another Yarn story, Representations of China in Early Leeds Theatre, explores Leeds Libraries’ collection of historical theatre playbills. Concentrating on the 19th and early 20th century – from the stage’s earliest melodramas, through the knockabout era of Victorian music hall, into the heyday of local pantomime – we’ve drawn out any mentions of Chinese performers and culture. There’s loads more research needed to find out how authentic these productions could claim to be, but it’s a hugely interesting topic, characterised by a mixture of stock stereotypes and genuine curiosity about the world beyond Yorkshire. (You can see our full collection of playbills over on Leodis.)

Historical playbill shows acrobats balancing plates and twirling ribbons
Chinese entertainments at Leeds’s Victoria Hall in 1862, including ‘the Great Impalement of the Human Body to a Board, with Huge Knives’.

We’re really keen to hear more from residents of the Chinese community, especially if you’d like to share thoughts about your relationship with Leeds or tell stories from your family’s past. Whether you’ve lived here for many years or just arrived, we’d love to hear from you. You can comment below, email localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk, or read more at the University’s Digital Community Workspaces page. 

  • The Leeds Chinese Community Association will make Leeds Town Hall a vibrant venue for this Chinese New Year. On Sunday 18 February, the Town Hall will be transformed with dancing, music, calligraphy, tai chi and kung fu to celebrate the Year of the Dog. There’ll also be stalls featuring food, crafts, beauty and face painting. Book here.
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