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Cockney Culture's New Face

Asian immigrants put their stamp on London's gritty East End. The newcomers are helping redefine the working-class area, which has become a trendy place to live.

July 07, 2001|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — The East End's Eliza Doolittles have long since moved away--not to rural Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, mind you, but to suburban Essex and Kent, where their cockney rhyming slang is hardly heard.

The street markets they abandoned in the gritty neighborhoods of Spitalfields and Whitechapel are Bangladeshi now. And the cockneys' favorite pie-and-mash shops are outnumbered by tandoori restaurants and trendy cafes that serve arugula salad to City of London slickers.

In short, East London's cockney culture is, as old-time rhymers would say, "brown bread"--dead.

Or is it?

"I'm a cockney," said Paul Baird, 42, whose father emigrated from the West Indies to East London. "It's the way I speak, you know what I mean? It's my mannerisms. It means I'm from the East End."

Abdul Quayum Jamal, 32, who inherited a Brick Lane market from his Bangladeshi father, said proudly, "I grew up here speaking proper cockney."

As it turns out, the population of East London always has been fluid. The definition of a cockney has changed many times, and the cockney dialect, like all languages, has evolved. Yesterday's white, working-class cockneys may not recognize today's East End immigrants as their brethren, and East Enders who call themselves cockney may not mean the same thing today as they did 50 years ago.

But they are cockneys, according to historian Gilda O'Neill, the offspring of Jewish and Irish immigrants and author of "My East End, Memories of Life in Cockney London."

"London has always been Britain's melting pot, and East London was always the posh folks' backyard . . . everything that was 'other' or foreign," O'Neill said. "It's the working community in the East End, and it will always be thought of as cockney."

To locals such as Baird, upscale East Enders are the foreigners.

"You've got people coming in here for 10 minutes and calling themselves cockney," Baird said, shaking his head. "You've got shops opening up that's so expensive the normal, average person hasn't got a chance. But we'll find a way."

The word cockney comes from "cock's egg," meaning something strange or unnatural, as East Enders were to the British ruling classes. According to tradition, a true cockney must have been born within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary Le Bow in the high-finance City of London. But East London has grown in size and stature. While cockneys once sought to escape the label that conjured up the slums of Dickens and the crimes of Jack the Ripper, today many East Enders wear the badge with honor. The accent that pegged them as poor in class-conscious Britain has been made hip on film by director Guy Ritchie and actor Terence Stamp.

"I wasn't born within the sound of the bells, unless the wind was blowing the right direction that day, and I consider myself a cockney," said Jane Taylor-Reid, 33, a librarian from East Ham.

"It used to be that people would look at you as poor and uneducated, from a poor part of London and, therefore, you were not a worthy person," she said. "But I have been to university, I've got a career, and I feel quite proud of my roots."

It helps that the East End is becoming a trendy place to live, with contemporary artists, City financiers and Canary Wharf professionals moving in, causing the value of Taylor-Reid's house to double in the last four years.

Immigration is a cornerstone of the area, although until now it was usually the poor and oppressed who pulled into London's East End port. The foreigners came in waves, as migrants tend to do in response to economic and political pressures at home.

A Common Destiny for Immigrant Groups

The Huguenot silk weavers who arrived in the late 17th century from France were supplanted by the Irish and Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries. Chinese immigrants established a small Chinatown in the Limehouse district near the docks in the early 20th century, largely keeping to themselves, while another influx of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe made their way into the teeming East End.

Different origins, but a common destiny in the rough part of London near the port and "stink" industries such as breweries and tanneries. They crowded into slum housing, worked in the docks and markets, and bought half a cabbage at a time if that was all they could afford.

Many cockneys refer to the "golden years" of the East End, before vast areas were leveled in the Blitz of London during World War II. There is more than a little bit of romanticism in the recollections of slum life, when extended families lived cheek-by-jowl without indoor plumbing or privacy but could rely on each other for help.

Back then, Jews were established in the markets of Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane and Whitechapel, where they worked as bakers, "rag" traders and "fruit and veg" vendors. They had 120 synagogues, such as the one behind a house on Princelet Street that the Spitalfields Center conservation charity hopes to preserve and convert into a museum of East End immigration.

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