Before the pandemic, I took for granted how enriching it is, to be surrounded by South Asian culture and have so much of it at my doorstep. As I’d walk home from university, I’d pass through Stepney Green, popping into my local Asian grocers on the way. When I missed home comforts, I’d walk less than ten minutes down the road into Whitechapel to get some mithai or samosas from the street vendors.
But one of the pandemic’s many negative impacts is the strain on businesses and local institutions, with some of the most cherished historical sites in danger as COVID-19 continues to take its toll. So, to celebrate Asian Heritage Month, allow me to be your tour guide, and I’ll take you through some of the key cultural spots not too far from Queen Mary that you need to put on your post-pandemic to-do list.
East London’s oldest Indian restaurant: The Halaal Restaurant
The Halal Restaurant is located on Mark Street, and is East London’s oldest Indian restaurant. The restaurant first opened in 1939 and was owned by a Mr. Jaffer; since then it passed through owners until the current owner, Mahaboob Narangoli took over from his father in 1988. Like many traditional Asian restaurants in the area, its history is plagued with colonial ties, since many curry houses initially opened to serve the wealthy British elites who had vested interests in the British-ruled India. But after colonial rule formally ended and many South Asians migrated to Britain to set up a new life, curry houses became a staple to East London and British Asian culture as a whole, serving customers from any background. They offer up the best traditional foods for prices that are student friendly, and are essential to immersing oneself into the flavour and aroma which makes South Asian cuisine so appealing.
After the first lockdown, The Halal Restaurant was left struggling, as tweeted by the owner’s daughter Mehnaz. She asked for people to come to visit the restaurant which was on the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, including a picture of her dad side by side with a picture of her grandad, who owned the restaurant before him. Her tweet went viral and attracted customers during the summer period, but two lockdowns later and restaurants are still only operating through delivery service only. I hope that East London’s oldest Indian restaurant will still be going strong when restrictions end, and that many more people will choose to dine when it’s safe to do so again.
Altab Ali Park
You don’t even have to wait for the lockdown to end to go and visit this place! Since a walk in the park is practically everyone’s favourite activity during lockdown (because really, it is the only activity most of us can do), Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel is one with an important historical background. The park is named after Altab Ali, a Bangladeshi textile worker who was murdered by three teenagers on 4th May 1978 in a racist attack. After this, he became a figure of anti-racist resitance in the mobilisation of the Bangladeshi community, who came together to commemorate his life. St Mary’s Churchyard, where he was killed, was renamed to Altab Ali Park in his memory, and was a key location for anti-racist and anti-facist political rallying led by the South Asian, Black and Jewish communities in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, it has remained a significant spot for community gathering. It also has a monument which commemorates those killed during the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations of 1952, and is the meeting place for International Mother Tongue Day celebrated on 21 February.
Brick Lane has a great historical and cultural significance, as one of the most renowned tourist hotspots in East London, thanks to the Bangladeshi and Bengali community. It’s an eccentric display of South Asian culture, from the curry houses, to the clothes shops, and an array of independent businesses which make the experience unique. Some of the earliest established traders were of the small Sylheti community, who sold authentic teas and coffees. As it has grown it has become a popular cultural hub, but also a connector to the markets in Spitalfields and the night life of Shoreditch.
But, as a location that’s home to primarily working class people of colour, it is under the threat of gentrification. The owners of the Old Truman Brewery venue have development plans to build an office building and shopping mall at the heart of Brick Lane, driving up rent prices and inevitably pushing out those who live and own businesses there already. This gentrification isn’t new, but something frequently occurring to predominantly working class, ethnically diverse boroughs such as Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Walthamstow. Local communities have long resisted this, but with the pandemic disproportionately impacting people of colour who own the majority of the small business, it’s an even greater challenge.
So perfectly put by Tasmina Uddin, writing for gal-dem: “Those living around this section of Tower Hamlets have seen the City gradually transform centuries of political culture and social history into soulless workspaces and interchangeable commercial outlets”. The #SaveBrickLane campaign is a collaborative effort by independent organising groups Spitalfields Trust and NjjourManush, aiming to protect the buildings and culture from destruction. To prevent even more suffering after the pandemic, those of us who benefit from all that Brick Lane has to offer should do what we can to support the campaign, preserving its cultural legacy and protecting people’s homes and livelihoods.
Toynbee Hall Exhibitions
Toynbee Hall on Commercial Street is a centre for community support, events and leisure activities. Opened in 1884, it services work to tackle inequality in the area, as 44% of people who live in Tower Hamlets live in poverty. Its utilities are free and staffed by volunteers, providing essential youth services, legal advice, health classes, and hosting exhibitions. As Tower Hamlets has a high population of South Asian residents, many of the exhibitions reflect the communities’ history and celebrate its culture. Back in 2017, Toynbee Hall launched a Bengali heritage project in partnership with the Central Foundation Girls School, Eastside Community Heritage and Heritage Lottery Fund, featuring oral history interviews with Bengali residents. Their permanent exhibition “A Powerhouse of Social Change” showcases some of Toynbee Hall and the South Asian community’s contributions to London’s social history over the last 135 years since it was opened. Whether or not there will be new exhibitions in the future after the pandemic is yet to be seen, but it’s a worthwhile place for anyone looking to dive into the history of Tower Hamlets and why the South Asian community is so vital.
And that’s one thing that I enjoy about South Asian culture in general is that there is such a strong sense of community, and the last year has shown us how important this is. In all of the places I’ve listed, there’s an element of togetherness and locality, making them feel welcoming and hospitable. Our heritage is something to be celebrated and visiting some of these spots post-lockdown is just one way to show appreciation for the culture that defines so much of East London.