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Kamal Chunchie: The Other Eastenders

Kamal Chunchie in the pulpit“In addition to providing spiritual comfort for all, we have given to our coloured people during the last twelve months – bed and breakfast to nearly 900 stranded seamen, Christmas dinners to 127 families, Christmas gifts to more than 300 coloured children, a day in the country and by the sea to nearly 400 men, women and children, and over 200 parcels of clothing, boots, etc.”

Kamal Chunchie, Coloured Men’s Institute, 1936-37 Report

This online resource charts the history of the black and Asian community in Canning Town, east London, in the 1920s and 1930s. It tells the story of the Coloured Men’s Institute and its founder, Kamal Chunchie, a man who can rightly be called east London’s first black and Asian community leader.

These pages are part of a project that includes a booklet and exhibition, “The Other Eastenders” and a video, “Life and Times of Kamal Chunchie”, which are based on fifty photographs of black and Asian people who lived in or passed through West Ham’s docklands between the wars.

Only a few of these photographs have ever found their way into print or public display, and yet they provide a fascinating insight into a community whose very existence has largely been forgotten. The photographs show a community at times fearful, at times relaxing, but above all dignified and determined.

As well as the photographs, “The Other EastEnders” utilises contemporary accounts of Chunchie and his community, many of which tell of the racism both faced.

“Case after case has come to my notice of seamen who applied for work and who received the answer, ‘We don’t take niggers here’.”

Kamal Chunchie in an interview with The Manchester Guardian, 1928

Eastside Community Heritage is very proud to make what we consider to be a significant contribution to east London and ethnic minority history by assembling and researching this project.

Kamal Chunchie: History

A Brief History of the Coloured Men’s Institute

‘Many of our readers have doubtless heard of “Chinatown,” but few have visited it. In that crowded area, many Orientals live a life that is a mixture of East and West and is without the better features of either. In other parts the Negro element predominates; they have their clubs and dancing halls, and nowadays that latest development of their social life, “The Universal Negro Improvement Association.” Many of these unfortunate people are living in abject poverty and only too often in utter degradation.’

The Foreign Field, publication of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, November 1923

Kamal Chunchie and familyAfter witnessing and experiencing the racist treatment of black and Asian people arriving in London’s docklands, Kamal Chunchie founded the Coloured Men’s Institute in Canning Town in 1926. It was to be a social as well as a religious centre. In a converted Chinese lodging house that had previously held opium dens in it’s cellars, Chunchie established a meeting place that was open from nine in the morning until ten at night. On the first floor were a writing and newspaper room, a prayer room and a billiard room. On the top floor lived Chunchie and his family. He received financial backing from the Methodist Church, but even those who supported him often shared the prejudices of the time.

We met at Camber Sands in Sussex during the 1930s. Surrounding him were coloured seamen from the East End, their wives and children. The impression which Kamal Chunchie made on me that day and the tales which he told of his life have stood over half a century of time. For many of his ‘flock’ that day at Camber Sands, adults and children alike, it was their first sight of the British seaside. Much of the cost of such outings would come of this champion’s own pocket, topped up by subscriptions from friends, by the pennies he would beg from Methodist ministers.

Memories of John Sadler, good friend of Kamal Chunchie

Kamal Chunchie converted to Christianity during the First World War. After training as a Methodist pastor, the Methodist Church wanted him to return to Asia as a missionary but he refused. As his daughter Muriel explained many years later, “He saw no point in sending missionaries abroad when there was so much work to be done in England. He thought they should put their own house in order first.”

‘Not for him the passive, prim approach to religion. He would often say: ” I want to dispel the idea that a Christian is a man with a glass of milk in one hand, a bun in his mouth and a Bible under his arm.” He could speak eight languages. And with the cosmopolitan congregations in the East End he was known to preach in six different languages in the same service.’

Obituary for Kamal Chunchie in The Kentish Mercury, 3 July 1953

Using funds acquired initially through the Methodist Church and later by personally touring England’s churches to solicit donations, Chunchie provided food, clothes, Christmas parties and summer days out for his black and Asian community.

‘The F.M. Department of our Church were unable to continue this vital bit of Missionary work at Home owing to “financial and practical” reasons. I tried other Departments of our Church (Home Mission and London Mission) but without success. I am shouldering this heavy and responsible task of building another “Coloured Men’s Institute” in Dockland.’

Kamal Chunchie, 1933 annual report of the Coloured Men’s Institute

Kamal Chunchie in front of congregationThe future of India was being hotly contested and arguments in favour of racial equality were interpreted by many as part of a wider threat to the British Empire. Having been born into an elite family in the British colony of Ceylon, educated at a Christian mission school and served extensively in the British army, Chunchie might be expected to identify stongly with the British colonial establishment. However, Chunchie’s background did not stop him from criticising the Empire and supporting Indian independence.

The building where the CMI was based, and from where Chunchie worked, lasted only five years for it was demolished in 1930 in a road-widening scheme. For over twenty more years Chunchie was to try to find the funds and the premises for another building. He did not succeed, partly because the Methodist Church withdrew its support. Henceforth, most of the public functions of the CMI were held at the Public Hall or Presbyterian Church Hall, both in Canning Town.

‘I shall never forget or regret the day that I met you. You have caused me to save my soul from damnation, and now to Redemption Ground. It is my one determination, come what may, ever to stand up for Jesus…On the ship I am persecuted day by day by the white crew on board the ship. But I know that God is good and He can do all things.’

Hezekiah Lloyd, letter of thanks to Kamal Chunchie

There are various theories why he and the Methodist establishment fell out, but the most likely, and certainly the one his daughter Muriel subscribes to, concerns Chunchie’s lifestyle. He smoked, drank, gambled and enjoyed a night out in the West End theatres and clubs.

“He loved life”, explains Muriel and although he undoubtedly did, there are good reasons to assume that such pleasures were peripheral for Chunchie, an escape from his more dominant lifestyle.