Reviews: Augmented Chinatown 2.0, CAN Festival

Nestled between the colourful shopfronts and bars of Soho to its north and the crowds and queues of Theatreland to its south and east, Chinatown is a haven for London’s East Asian community and picture-hungry tourists alike. Boasting hundreds of Chinese restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets and other Chinese-run businesses, Chinatown has a tumultuous history reaching back to the 17th century. From local aristocrat Charles Gerrard donating his land after the Great Fire of London to today’s heart of London’s Chinese community, Chinatown holds as many Instagram hotspots and buffets as it does stories. You just have to go and find them.

As part of the Chinese Art Now Festival, Augmented Chinatown 2.0 is an interactive work combining Augmented Reality technology, music and storytelling. Artist and app-developer Donald Shek has teamed up with playwright Joel Tan, Director An-Ting Chang and a group of actors to give you a deeper insight into the heart of this London district.

Shek’s narration is just the right mixture of history and personal anecdotes. The path is well chosen, looping from Newport Place, along Gerrard and Lisle Street, letting you pause under Chinatown’s many colourful gates and telling you more about the area’s shopfronts and restaurants.

It’s fascinating to see where British and Chinese culture have merged, since Chinese sailors and their families first moved to London. I particularly enjoyed the many details that are highlighted; mosaics at the entrances to restaurants, plaques on buildings and neon signs advertising IT repairs.

The spoken stories are a good way of elevating the walk beyond an audio tour, connecting the history of the area with tales of the many and varied former inhabitants. Giving you chances to break from the linear tour and delve into site-specific stories and create your own environment by placing text and objects such as portals, trees and flowers around you, using the augmented reality technology. 

I would have liked the tour to give clearer directions into the audio performances, as at times I felt thrown out of the immersion or felt that I had missed the connection between place and story. It had the effect of disconnecting the dramatic experience from the history. At times, the narration led me away from a place and I later realised there was more to discover and had to double back.

If you’re not familiar with Chinatown, the map might be difficult to follow. Sometimes, I ended up walking past certain streets or buildings and having to turn back to find them and continue my tour. Some technical difficulties also impeded my walk as, after finishing the tour of Macclesfield Street, the narration told me to follow the instructions on the app and, since there were no instructions on my screen, I had to go back to the main menu and figure out what the next step on the tour was. It would be nice to be able to zoom into the map to make clicking on the symbols and markers easier or have notifications in each area to let you know what hidden experiences can be found.

Overall Augmented Chinatown is a fantastic concept and with a few tweaks to improve accessibility and continuity, it’s sure to be an amazing addition to anyone visiting or wishing to know more about Chinatown.

The Chinese Art Now Festival is on until 1 March at various locations around London. For more information, visit the Chinese Art Now website.