Understanding Multiculturalism in Brick Lane using our senses : a photo essay

In October 2018, QMUL IFP students worked in groups to produce photo essays on topics that can be explored in the borough of Tower Hamlets.  We were very impressed by some of the work submitted.  This photo essay attempts to answer a Human Geography question about experiencing multiculturalism through the senses on a trip to Brick Lane.  Words and images are by Lin Selby, Harry Charlesworth, and Audrey Chen.

Brick Lane is a cultural hub, with its emerging presence on London’s tourism scene creating an opportunity for the ethnic groups within it interact in a positive way that reinforces a sense of multiculturalism. adding to its culturally diverse environment. It is removed enough from the city centre to create its own unique culture, but yet close enough for locals to mingle with people of different ethnicities. An appreciation for the interdependent relationship between our senses allows for a personal exploration of a both societal and individual understanding of cultural diversity within communities. Specifically in Brick Lane, the sounds and smells evoke an emotional connection between vendors and tourists that ultimately allow for a harmonious relationship of culture. (Harry)


Brick Lane market provides people of different cultures with the space to come together. The atmosphere and sounds that surround the market gives it its unique personality and further exemplify the diverse community within Brick Lane. (Audrey)

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photo taken by Audrey

Stepping into Brick Lane market, one is greeted by a flurry of sights and sounds. Having street performers line the start of the market sets the joyous mood and adds to the distinct cultural flavour of the market. In this instance, this one-man band caught the attention of patrons. His infectious energy and joy he exudes when performing was thoroughly infectious, making it a great start to anyone’s visit to Brick Lane market. Live entertainment plays a big part in bringing new life to the marketplace. With no fixed seating to enjoy a home-cooked meal from one of the many stalls, the locals are often seen gathering around live performers to fully take in the surrounding sights and sounds. (Audrey)


Photo taken by Lin

A great chatter came from a crowd of people who enthusiastically engaged in a free game of chess. The man who manages the stall is from Sierra, and his opponents are from all over the world and thus, there was a great mix of languages spoken at the scene. Despite the language barrier that exists between the people, everyone was laughing, and enjoying themselves trying to beat the expert chess player. According to the stall holder, he attracts regular ‘customers’ who are surprisingly not just from London but other parts of the world as well. (Lin)

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The various aromas coming from the food shops selling different kinds of cultural food along Brick Lane attracts both locals and tourists coming from everywhere around the world. (Lin)

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Brick Lane market allows people can learn of different cultures through food. Stall owners hail from all ends of the world. This is a distinct feature of Brick Lane and food is a universal language for people to connect and interact with each other. The aromas of Chinese stir fry and the heat emitted from the steamer carrying rows and rows of steamed meat buns are extremely enticing to customers. A Chinese food stall in the middle of Brick Lane, run by a Malaysian and Nepalese duo, is the epitome of multiculturalism within the community. (Audrey)

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Photo taken by Lin

The strong smell coming from “Dark Sugars’ is what causes almost every passer-by to stop and try the authentic African chocolate. The chocolate made from cocoa beans imported from Africa are left on display on the ground floor and the deep smell of the cocoa lingers throughout the store. The African employees also make their chocolate drinks up front and this adds richness to the surrounding aroma. This unsurprisingly attracts a large array of people to the store. The cashier said that he actually acquired the ability to speak mandarin due to the large influx of Chinese people that visit the store. He had also agreed that the store has brought people from all countries and it is comforting to see people of all races coming together to enjoy real chocolate. (Lin)

Individuals who submerge themselves in the bustling cultural dynamic of Brick lane realise it is the market itself that facilitates an understanding of multiculturalism. It is impossible then, to ignore that multiculturalism here is founded upon people of different backgrounds realising how specific aspects of their own culture can be used to reinforce society’s positive view of multiculturalism in Brick Lane. (Harry)

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Photo taken by Audrey

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Photo taken by Harry

Specifically employing the use of hearing and smell as tools for uncovering why the market is a symbol for multiculturalism allows us to form our own understanding of the concept. Image five’s high angle shot incorporates the overarching prosperity of the markets in brick lane, allowing us to realise the abundant multicultural relationship between the stalls and people. What is deliberate here is having captured the chaotic soundscape of people scrambling for a new cultural experience that is food, strengthening how Brick Lane can be appreciated through the senses. Notice how ‘Posh Pork Baps’ is incorporated into the image that further connotes the smell of food that entices customers’ interaction with various stalls. (Harry)

Image six utilises the focal point of coffee beans that allowed us to harness our sense of smell.  Through this we realises the metaphoric importance of the teenager selling bean sacks every week, whose family had “always been in the coffee industry”. By incorporating his own culture into the work he does, the teen displayed as a sense of multiculturalism both for his own benefit and the community’s. To an extent however, the seventh image uses  juxtaposing features that allude to traditional British lifestyle to portray a positive balance between the array of other cultures also settled in Brick Lane. Paired with the motif of the classic British car, we overheard two thick English accents in the transaction pictured, by which we were ultimately able to understand that while other cultures were able to interact with each other in the Brick Lane markets, so too was there a positive relationship between locals who were still able to thrive with their businesses. (Harry)

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About markgholloway

Husband, father, teacher, technophile, WBA supporter, and glutton (not only for punishment). I blog as part of my engagement with teaching and learning, particularly on language learning, teacher training, and academic literacy. I also loosen my typing fingers by writing about football, food, and technology.

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