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The British Chinese History and Identity

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

Dear Asian Youth,

What comes to mind when you think of the British Chinese community or the Chinese diaspora in the U.K.? Being a person that emigrated to the U.K. at a young age and grew up immersed mainly in British culture, my identity was a disorientated confusion--a constant fluctuation between pride and shame. Upon reflection, it was the typical mindset where negative Chinese stereotypes that were used as prejudice against the Chinese diaspora had been internalised. Indeed, I’m sure many of my British Chinese friends had similar experiences; never will I forget a conversation I had at age 12 when my friend of Chinese heritage wished she had been born white to ‘look more beautiful.' The exploration of this nuanced, complex identity was made more valuable when I began to look at the history of how Chinese people came to live in this country, how British Chinese people are slowly, but surely finding their place in British society, and the sacrifices that many past generations made to flourish in this country.

The first Chinese person to ever visit Britain was Michel Chin-fo-tsoung, a Jesuit that was born in Nanking and met with King James II in 1687. However, the first Chinese communities were only created in the early 1800s in the ports of London and Liverpool, when the trade of Chinese goods, such as silk, tea and ceramics were flourishing. Migration waves were reinforced as a result of the Opium War and the takeover of Hong Kong by the British Empire, and by the late 19th century, there were now small Chinatowns developing in the two cities, as well as two distinct communities in East London. Rapidly growing prejudice against these communities saw Chinese immigrants posing a threat to British jobs; stereotypes such as gambling and heavy opium-use were reinforced, and marriage unions between the British and Chinese were disapproved of. These early Sinophobic sentiments led to Chinese communities being banned from all other employment but starting their own businesses, such as launderettes and the first ever Chinese restaurants in Britain. Hostility continued to grow as more Chinese people settled in the U.K., especially after the Second World War, when approximately 20,000 Chinese seamen, who had arrived in Liverpool during the war to work as merchants, were repatriated forcefully without reasonable explanations, leaving new British wives and children behind that were never seen again. The biggest waves of Chinese migration were in the 1950s and 60s, when labourers from Hong Kong arrived to work in the catering industry. Many of them opened Chinese takeaways that, in order to avoid competition, were dispersed all over the country-- and could perhaps explain the dynamic of sparse Chinese communities today.

It is noteworthy that the word ‘Asian’ in Britain commonly refers to South Asians. When references to East Asians are made, the term ‘oriental’ is frequently used. This descriptive word was so normalised around me that I was surprised to learn of its racist and derogatory origins only recently, one that presents East-Asian culture as underdeveloped, that perpetuates a colonialist attitude of which looked down on East Asian people and culture with contempt and superiority. However, British Chinese people are most often referred to by their ethnicity since the word ‘Asian’ is conventionally misrepresentative. It is also the most common East Asian group of all, since all other East Asian communities do not have an individual category on the British census, unlike British Chinese. This signals the group out as a distinct community that, in theory, should have made our voices louder. But the British Chinese community continues to be grossly underrepresented in British media and politics. In the U.K. media, apart from a few household names such as Gemma Chan and Katie Leung, I rarely come across prominent entertainment, TV or music figures that are of Chinese descent. There are approximately 400,000 British Chinese people, which constitutes about 0.7% of the population, yet only one MP is of Chinese descent in the House of Commons, when the number that would be proportional to its population would be 4 or 5. 30% of British Chinese were not on the electoral register in 2006, compared to 17% of all minorities, and 6% of white people. Compared to other ethnic minorities such as South Asians where the number of MPs in parliament exceeds what would be proportional, the political energy that we give out is certainly one that lacks outspokenness, and one of objectivity and reservation. Indeed, writer Amber Hsu, who has lived in both Britain and the U.S., has stated that the sense of community and unity amongst Asian Americans is extremely more prominent, not least because of louder racial discourses that highlight and aim to combat Sinophobic discrimination.

What then, defines us as a community if we lack so much representation? Is it our strong academic achievements, household income, and presence in high-skilled jobs--partly to do with a culture that values hard work and obedience and partly to do with the model minority myth that only reinforces the oppression of other minorities? Is it our Chinese takeaways and our popular Chinatowns--the bubble tea shops dotted around every major town and city? Is it the prevailing sense of apathy or silent acceptance of the issues in this country that affect not only us but other marginalised individuals? The U.K police force have stated that the number of hate crimes against people of Chinese descent in only the first three months of 2020 was almost three times that of the two years prior, no doubt fueled by COVID-19 that took place concurrently and by the current political climate that only harms Chinese diaspora like collateral. British Chinese people need to utilise the motivation we already have, to speak up and foster more visibility towards the normalised racism and microaggressions that impact us, and in turn also help break down systems of oppression that impact others.

- Jiaying

Cover Photo Source: South China Morning Post


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