Senior British Born Chinese, who we are, where we came from

Walter Fung tells the story of Britain's Chinese community.
A version of this article (BBCs-Who we are, where we came from, where are we going?) first appeared in ‘Brushstrokes Magazine’ Issue No 19 in October 2001. An attempt has been made to update it because the Chinese population has changed quite significantly in the last 13 years or so when it was first written. Even in 2001, when it was first written, some parts were becoming dated - indicative of the speed with which the composition of the British Chinese community, like China itself, is changing.

A more appropriate title is ‘senior generation BBCs’; the author and some of the editorial board of Brushstrokes were from this age group! The majority of current BBCs are descended from Hong Kong Chinese and the youngest generation, a fast growing number, will include those born from mainland Chinese. Their stories will be very different.

For convenience it can be said that the Chinese came to Britain in very roughly three waves. Those that came between 1900 to about 1950 were mainly from the mainland and numbered only a couple of thousands in total by the 1940s. It is from this group that I and most of my contemporary BBCs come into. Many of our parents operated hand laundries and later they opened some of the first Chinese restaurants. This article is mainly about them; however the sections on Chinese names will apply to all groups.

Those who came from about 1960 onwards were mainly from Hong Kong and came in thousands per year; many of them went into the catering industry, opening take-away food shops. Mandarin speaking mainlanders and students began to come to Britain in significant numbers in the 1990s onwards. Now you hear Mandarin spoken perhaps as much as Cantonese - more so when considering younger people and especially students.

BBC of course means ‘British Born Chinese’ but we are not a homogeneous group, in fact very diverse. Our parents came at different times over the last hundred years or so from different backgrounds and from different regions of mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and more recently from Taiwan. History however focuses on the earliest arrivals, especially in Liverpool, which is believed to be the first Chinatown in Europe. At the turn of the 19th century the Chinese were mainly in Liverpool and London but the total numbers were very low. Census figures indicate a total of 387 persons in 1901, which grew to 1,319 by 1911. In 1931 there were still only 1,934, but this grew quite spectacularly to 38,750 in 1961 and 96,030 by 1971. Today there are believed to be over 400,000, not including BBCs.

Who we are

Most of us older BBCs are descended from Cantonese Chinese who came to the UK from Guangdong Province in south China and who were themselves descended from more northern Chinese who migrated south, notably during the Song Dynasty. They presumably eventually intermarried with the people already living there.

Nearly all accounts of the early Chinese who came to England state that they were all sailors, many of whom ‘jumped ship’ and married local British women. Whilst this is generally true, a significant number were not sailors such as my grandfather and father and many of their associates. A significant number did marry Chinese women. Both my parents were Chinese and many of my contemporaries had two Chinese parents. There seemed to have been two parallel communities - an Anglo-Chinese and a fully Chinese, but they did interact; I have cousins of mixed race. The fathers in both communities were Chinese who liked to socialise and speak Chinese with other Chinese men.

Chinese names

Our surname is important in Chinese culture but some BBC surnames may be difficult to establish because of the complication of dialect and how we or our forefathers (or possibly a customs officer or immigration official) decided how to write our Chinese surname in English. For example some of my cousins are surnamed Fong, because that is how their fathers decided how to write their Chinese name in English. My father wrote it Fung, which is why I am Walter Fung.

Compared to many western countries, there are relatively few Chinese surnames and in fact 70% of the entire mainstream Chinese population (about 850 million people) have just 45 surnames between them. Surnames in this article are expressed in English using pin yin Mandarin Romanisation. The Cantonese pronunciation is given in brackets. There may be several Cantonese pronunciations because there are numerous sub-dialects in Guangdong province.

Top of the Chinese surname league is Zhang (Chang, Cheong); , followed by Li (Lee) ; Chen (Chan) ; Wang (Wong) ; Huang (Wong) amongst others. Note that there are two surnames that can be written Wong in English, which accounts for the very large number of ‘Wongs’. The Huangs are commonly called the ‘big belly’ Wongs! If you look at the Chinese Character you will see why! The other Wong, Wang in pin yin, means ‘king’; huang means yellow. The distribution of surnames however is by no means geographically evenly spread throughout China. Chan is especially common in Guangdong Province, but Zhang, the most common name of all is not even in the top ten in Guangdong. Amongst the early Chinese arrivals in the UK, there seem to be much fewer ‘king’ Wongs compared to the ‘big belly’ Wongs.

Chinese history books can also tell us the particular part of China where the families originally come from, or reputed to have come from. The Fungs originated in Shaanxi Province, the Chans and Lis came from Henan Province and the Wangs came from Shandong Province.

The Chinese language is non-phonetic and the Chinese written character, which represents the meaning, provides no indication of how it sounds in spoken Chinese. In addition, the pronunciation is likely to be different in the various dialects such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Hokien (Fujian province) etc. However all Chinese people, irrespective of dialect, all use the same Chinese characters and the meaning is the same even though the spoken sound may be different. Thus the character conveys the meaning. The concept can be illustrated with numbers; for example the Arabic symbol for the number 5 is spoken as ‘five’ in English, ‘cinq’ in French, ‘’funf’ in German, ‘ ng’ in Cantonese and ‘wu’ in Mandarin.

However, if words can sound so different, names can sound different as well. Seeing the name character , a Cantonese man will say, ‘Hello Mr Ng’. A Mandarin speaker will hold out his hand and say, ‘Hello Mr Wu’. Mr Chan, in Cantonese is Mr Tan in Hokkien, Mr San in Hainanese (Hainan Island) and Mr Chen to Mandarin speakers. Miss Wu Man Mei, a Cantonese lady would be Miss Aw Boon Bea in next-door Fujian Province.

Even within the Cantonese dialect there are marked differences in speech. The See Yep (four counties) area and Toishan in particular, has its own sub-dialect of Cantonese which is believed to be the reason why the region has retained its own specific identity within Guangdong province.

To add to the confusion a particular sound can be written in English (using Roman letters) in different ways, for example the name Zhou may be written in English as Chou or even Chow. China, known as Zhong Guo in Mandarin pin yin, may be written as Chung Kuo, Jung Gok or even Jung Gwok. In the US, where the Chinese population has always been much larger than the UK and the earliest Chinese community about three generations older, there is an incredible variety of Romanised Chinese names!

The Chinese Government in 1958 introduced an official standard method of writing Mandarin Chinese in Roman letters called ‘pin yin’ using four voice tones ( steady, rising, falling and rising and falling). My Chinese name is Fung Hing Cheng (in Cantonese) but Feng Qing Xiang in Mandarin pin yin. Note that in Chinese, the surname is written before the given names. However sometimes the Chinese person will follow the western way and put his or her surname last. It can be very confusing!

A further complication in the identification of Chinese names written in Chinese is the introduction of simplified characters by the Chinese government in the 1950s. The number of strokes in the most used Chinese characters was reduced so they could be learnt faster and so help increase the literacy rate of the population faster. Thus Fung became (simplified) and Chan, became (simplified). Full characters are still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan and by many overseas Chinese. Different Chinese surnames can not only sound the same in English but can also be written the same in ‘pin yin’. Examples are the following six characters (all simplified), which are all pronounced Feng in pin yin (Fung). The fifth character is my surname.

封 丰 风 鄷 冯 凤

The first four even have the same pin yin first tone, and so the spoken sound is identical, even in Chinese. The last two are second and fourth tone pin yin respectively. It is the Chinese character representing a particular surname that is unique-it is the Chinese Character that tells you to which Chinese family you belong. Occasionally SACU receives enquiries from people of Chinese descent keen to trace their roots. This is generally only possible if they know the Chinese character for their forebear’s surname.

Chinese women, in accordance with Chinese tradition, do not change their surname on marriage. However some Chinese women in England and western countries do choose to take their husband’s surname, especially for official documents. Sometimes both surnames are used in the person’s full name and it may be difficult to establish which her maiden surname and which is the husband’s surname. Sometimes the women may use both, for example, Miss Wong Xiaomei might marry a Chen and refer to herself on an official document in England as Mrs Wong Xiaomei Chen.

This situation does not generally arise with BBCs or local born Chinese in other counties, because Chinese couples seem to name their children with first names that are common in the country in which they are living. So be prepared to meet Marcel Fung, Carlos Lopez Fung and Karl-Heinz Fung as well as Walter Fung. In actual fact, these other Fungs do exist: whilst in France, Spain and Germany I looked up Fungs in the local telephone directory. Of course many foreign born Chinese have a Chinese name in addition to their ‘local’ name. British born Chinese sometimes use both their Chinese name and English name depending on whom they are with. It is very confusing to third parties, especially English people who may be present.

Some Chinese with names, which are embarrassing in English such as Fook, may choose to take another Chinese surname as their English surname. In some case, Chinese parents have used the father’s first name as the surname of their children. Thus Mr Huang Ying for some reason chose to use Ying as the surname for his children. And finally if there are not enough complications and sources of confusion, I could also add that in old China, it was common for a man to have two or more names or change his name at different stages of his life, such as marriage or moving to another area or country. But this, the choice of names-perhaps to express parental expectation of their offspring, and the meaning of names are another long story! Suffice it to say that to know who you are, it is important to know what your Chinese surname is and more important how it is written in Chinese characters.

Where we came from

See Yep Association

A high proportion of the early Chinese pioneers in England, especially Liverpool and Cardiff emigrated from the four counties, (See Yep in Cantonese or sometimes written See or Sze Yup or Yip) of Toisan, Sunwei, Yanping, and Hoiping all in Guangdong province. In Mandarin these counties are Taishan, Xinhui, Enping and Kaiping and four counties is Siyi (四邑). They are situated about 40 miles or so south-west of Canton City (now called Guangzhou). The majority were from a single county, Toisan-which is about the size of the county of Cheshire. In fact, around the mid1800s to 1900 a high proportion of all the Chinese in the USA, South America, Australia and the UK were from the same four counties.

Some articles and textbooks record that all the early Chinese in the UK and USA came from a handful of village just south of Canton City. This is incorrect because they should be referring to counties. Most of the Chinese who operated laundries in the UK came from these four counties. There is a See Yep (Four Counties) Association office in Liverpool, which is just one of many all over the world.

The early Chinese population of London was more mixed than that of Liverpool. There were some four counties Chinese and some from other parts of Guangdong. There were also some from the Shanghai area and smaller numbers from Fujian province and even Guangxi province.

The present population of Toisan County is just under a million people but there are more than a million people of Toisan descent living in about 78 different countries all over the world. Toisan County has an area of 3,200 square kilometres, more than half of which is mountainous and hilly. It has a coastline to the South China Sea of 588 kilometres and the county also includes about 85 islands.

Four counties of Guangdong

This map (from MY Hsu, ‘Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home’, Stanford 2000) shows the location of the See Yep (Four counties) in south-west China. In China today, the four counties have been grouped together with Heshan county to the north to produce the Five counties region (Wuyi) with Jiangmen as the regional capital.

The population of Guangdong Province (100+ million) exceeds that of the UK and is divided up into about 80 counties, of which Toisan is just one. Within Toisan, there are maybe 22 cities or towns. One of these is Guang Hai, (Kwong Hoi in Cantonese on old documents) a coastal city of about 50,000 people. Within greater Guang Hai are about 30 separate villages, each with perhaps 100 to 500 people. Many of the early Chinese settlers in Liverpool were from villages centred around Guang Hai. The Liverpool Fungs came from three villages, Song Mun, Lum Hing and Shek Lan. They were originally single surname villages, i.e. the entire village population had the surname Fung, and were related to each other and could all trace descent from a single common ancestor. Single surname villages were quite common in old China and especially in Guangdong and Fujian Provinces where the tradition of loyalty to the clan and keeping family records is believed to have been strongest.

In old China, each person from the same generation of the same clan would have a common middle name, the generation rank name. This tradition is believed to be still practised in a few Chinese families. Generation names were sometimes decided in advance by a prominent person, who became the ‘founding father’ of the lineage. He might use the words of a poem, verse or motto as the individual words for the sequence order of names. The words would usually relate to high aspirations, always be optimistic and probably connected to Confucian virtues such as loyalty or integrity. If persons with the same surname but different generation names meeting for the first time, anywhere in the world, they would know their positions in the hierarchy and whether they uncles or nephews of each other. If they had the same generation name, they knew they were cousins. Family records were kept and maintained in the ancestral temple in the family village.

Where are we going?

The simple answer for most of us is that we are here to stay - or have stayed- as permanent residents, unlike many Chinese of earlier periods whose ultimate aim was to eventually return, hopefully rich, to their ancestral village in China.

Even some BBCs are well known for not assimilating into the society in which they live and at times this may lead to problems of divided loyalties and of identity. This subject is an area of much debate and discussion and this article only touches on the surface of a very wide subject. Researchers and archivists are keen to record ‘oral histories’ of our experiences and views on life in the host society of Britain.

Mention must also be made of the Anglo-Chinese who may or may not refer to themselves as BBCs. Many of the earliest settlers in Liverpool, Cardiff and London married English women. How ‘Chinese’ they became, or are, must depend on a number of factors. Their story and experiences will again be different. If the Chinese father was a sailor and spent much of his time away, the English mother must have played a more significant role in the person’s upbringing and outlook on life.

We are an ethnic minority in multicultural, multiracial Britain. How quickly we or our descendants are absorbed into British society depends on each one of us individually and how British society reacts and receives us. It is however the wish of most of us that we remember our Chinese roots and retain something of our Chinese Heritage. However this should not stop us from contributing to the success and wealth of Britain, identifying Britain as our home and regarding ourselves as British. Lee Quan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore who set up the island republic during the 1960s using traditional Chinese values, once said, ‘I am no more Chinese than President Kennedy is an Irishman’.

Further reading (a very short selection)

  1. Gregor Benton and Edmund Terence Gomez, ‘The Chinese in Britain, 1800 to the present’ Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  2. Maria Lin Wong, ‘Chinese Liverpudlians’, Liver Press, 1989.
  3. Yvonne Foley, Chinese seamen in World War 2, China Eye, Issue 13, Spring 2007.
  4. Also see website.
  5. Walter Fung, ‘The UK Chinese Community’, China Eye, Issue 18, Summer 2008.

Toisan Coomunity association
Toisan (Taishan) Community Association in Victoria, Canada (photo by M Fawcett)

See Yep plaque
A plaque in Melbourne’s Chinatown commemorating the early pioneers of Australia’s Chinese community who came from the See Yep (four counties) of Guangdong province, China.