The Chinese in Britain

This is a historical article from an early issue of China Now magazine. Jenny Clegg tells the story of Britain's Chinese community and their hosts' ambivalent reaction.

The history of the Chinese in Britain has yet to be written. What exists is only a handful of surveys, dissertations, census figures, and newspaper reports.

But put these together and the story begins to unfold - a story that is part of both Britain's and China's history, and one that only makes sense viewed in the context of the relations between the two countries.

It is a story in which there is cause for anger but also cause for pride. Forced to pay for defeat in colonial wars, impoverished Chinese people were driven abroad where they were often treated with suspicion, hostility and even violence. Cheap labour was often used as a pawn by the employers against demands for higher wages, and Chinese people became targets for frustrated British seamen. Yet frequently the community did organise itself to better its conditions. The record of British people is not all negative either - but for the most part it was only a minority who did speak out and join with Chinese people to fight these injustices.

Contrary to the sensationalism of the newspaper reports, commentators have stressed that apart from the few incidents of violence, relations between Chinese and British have on the whole been good. But also British people often see the Chinese as 'hardworking' and 'industrious'; little enough credit is given to the contribution of those labourers and seamen in Europe during the First and Second World Wars, nor to the contribution made towards Britain's post-war economic boom by catering workers who were also supporting the economies of many villages in the New Territories.

In recent years, the community has grown in more than number: the proliferation of organisations, advice centres and mother-tongue schools bears witness to the activism of many; others are beginning to take initiatives in promoting trade with China and the Far East. Still more are succeeding in enriching the culture of Britain's multiracial society with more than oriental food.

The community has achieved a certain unity and made a significant contribution towards British life. This has been gained in the face of discrimination and disadvantage, in a society which has yet to recognise its needs, let alone understand its own history.

Elgin in Beijing
In 1860, Lord Elgin is carried in state into Beijing after the defeat of China (in the 2nd Opium War).
He ordered the destruction of the Summer Palace.

1637 British warships bombard Humen port, Guangzhou; China is forcibly compelled to trade with Britain.
1750s to 1800s British aristocracy develop a passion for Chinoiserie, which affects not only furniture and ornaments; gentlemen enjoy dressing up in dragon and mandarin robes on festive occasions; ladies endeavour to procure Chinese boys as pages or pets.
1800 100 tons of opium shipped to China marking escalation of opium trade.
1814 Chinese seamen employed by the East India Company are housed in barracks in Shadwell, East London - a parliamentary enquiry finds conditions 'clean and airy' but expresses doubt as to whether there is sufficient space.
1837 2,000 tons of opium shipped to China despite restrictions of Qing (Manchu) government.
1839 Lin Zexu, the Emperor's special commissioner, orders the public burning of opium surrendered by foreign merchants.
1840 British merchants demand vengeance and 4,000 troops are sent to China. Chartist press condemns the immorality that China is '...destined to destruction by the horrors of civilised warfare for refusing to be poisoned by opium.'
1842 Ill-equipped Chinese army defeated by British troops at Ningpo. Unequal treaty of Nanjing cedes Hong Kong to Britain.
1851 Census finds 78 Chinese-born residents all living in London.
1857 Second Opium War results in unequal treaty of Tianjin which includes a clause allowing Britain and France to recruit Chinese to the British Colonies, North and South America and Australia as cheap labour following the cessation of the slave trade.
1865 First direct steamship service from Europe to China established in Liverpool by Alfred and Philip Holt's Blue Funnel Line, using cheap Chinese crews.
1873 The Ebbw Vale Company threatens to import cheap Chinese labour from Nevada to break a strike of their workers in Wales.
1877 Kuo Sung-tao, the first Chinese minister to Britain, opens the legation in London.
1880 Britain exports 448 billion yards of cotton to China marking an escalation in the cotton trade greater than trade to other Middle and Far Eastern countries.
1882 Wu Tin Fang is the first Chinese student to be admitted to the bar in London.
1885 Chinatowns grow up in London and Liverpool with grocery stores, eating houses, meeting places and, in the East End, Chinese street names.
1891 Census finds 582 Chinese-born residents in Britain.
1896 Sun Yatsen visits London but is held prisoner for 12 days by the Chinese Legation which attempts to extradite him to China where he would face certain death. His release is obtained by English friends.
1901 Census finds 387 Chinese-born residents in Britain: 80% are single males between 20 and 35, the majority of these being seamen.
The first Chinese laundry opens in Poplar. It is immediately stoned by a hostile crowd.
The TUC, concerned about the importation of Chinese labour into the South African gold mines, suggests that the mine-owners and the Conservative government are 'preventing South Africa becoming a white man's country'.
1907 First report on the Chinese in Britain produced by Liverpool City Council amidst concern over Chinese marrying English wives, gambling and opium taking. Liverpool's Chief Constable, however, expresses the view that the resident Chinese are 'quiet, inoffensive and industrious people'.
Mutual aid associations are set up in London and Liverpool. In contrast to the semi-mystical Chinese Masonic Lodge, these associations look after the interests of their members, arrange burials and assist in cases of exploitation.
1908 Crowds of angry British seamen, opposed to the cheap Chinese crews, prevent Chinese seamen from signing on ships; the Chinese have to return to their boarding houses under police escort to avoid molestation.
The first recorded opening of a Chinese restaurant in London.
1911 Census records 1,319 Chinese born residents in Britain and 4,595 seamen of Chinese origin serving in the British merchant navy.
Republic of China established with the overthrow of the Qing dynasty.
1916 Government abandons plans to introduce several hundred thousand Chinese labourers into Britain as trade union leaders protest that such a project would have 'calamitous effects on the standard of life'.
1917 1,083 Chinese leave Shandong on a British ship bound for Le Havre, as the first group of a total of nearly 100,000 recruited to unload munitions and supplies in France.
1919 Aliens Restriction Act extended to peacetime, bringing about a decline in the Chinese population in Britain.
The Zhong Shan Mutual Aid Workers Club is established, offering a meeting place free from ridicule and humiliation by the English. It aims to unite the overseas Chinese in Britain, to improve their working conditions and look after their welfare.
The Cheung clansmen found a limited liability company controlling a group of successful restaurants - the first step in a new trend.
1921 Census finds 2,419 Chinese-born residents in Britain, including 547 laundrymen, 455 seamen and 26 restaurant workers.
1925 The KMT sends a representative to London, who establishes a close relationship with. the Zhong Shan Workers Club.
Canton-Hong Kong strike involving over 250,000 following massacre of workers in Shanghai by British.
1927 Effects of the immigration regulations are felt in Liverpool's Chinatown as the local press reports that 'the whole Chinese quarter has a dying atmosphere'.
1931 Census finds 1,934 Chinese residents. Over 500 laundries in Britain; and two or three Chinese restaurants open in Soho catering for the British clientele of the West End theatre crowds.
1935 The first Chinese school - the Zhonghua Middle School - is established in Middlefields with thirty students.
1937 Japan attacks China. The China Campaign Committee is set up in Britain with the support of Chinese students, Chinese intellectuals such as Professor Wang, researching at the LSE, and by the Chinese communities in London, Liverpool and Manchester.
1938 Two attempts to load a cargo of iron for Japanese munitions are defeated by dockers in Teesside and London and Chinese seamen who refuse to sign on the Japanese ship, despite bribes.
China Week and China Sunday, supported by the Archbishop of York and other Church leaders as well as the Chinese communities in Britain, raise funds for the International Peace Hospital in Ya'nan.
1939 With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Chinese Merchant Seamen's Pool of approximately 20,000 is established with headquarters in Liverpool. They man the oil-tankers on the dangerous Atlantic run.
1940 Protest against the closure of the Burma Road by the British Government, with the China Campaign Committee and Chinese students, including especially K.C. Lim and Kenneth Lo, active in organising a petition of 1.5 million signatures.
London meeting of Chinese seamen launches a campaign, eventually successful, to win a wartime danger bonus for Chinese seamen equal to that granted to British seamen.
1945-1947 Large numbers of Chinese seamen are repatriated; the Blue Funnel Line sacks its Asian crews.
1949 The People's Republic of China is established.
1951 The Census records a big increase in Britain's Chinese population, now standing at 12,523, of whom over 4,000 are from Malaysia, and including 3,459 single males from Hong Kong. The influx of Chinese into Britain coincides with increased pressure in Hong Kong due to the build-up of refugees from the mainland.
Nearly 100 restaurants are now open, as former embassy staff and ex-seamen find a niche in this trade. Records show remittances to Hong Kong of HK$ 2.5 million.
1961 Census records Britain's Chinese population at 38,750, with a fivefold increase in Hong Kong-born residents in London.
The Association of Chinese Restaurateurs is formed to maintain the good reputation of the Chinese catering business and to organise recruitment from the New Territories.
1962 The Immigration Act introduces controls through a voucher system.
Approximately 30,000 workers from the New Territories are resident in Britain and records show remittances at HK$40 million.
1963 96 wives from Hong Kong join their husbands in Britain, indicating a new phase - from 'sojourning' to family reunion and a more settled life.
Soho's Chinatown finally takes over from the East End as the Zhongshan Workers' Club opens in the West End, showing films and running classes. The first Chinese New Year celebrations are held in Gerrard Street. The Overseas Chinese Service opens the first specialised agency to assist the Chinese in dealing with the host society by offering a translation and interpreting service.
1971 Census records Britain's Chinese population at 96,030, more than doubling in ten years.
By now, every small town and suburb has its own Chinese restaurant. Out of the 4,000 Chinese owned businesses, about 1,400 are restaurants, indicating that as the market for restaurant trade reaches saturation, the takeaway trade takes off.
1976 Britain's Chinese population now includes approximately 6,000 fulltime students and 2,000 nurses.
The Chinese Community Centre opens in Gerrard Street with Urban Aid funding to deal with the problems experienced by the Chinese community.
1980 David Yip makes a breakthrough with the popular TV series, 'The Chinese Detective'.
1981 Census records Britain's Chinese population as 154,363.
35 Chinese-language newspapers and 362 periodicals are on sale from seven bookshops in Soho. Sing Tao itself has a circulation of 10,000 in Britain.
The Chinese population now numbers the elderly, and 30,000 children in British schools. Of these, 75 percent were born in this country, representing a new phase of settlement.
1982 Merseyside Chinese Community Services opens the 'Pagoda of Hundred Harmony', an advice centre built with the help of an Urban Aid grant.
1983 Chinese Information and Advice Centre, an amalgamation of the Chinese Workers Group (1975) and the Chinese Action Group (1980) gets GLC funding for a centre.
1984 Sixty Chinese associations, including women's groups and old people's clubs, are affiliated to two national umbrella organisations.
Approximately 7,000 restaurants, takeaways and other Chinese owned businesses, indicating a slow-down in the rate of growth.
926 students attend the Chinese Chamber of Commerce Mother Tongue School, which runs classes up to O-level standard.
1985 British and PRC governments sign the Draft Agreement on the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report identifies five main problems faced by the Chinese in Britain. Recommendations include more language training, careers advice, community centres, and interpretation and advice services.
Over 50 percent of the Chinese population is under 30; 50 percent live outside the large metropolitan areas; 2 percent are professionals, including doctors, solicitors, architects, bankers, stockbrokers, business executives, teachers and university lecturers.
1987 Manchester's Chinatown Archway , the largest in Europe, is completed, marking co-operation between the government of the PRC, Manchester City Council and the local Chinese community.
'Ping Pong', the first Chinese film from the Chinese community in Britain, opens in London.