'He had thought that the Lascars were a tribe or nation, like the Cherokee or Sioux:
He discovered now that they came from places that were far apart, and had nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean; among them were Chinese and East Africans, Arabs and Malays, Bengalis and Goans, Tamils and Arakanese.'
-Excerpt from 'Sea of Poppies' (2008) by Amitav Ghosh
For generations, the sea has provided the livelihood of my family: since time immemorial my ancestors had intermarried with the Tanka people, the ‘boat people’ or ‘sea gypsies’ who have traditionally lived on junks and fished along the southern China. In my grandfather’s time, they had been for three generations marine surveyors and witnessed first-hand how Hong Kong turned into one of the busiest trading ports of the world. My uncle who later joined the navy would become the first of my family to settle in Britain.
And it was the connection to the sea that brought the first Chinese to Britain - who were seamen serving onboard European ships. Since I have always have an interest in knowing more about my predecessors - the first Chinese migrants in Britain, I took a walk around the site of London’s first Chinatown.
It was the East India Company (EIC) that brought the first Chinese to Britain. In the early days the lascars - Asian seamen who served on European ships - were promised bounty money and maintenance in British ports while they waited for a return passage back to Asia.
In practice, however, the sailors were promptly abandoned once the ships reached London and many stranded Chinese would take up jobs unloading tea at the docks. Although the Merchant Shipping Act of 1823 made the Company legally responsible for their upkeep whilst in England, this was often ignored and it was up to charities such as the Church Missionary Society which had created hostels to provide for destitute Asian seamen.
The appalling living conditions forced the Chinese sailors to seek lodgings elsewhere around the docks – and it was them who founded the first Chinatown in London – at a little remembered area called Limehouse at the East End.
In the early years, these Chinese seamen were predominantly Cantonese: China’s ‘Canton System’ (一口通商) (1757-1842) had meant that foreigners were only permitted to trade in the port of Canton (today’s city of Guangzhou) and thus seamen were mostly local southern recruits. The first Chinese to be naturalised as a British citizen was likely to be a Cantonese seamen that worked for the East Indian Company. He was only known by his Christian name ‘John Anthony’.
After the two Opium Wars, Hong Kong became a British colony and local Cantonese continued to be recruited onto British ships. As Britain forced China to open new treaty ports for trade, the Shanghainese became the latest addition to the Chinese diaspora in London by the mid 19th century.
An 1881 census showed the Chinese community in London numbered about 100 in total – with at least half of them being seamen. Some of them had married English wives, which was still seen as generally positive and acceptable by the Edwardian society then, but this was about to change.
A lack of understanding of a distinctively different Asian culture, coupled with the reclusiveness of the Chinese community would soon earn Limehouse the unfair reputation of an Oriental hub of criminality and vice. Writers and novelists in this period shamelessly exploited the cliché image of a mysterious Oriental slum, and opium dens became a regular feature in numerous literature to illustrate extreme decadence.
Both Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray, 1890) and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, 1891) would visit an opium den in their novels; even Charles Dickens had used an opium den in Limehouse as the opening scene of his ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ (1870). Few ever questioned why Britain fought two wars to ensure the opium trade to continue in China, or how it got millions of Chinese hooked on the substance.
'Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, [...] Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.'
—Excerpt from 'The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu' (1913) by Thomas Burke
Although China entered WWI on Britain’s side, anti-Chinese sentiment in Britain had failed to subside. Rumours circulated that whilst courageous Englishmen had gone to fight for King and Country, the Chinese were busy taking their jobs and seducing their women. An article in The Star, a London evening newspaper summed up the prejudice at the time: ‘As Englishmen joined the Army, Chinese came in to replace them in many instances in the factories […] then he and his compatriots overflowed from his original quarter, forming alliances in some cases with white women.’ State legislations made during the war, such as the Alien Act of 1914 & 1919 continued to work against foreigners in Britain who were often seen as ‘the enemy within’.
With the Japanese staunchly opposed to Chinese fighting in the war, almost 100,000 Chinese were shipped from Shandong province in China to form the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) under the British. The Chinese became the largest non-European labour contingent on the Western Front as they built trenches, repaired tanks, assembled shells and retrieved dead bodies on the frontlines.
As war looms over Britain again in the 1930s, further production of the Fu Manchu movie series was suspended as Britain finds itself allied with China again. Even the formerly sex-crazed character, Mr. Wu, in the comedian George Formby’s huge hit ‘Chinese Laundry Blues’ (1932) got an upgrade during the Blitz: he was to become an air raid warden his new song. When a BBC staff came to the Chinese embassy to ask if the new song was offensive, a senior diplomat gave him a rather cold reply, ‘No [it is not offensive]. But it’s not very funny, is it?’
British sailors were called upon to man naval ships in WW2, whilst Chinese seamen - as they had done since the time of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) - were recruited to staff British ships and to fill the vacancies. Almost 20,000 Chinese sailors in Liverpool signed up to staff the oil tankers on the dangerous North Atlantic supply route in 1939. Many would go on strike to seek for equal pay as local seamen in 1942 – but instead they were expelled and offered a one way ticket back to China.
Forced repatriation continued until the late 1940s as the British government worked with shipping companies and expelled the rest of the Chinese seamen. Since almost 300 of them had married locally and had British families, that had made their repatriation entirely illegal. Many of the mixed children would never see their father again, who now found themselves trapped in a war-torn China that was about to enter into yet another bloody civil war.
But Limehouse Chinatown had already entered into decline during the interwar years. Dwindling maritime trade, with shipping docks moving further away to the shores and away from Limehouse all contributed to the decline. Limehouse was heavily bombed during the Blitz, and many more moved away.
The demography of modern Britain’s Chinese diaspora has continued to rapidly evolve today. From seamen, to laundry work and later catering - Chinese migrants have increasingly diversified their roles and today it has become much easier to see Chinese people in all walks of life. Perhaps the most remarkable change is of their region of origin back in China.
When I was younger, most of the Chinese I came across would have been Hakka or Cantonese-speaking people from Britain’s last colony - like myself. With Hong Kong being returned to China in 1997, and as China relaxed its restriction on emigration since the 80s, many I met today are mostly Mandarin-speaking Chinese from the mainland of China. There is a strange sense of nostalgia for many of us who were used to meeting fellow Chinese who shared the same language and came from the same region.
But for a people who believes in the constant cycle and renewal - just like the philosophy behind the yin-yang - perhaps this change is meant to be so: When Ng Kwee Choo the scholar and author interviewed several Chinese for his book ‘The Chinese in London’ (1968) In the early 60s, he noted that a few of them would look back at the once small and close-knit community in Limehouse with nostalgia and resented the new generations of post-war Chinese immigrants who were then mostly from Hong Kong. Today, some Chinese migrant from Hong Kong share a similar view about their new counterparts from Mainland China.
But how did a maritime trading company ended up ruling a country, seizing Hong Kong with its own warships, and by 1857 even committing a genocide in India? I had come to London to look at the story and the places related to the EIC – one of the world's first joint-stock companies, and the most powerful corporation the world has ever seen.
Continue to my next article (yet to publish):
'The Honourable Company: The World's Most Powerful Corporation.'
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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