On January 21, 2017, Mei Mac, a British-born actress of Chinese descent, boarded the underground close to London’s Trafalgar Square, where she and nearly 100,000 protesters had gathered in opposition to Donald Trump’s presidency. “I’d just come back from the Woman’s March — it was brilliant to see so many people come together — when a man walked onto the tube and sat diagonally opposite us,” she said. “‘What’s all this about?’ he asked. We told him we’d been marching in solidarity with the women in DC.”
Mei was with her friend at the time, another woman. The two held placards, Mei’s reading “Half the population, 18 percent pay gap” and her friend’s reading “Pussy grabs back,” a reference to much-maligned comments made by Trump. The man, whom she described as a “really huge older guy, in his late 30s, big and muscly with a strong Essex accent,” zeroed in on them. “So it’s just for women then?” she recalls him saying. She replied: “Women mainly, but not just women. We’re also in support of the LGBTQ and disabled communities, different racial groups.”
Mei says the man’s demeanor changed at the mention of race. “‘What’s race got to do with it?’ He became increasingly violent and aggressive, he wasn’t listening to any of it, he was very stubborn. ‘No, no, no!’ he shouted. ‘I think Trump and Farage have got the right idea. We should look after our own! We should look after our own people!’”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Things quickly turned personal and Mei was forced to defend herself. “I raised my voice to match his. I didn’t want him to know that I was afraid of him. ‘You’re not British, look at you!’ he shouted. ‘What exactly do you mean, I’m not British? I was born and raised in Britain just like you were! How dare you say I’m not British just because of the way I look!’”
The incident left Mei in tears, furious and uncontrollably shaking. “I was genuinely concerned. This man could have stood up and walloped me.” She reported the incident to the police, but to no avail. “I didn’t film it and there’re no cameras on the Piccadilly line, so I had no proof and the PC couldn’t find him based on my description.”
Mei’s experience should come as no surprise. Chinese men and women suffer some of the worst levels of racial harassment in the United Kingdom. While research into the extent of the problem is thin on the ground, a 2009-10 study commissioned by the Monitoring Group — the anti-racist body set up after the racist murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence — found that Britain’s Chinese population is “particularly prone” to racial harassment and violence. An Essex University study from the same year shows how Chinese men suffered higher levels of racial attacks (physical or verbal) than any other group in society, a startling statistic and something that is very rarely reported on by the British press.
What may come as a surprise, though, is the fact that Mei chose to speak up at all.
Same Old, Same Old
“Our assumption that the Chinese like being told what to do,” writes Ben Chu in Chinese Whispers, “is centuries old.” In the book, Chu charts how 16th century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci portrayed the Chinese populace as “different from the peoples of Europe” because they are “content with what they have” — unlike Europeans, who are “frequently discontent with their own governments.” From Montesquieu in the 18th century, who wrote of the “servile” Chinese “spirit,” to the leading sinologist Lucian Pye in the 20th, who argued that Confucian values prevent the Chinese from “expressing aggression against the natural targets of authority,” Chu gives example after example of how Chinese people have been stereotyped as docile, hard-working, reverent to authority, and accepting of what the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel termed “the bitter bread of slavery.”
The same stereotypes apply to how Britain’s Chinese community is popularly represented, but Mei says the attitudes are dated. “I am a British-born Chinese person. My experience is vastly different to the experience of my mother, who came to the country 30 or 40 years ago,” she explained. “We’re considered an entrepreneurial community, but the people who came here had no choice. It’s a quality all immigrants have in order to survive. The battle for them was to survive. Their priorities were different.”
Some context here is helpful, as attitudes toward Britain’s Chinese community have evolved over time. Chinese sailors first established themselves in maritime cities such as London and Liverpool in the 18th century, where they set up small businesses. The first Chinatown developed in London’s Limehouse at the beginning of the 19th century. Sascha Auerbach, a historian of the British Empire at the University of Nottingham who has researched Chinese immigration to Britain, says the community was “very small” but “relatively integrated.” It was not until later in the century, he says, that a genuine sense of racial antipathy developed.
“At the time, Australia was a number of different federations that were developing an idea that was white and by extension anti-Asian,” said Auerbach, and from there racial stereotypes “driven by the hostility of white working-class immigrants” were exported to Britain. This became especially pronounced in Britain around the turn of the 20th century when a particularly virulent strain of anti-Chinese racism took hold. At the time a very small number of Chinese people, an estimated 1,000, permanently resided in Britain. Yet anti-Chinese hysteria nonetheless reached a crescendo — driven, in large part, by the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and the Conservative government’s decision to “import” 64,000 indentured laborers from China to South Africa. With Britain’s Liberal opposition vehemently contesting the policy on racial grounds, the scene was set for the 1906 general election when a Liberal-Labor coalition beat the Conservatives by a landslide campaigning under the slogan: “Don’t vote for the Conservatives and Chinese slavery!” The message would become an increasingly familiar one: The white working laborer had been sold out and the same could happen right here at home.
If the Second Boer War provided the catalyst, then Chinese racial stereotypes really took hold during World War I, and by the time Mei’s parents arrived in Britain in the late 1970s certain ideas about Chinese people had thoroughly seeped into the culture. It was during World War I that the threat of the Chinese “invasion” had begun to appear in popular fiction. The most famous of these was Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu Stories, which delivered the first “supervillain” into British culture as it became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. “An image of the gap-toothed, Chinese drug dealer, lusting after white women… you now have this epitome of evil, literally trying to overthrow the British Empire, based in Limehouse Chinatown,” said Auerbach. “Chinese villainy now had a face.”
Around this time, new anti-narcotic laws were passed, providing authorities with extra-judicial powers, which they used to target Chinese communities they associated with opium smoking. This included a series of raids in 1916-17, which saw hundreds of Chinese people arrested and forcibly deported from Britain, something that would be repeated in Liverpool just after World War II.
“It’s Rip Off Britain”
Peter Foo was born and grew up in Liverpool and spent most of his life believing that his father had either drowned at sea or run away when he was just 2 years old, leaving the family to fend for themselves. “My mother died in 1976,” he said in a phone interview. “She was sent to her grave still thinking my father had abandoned her.”
Peter did not discover the truth about his father until the early 2000s when the British government published a set of declassified files around the incident. His father, Foo Hong Swang, was one of 2,000 Chinese sailors who were secretly arrested and deported in 1946 following police raids on Liverpool docks. One day, Peter’s father left his family for work, as he usually did — only that night, he didn’t return, and within a matter of hours he was on a ship to China. No word was given to the family. In just a moment, he had disappeared from their lives.
Unsurprisingly, the bombshell had a profound impact on Peter and in 2015 he set up a petition demanding the British government apologize to the families of the victims. “The Chinese have never been accepted. Institutional racism has gone on since they [the British] invaded China,” he said. “We’ve been too quiet and done nothing about it and because we’re quiet, people tend to think we’re stupid.”
“The police are the same: they talk down to the Chinese. It’s disgraceful what goes on. I’m talking even judges. I’m at an age now where I just don’t care.”
For Peter, responsibility does not just lie with the state, however; racism, he says, cuts across British society. “If you look at my petition, I know at least a quarter of a million people have looked at it but hardly any have signed it. That’s racism.”
He says he experiences a racist incident “at least” twice a year. Just recently, he said he walked into a pub in Liverpool city center. “There were three lads, all young in their 30s, and one of them turned round and shouted: ‘I didn’t know they allowed chinks in this pub!’”
Peter also recalls how he and a couple of his friends went for drinks on Liverpool’s Albert Docks. “There was an open bar selling beer and shots and there were four blokes drinking,” he said. “One of them started giving me abuse. His other mate got involved so I told them to F off, and that’s just recent.”
“It’s not just the Chinese, it’s Indians and Pakistanis also, people from all different racial groups. It’s rip off Britain.”
More than a generation separates Peter and Mei, but both were born in Britain and both are outspoken about the political and social issues they, and others, face — and they’re not the only ones.
On July 24, 2018, London Chinatown went on strike, witnessing a complete shutdown of all businesses in protest against the “discriminatory conduct of immigration and police officers.” The strike was organized in protest against an immigration raid a few weeks earlier on July 5, which had left an elderly disabled woman hospitalized. “The fact the entire Chinatown shut business at such a crucial time in the day on a Thursday was absolutely huge,” said Mei. “It shows just how much this community cares about making its voice heard.”
Mei was at the Chinatown strike herself and believes that it should mark the beginning of the end for the old ideas surrounding British Chinese. “Hong Kongers protest in huge ways and the London Chinese community are also willing to disprove it.”
One of those at the forefront of the struggle is Joseph Wu, a community leader and spokesperson for the London Chinatown Chinese Association. In a conversation over WeChat, he described the events of July 5 as “one of the most serious confrontations between the Chinese community and the [British] authorities” in history. “When the Chinese community protests,” he said, the problem is “deep-rooted” as the community “always believes in talks.” He says the protests have been driven out of desperation. Changes to immigration policy over the past decade as part of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” have resulted in businesses being unable to employ staff, especially chefs, and as a consequence many have been forced into closure — and with them, the livelihoods of the people who own them.
“Many in the community recognize the importance of finding our voice through politics but are frustrated by the lack of access and support in the British political system for the Chinese community,” said Wu. “The community is worried that they have now become an easy target.”
Confucian or Just Plain Sense?
For Diana Yeh, a lecturer at City, University of London who has written on British Chinese and East Asian identities, the London Chinatown strike is not without precedent. “There’s this idea that the Chinese won’t go out to protest. They’re constructed as a minority who won’t speak out, who can be walked over without a fight, so it’s easy for officials to disregard their concerns,” she said. “The lack of protests is often put down to culture, ‘they keep themselves to themselves,’ it’s a cultural issue related to Confucianism, when in actual fact it’s due to a migration history shaped by colonialism.”
Historically many Chinese immigrants set up businesses in the catering industry, which caused the group to have one of the highest geographic dispersals of any ethnic group in Britain. This has made it difficult for communities to come together. Individual families find themselves “extremely isolated and vulnerable,” said Yeh, as in small towns and elsewhere they’re often the only ethnic Chinese community. “But there have been protests,” she insists, pointing to London Chinatown demonstrating after the Dover incident of 2000, when 58 Chinese asylum seekers were found dead in the back of a lorry as they tried to enter Britain.
Yeh is keen to point out just how active London Chinatown has been in recent years, noting that the community also protested the “foot and mouth” controversy of 2001 after British tabloids wrongly accused Chinese-owned restaurants of spreading the disease, often through thinly veiled racial epithets. A few years later, in 2004, the community organized protests around the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy, when at least 21 undocumented Chinese laborers were drowned by an incoming tide. More recently in 2013, London Chinatown protested immigration raids on the community, not to mention the protests from last month.”Social media is bringing people together, and Chinatown is different because it’s a community hub,” Yeh said. “Whenever there’s a protest from the Chinese it’s underreported.”
So why have these protests been ignored and what, indeed, are the consequences of such ignorance? “In part it’s to do with legacies of Empire,” said Yeh, as racism in Britain was built around Commonwealth immigrants. “China was never fully colonized, so it never had the same colonial relationship [to Britain] as some other groups. Because of this the Chinese have occupied a more ambivalent place and immigration policies have tended to focus on immigrants from elsewhere.” She points out that Enoch Powell, in his famous Rivers of Blood speech, never mentioned the Chinese.
“But that’s not to downplay the everyday racism Chinese people have experienced,” she added. Yeh points to how the British implemented immigration policies in the run up to Hong Kong’s 1997 transfer back to China, which saw wealthier residents “selected on the basis of their ability to contribute to capitalist making.” Ultimately though, this ignorance is “problematic,” according to Yeh, “because constructing the Chinese as a model minority enables other minorities to be constructed as less deserving. It becomes a cultural rather than a structural problem.”
For her, the recent London Chinatown protests “need to be situated within what’s going on more broadly, especially after the Windrush fiasco. All these different racisms work together. They’re interdependent.”
Daniel Alan Bey has worked as a journalist for over five years. Follow him on Twitter: @dbey85