LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Chinese Londoners -
Dr Stephen Lui-Nam Ng MBE
Date of photography: 11th March 2018
Of the half million Chinese thought to live in the UK, roughly a third live in London, with Soho’s Chinatown as the unquestioned hub of this hard-working community. Though a relatively late arrival to London himself, Dr Stephen Lui-Nam Ng, MBE has been involved with the Chinese community here for many years. He comments: “Chinese people will avoid contact with officialdom at almost any cost. Many of the earliest arrivals here were semi-literate and poor. Mainly, they worked in restaurant kitchens or as waiters, striving to save enough to open their own small businesses. They trusted one another and kept things to themselves; unless there was major trouble, they wouldn’t go to the Police. They sorted things out amongst themselves, without resorting to the law. They preferred not to be heard, which is why they don’t get Police support when they do need it. They are very self-contained people. It is only fourth-generation UK Chinese who can be seen as truly integrated.” Steven sees himself as a citizen of the world, with an instinctive aversion to borders, and he feels that the Brexit vote was mostly provincial, aimed at preserving an England as once it was, even though the England of Empire no longer exists. It hasn’t existed for a very long time.
On 18th February 2018, the Chinese New Year saw central London ablaze with colour, welcoming in the ‘Year of the Dog’. In Trafalgar Square and in the streets stretching up to Soho’s Chinatown, innumerable dancers, dragons and musicians created a kaleidoscope of colour and sound before an audience of thousands of Londoners, making this the biggest Chinese New Year celebration outside Asia.
It was my pleasure to experience a somewhat smaller but equally delightful celebration as a guest of the Islington Chinese Association at their Centre in north London. On the basis of such exuberant displays, an outside observer might gain the impression that the London Chinese are an extrovert community with a high profile, but nothing could be further from the truth. For the rest of the year, little is heard from or about this significant ethnic minority in London: they work hard, they go about their business and, while they are visible, certainly in Chinatown, they maintain a low profile and are rarely the subject of news or controversy. They are hardly ever seen on political platforms or indeed in the media at all, not because society excludes them, but simply because most of them prefer to shun the limelight.
BME statistics are notoriously unreliable but it is estimated that just under half a million people of Chinese origin live in the UK, with roughly a third of these living in Greater London. Soho’s Chinatown is unquestionably the hub of this vibrant and hard-working community but Chinese people have also clustered in other parts of London, notably in Islington, Camden, Lambeth, Haringey and Tower Hamlets. In recent years, London has seen the arrival of many more Chinese tourists, mostly from the Chinese mainland, many of whom come from the prosperous new middle classes; they are prolific shoppers and undoubtedly boost sales in the fashionable shopping streets of London’s West End.
While the majority of early Chinese immigrants may have been semi-literate and poor, London is now also home to a super-wealthy elite, Chinese who are enthusiastic and significant investors in British companies, in real estate and, indeed, on a massive scale in public infrastructure. Such people tend to live and move in what we might think of as the ‘super-wealthy stratosphere’ and, like the mega-rich of others nations, they don’t have much to do with the traditional, settled Chinese community. They may own large parts of London, but they have no particular desire to integrate or be part of the local Chinese community.
Considering that, at its peak, the British Empire encircled the globe, an enterprise mostly built on and driven by trade, it is not surprising that it had early and important contacts with the Empire of China. While records suggest that the first Chinese national to visit Britain was the Jesuit priest, Michael Alphonsius Shen Fu-trung, who arrived in 1685, with the intention of cataloguing the Bodleian Library’s collection of Chinese books, it was the East India Company that was paramount in developing the all-important commercial links between Britain and China. The Chinese may have found little to buy from Britain but once British people became enthusiastic imbibers of Chinese tea, that trade grew explosively and from the latter part of the 18th century, many other Chinese products, especially porcelain, became fashionable and highly sought after - ‘chinoiserie’ was all the rage. Of course, the East India Company became embroiled in the notorious importation of drugs into China, especially opium, as one means of raising the money to buy tea. This despicable trade ultimately led to what became known as the ‘Opium Wars’, the first of which (1839-42) led the defeat of China and the permanent cession of Hong Kong to the UK, one of the many ‘outposts of Empire’.
With the African slave trade abolished earlier in the century, Britain took advantage of China’s impoverished people, recruiting them in vast numbers and shipping them to other parts of the Empire, to colonies in North and South America, Africa and Australia. The term, ‘coolie’ (derived from a Hindu word for ‘day labourer’) was used to describe these people who were basically cheap labour, slaves in all but name, and who were frequently treated badly by both their masters and by their fellow workers - their willingness to work for subsistence wages was often used as a mechanism for suppressing the demands for better pay and conditions voiced by the indigenous workforce.
Many Chinese were employed as seamen on the East India Company’s ships, principally because they were cheap, hardworking, docile and because, in comparison with European seamen, they ate less and drank less too. Unsurprisingly, greed and a prodigious appetite for profit trampled over human lives then, just as they continue to do now. Most of the Chinese seamen crewed boats sailing between China and India, but some, especially those who served on board the sleek, fast tea clippers, also landed in British ports, including the bustling Pool of London, in those days still the capital’s principal port.
Not surprisingly, there were always seamen who had sustained injuries or who were too ill to get a berth on an immediately returning vessel; they were left behind and some appear to have settled and worked as labourers in London’s extensive docklands. Over the years, in an area around the riverside at Limehouse and Shadwell, a small Chinese community coalesced, known locally as the ‘Oriental Quarters’. The Census of 1851 recorded 78 Chinese in residence there, but forty years later, the Census of 1891 revealed that there were already two distinct communities living in the Tower Hamlets area; these were the Chinese from Canton and Southern China, and the Chinese from Shanghai.
Of course, some young men married local girls and the community continued to expand gradually, later becoming London’s original ‘China Town’. While the majority of Chinese immigrants were very hard working, there were, of course, some who gambled and some who smoked opium, and these pastimes encouraged the sensationalist writers of the day, the authors of the ‘penny dreadfuls’, to characterise China Town as a ‘den of iniquity’, where vice was rife, where criminality was the order of the day, and where opium dens could draw in and destroy the lives of hapless innocents. Dockland’s Chinese residents thereby became the subject of much prejudice, even hostility. Records indicate that just after the Great War, this Chinese community numbered only around 300 people. By this time, jobs in London’s docks had begun to decline and the Chinese were forced to seek alternative means of survival. Many opened their own laundry businesses, work that required little English, and at the time of the 1931 Census, there were more then 500 Chinese laundries operating in Britain. Even though it might have been said that the Chinese immigrants discreetly washed Britain’s dirty linen, some sections of English society maintained an ingrained opposition to Asian migration, referring to the Chinese as the ‘yellow peril’ and exposing them to repeated xenophobic attacks.
During World War I, thousands of Chinese men were conscripted into the British Army as unarmed labourers; to and from the frontline, they carried munitions, food, the injured and the dead. Many died in service themselves but of those who survived, some chose to settle in London after the war, but most perhaps made their homes around Liverpool. When WWII erupted, the Chinese were called up once more, with over 20,000 Chinese recruited to the British Merchant Navy where they played a significant part in the war effort. After that war drew to a close, many continued to work in the docks and as sailors. However, in Liverpool, in 1946, they started to demand equality with local sailors and dockers; this resulted in strike action for which they were labelled as troublemakers and undesirables. As a consequence, hundreds of men were rounded up by the police and forcefully repatriated to Hong Kong and to other parts of China, even though, by then, many of these men were married with families. Overnight, such families were torn apart, with wives and children abandoned by their breadwinners - many hundreds of children never saw their fathers again. This was, in effect, ethnic cleansing on our very own shores and these deportations, unknown to many amongst the indigenous population, still hang as a dark and troubling cloud over the heads of all Chinese immigrants living in the UK today. It is a constant reminder that the climate in any host country can change overnight and immigrants can be expelled from their adopted country en masse, though they may have lived there for several generations.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Britain faced a labour shortage; this coincided conveniently with the collapse of traditional agriculture around Hong Kong. These factors led to a large wave of Chinese immigration into London, mainly to work in the burgeoning catering industry. By then, after the years of post-war austerity, every high street in the country seemed to have acquired a chinese restaurant and the demand for staff to run them was immense. The British Merchant Navy had continued to employ a great many Chinese seamen and some of these settled in London too. This was also the time when Hong Kong Chinese businessmen began to purchase inexpensive property in what was then louche, down-at-heel Soho, in the area around Gerrard Street, turning it into a bustling centre of Chinese services, trades and catering, now generally known as the capital’s ‘Chinatown’. Every year, this part of London attracts thousands of visitors, especially to its numerous restaurants, but it still remains a place where Chinese families will congregate, celebrate their special events, do their shopping and indulge in various forms of gambling and merrymaking.
In order to tell the story of Chinese Londoners, I tried to find a volunteer family who would agree to take part, but this task proved to be very hard indeed; put simply, no one was willing. I experienced at first hand what is the deeply ingrained reluctance of the Chinese community to stand out, to speak out, or to be seen in any public exhibition. I was therefore delighted when Dr Stephen Lui-Nam Ng, MBE kindly agreed to welcome me into his north London home and to become part of the project. A mild-mannered, youthful-looking man in his mid-sixties, Stephen Ng has retained a pronounced accent but speaks without haste and with great care, because words matter to him. While he has a gentle demeanour, he is clearly capable of showing some steel, if need be. He describes himself as a socialist, an activist, a writer and a poet, but he is most obviously someone who radiates pragmatism and wisdom. Stephen has been involved with London’s Chinese community for a great many years; he is also someone who has a unique and broad insight into the lives of Chinese Londoners. Coming across Stephen was therefore an immense good fortune.
It was one mild Sunday afternoon in early Spring when I arrived to a warm welcome at Stephen’s home. Once the pleasantries were over, I asked Stephen to tell me a little about himself. “Milan, I was born in Hong Kong, into a very ordinary, working-class family. Following the creation of the People's Republic of China, in 1949, my parents fled from their home in mainland China to join the first bunch of refugees arriving in Hong Kong. They settled in the colony’s hilly outskirts, in a place called Shek Kip Mei in New Kowloon. In those days, that part of Hong Kong was very underdeveloped and was mostly populated by people newly arrived in the colony and struggling to survive. With the great influx of mainland Chinese, Shek Kip Mei quickly became a congested shanty town, with makeshift homes that were mostly wooden huts or tin sheds. The year after I was born, on Christmas Day 1953, a terrible fire destroyed the entire conurbation, rendering 53,000 people homeless at a stroke, including my own family. The then Governor of Hong Kong, Alexander Grantham, swiftly launched a major public housing project, creating a new housing estate comprising standardised, low-cost, fire and waterproof apartments; although the units were small (11.14 square metres) each apartment was designed to house a family of eight or more people.” e
Stephen was the oldest, out of six surviving siblings. His father was a door-to-door salesman, selling pepper and other spices, while his mother was primarily a housewife, rearing her six children as well as working as a cleaner on the estate where they lived. She died early, at the age of 40, and his father never remarried. Though it was undoubtedly a hard life, Stephen describes his childhood as a happy one.
“Milan, I went to a roof-top primary school locally, run by a charitable organisation, and did sort of OK. From there, I progressed to St Francis Xavier, a Catholic secondary school with a reputation for above-average standards. I was taught both in Chinese and in English. Remember, at that time, Hong Kong was a British colony and Chinese was not officially recognised, so gaining a mastery of English was the only way to progress successfully through the education system. It was also an essential requirement for anyone wishing to apply for a government job. I did well in all the Chinese subjects - language, literature, arts and history - but less well in other areas of the curriculum.”
As a teenager and young man, Stephen was not really political, as such, though by that age, he well understood how inequality affects people and permeates the whole of society. After all, he himself had emerged from the lowest socio-economic stratum and could see only too clearly how limited his prospects would be should he fail to get into university. Higher education offered the only reliable route for the poor towards self-improvement, the only ladder for social climbing and ‘going up in the world’.
“I was the only one in my family who managed to get to university. I studied at the prestigious Hong Kong University and was awarded a BA in Chinese Language and Literature, which I followed with a Certificate in Arts Administration. In common with many other students, I also became much more politically enlightened during my university days. While I was already only too aware of the consequences of poverty, I started to perceive, with increasing clarity, that inequality does not happen by accident; it is deliberately engendered. I began to take part in campaigns for the protection of human rights, for the rights of the underprivileged, and also for the acceptance of Chinese as an official language in Hong Kong. During my time as a student, I was also part of an anti-establishment movement that opposed colonialism. Ironically, only a few years after graduation, I held a succession of what were, broadly speaking, Civil Service posts, thus becoming myself a cog in the machinery of the colonial government - I worked as a youth worker, as a script writer and translator for television, as a housing officer, and as an Assistant Manager in the Hong Kong Department for Culture.”
“During the years when I was working for these various bodies, I lived mostly on the fringes of Hong Kong society, largely by choice: because of its capitalist obsession with wealth, its elevation of materialistic values above anything else, the relentless tempo of life, and that mad rush to make it, to get on and above everyone else, Hong Kong became almost suffocating to me; this fuelled my dreams of getting out, and leaving it all behind. After 10 years of working ‘in the system’, I felt I needed a new start. It was 1988 and I was 36.”
Stephen succeeded in getting unpaid leave from his employers in order to study for an MA in Arts Criticism at London’s City University. His arrival to London coincided with the protests organised by the ’89 Democracy Movement’ in mainland China, protests that culminated in what became known in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Stephen was proud to be one of the first activists to demonstrate in front of the Chinese Embassy in London, where he was joined by thousands of others in a mass protest that was to last for a hundred days.
Upon completing his studies, Stephen went back to his old post in Hong Kong but having now tasted the freedom that London could offer, he was hooked. A few months later, he was back in Britain, initially as a principal worker at the Birmingham Chinese Community Centre (CCC-B) and then, after a year in the Midlands, returning to London, to take up a part-time post at the Islington Chinese Association (ICA) where he worked mostly with elderly, first-generation Chinese immigrants. He also worked as a journalist for the UK’s largest Chinese language newspaper, the Sing Tao Daily. Journalism gave Stephen the opportunity to interview officials at the Chinese Embassy, in front of which he had himself protested only a few years earlier. He also took the opportunity to travel extensively both within the UK and overseas, meeting many influential people, leaders of various Chinese communities, members of the establishment, and government officials. “Milan, all of that experience helped me enormously to build a complete picture, to gain an overview of Chinese communities in Britain, and to understand some of the complexities of Chinese life in the UK. It helped me to understand the ways in which immigrants did, and did not, settle into their host society, and what were the principal obstacles in their way. That experience has served me well; it is useful even now. I served for four years as Chairman of the ICA; after that, I was a community worker; and presently, I serve as Honorary Secretary to the Association. All together, I have been associated with the ICA for over 28 years - it is almost my second home.”
Stephen ran the London Marathon in 2006, raising £7,000 for the ICA’s Capital Fund. In May 2007, he also completed two thirds of the ‘Walk of Life’ (the complete journey was 1,111 miles) from Land’s End to John O’Groats. But walking and running have not been his only activities beyond the world of work: Stephen has been a part-time interpreter for the West Midlands Police and, from 2007-2013, was a Special Constable for the Metropolitan Police.
“Milan, what I did here was something I would never have contemplated doing in Hong Kong - I served society wearing a Police uniform. In Hong Kong, I saw the Police as a blunt instrument of government, an organ for the suppression of the people; whereas here in London, I became a Special Constable partly to serve as an example to others, and partly to promote and to instil into the Chinese community a better sense of civic responsibility, to be visible, to be seen as contributing.”
This gave me the opportunity to ask Stephen how he saw relations between the Chinese community and the authorities, the police and the establishment in general. “The Chinese people prefer to avoid contact with officialdom almost at all costs. Many of the early arrivals to London, the first generation, were semi-literate and poor. Mainly they worked in kitchens, or as waiters in restaurants, striving to accumulate enough capital to open a small, family business of their own. They trusted each other and tried to keep things to themselves. Unless there was major trouble, they wouldn’t go to the Police. They sorted things out amongst themselves, without resorting to legal professionals. They tried not to make a lot of noise, preferring not to be heard, and that is the main reason why they don’t get Police support when they do need it. They are very self-contained people.”
Stephen goes on: “Neither do they seek to claim state benefits; they just want to lead simple lives in the traditional way. Most are also suspicious, perhaps even sceptical, of other people’s motives; mistrustful of officialdom and the authorities, they just want to keep their heads down. They clearly regard themselves as immigrants, as guests in the host country, and they therefore refrain from expressing any open criticism of that host country. They also often nurture dreams of returning home; they plan to go but in most cases, they gradually lose all their connections with the old homeland and their dreams become no more than dreams. In old age, unsurprisingly, some of them suffer from terrible depression and a dreadful sense of displacement although, ironically, the few who do make it back ‘home’, after many years living abroad, find they are treated there as outsiders too - nowhere does time stand still and they find that their homeland has changed unrecognisably too.”
"This sense of displacement is less strongly felt amongst the second generation: they are still very Chinese, they send their children to supplementary Chinese schools on Saturdays and Sundays, they still speak Cantonese or Hakka at home, and they make frequent visits to Hong Kong and to mainland China."
"The third generation are almost fully integrated into the native community and way of life. By this stage, most of them only speak pigeon Chinese and find it hard to read or write the tongue of their forebears. They still see themselves as ‘British Chinese’, but are sometimes accused of being ‘yellow on the outside but white on the inside’ and this can result in some uncomfortable cultural identity crises."
"It is only fourth generation Chinese who can be seen as truly integrated. They are aware, of course, of their Chinese heritage but most no longer suffer from identity crises. As they get older, some do make an attempt to reconnect with their roots but by then, their interest is almost academic. They have become true Londoners, in the full sense of that word."
I asked Stephen if he thought that this reluctance to connect, to be seen to participate, was a hindrance to the integration of Chinese people living in London: “Yes, Milan; if you don’t participate, you are automatically excluded. Chinese people are very reluctant to speak up at public meetings, to take up seats on school governing bodies, to become trustees of other public bodies, to volunteer in the local community, to take part in local initiatives, to become local councillors, or to run for Parliament. The long-term effect of this aloofness is not good: we are accordingly perceived by the host community as not mixing, not taking part, not ‘playing the game’. Throughout my life in Britain, I have tried to do the opposite and to encourage my fellow countrymen to follow my example. I have tried to show by my own actions that we need to participate, to get involved, and I will continue to do so for as long as I can.”
I asked Stephen about the impact on his community of Brexit and all the associated, hostile rhetoric about immigration: “The older users of the ICA’s services don’t seem to have many opinions on the matter, or if they do, they don’t want to to air them. They appear to feel that, somehow, Brexit won’t affect their lives. But on the other hand, Chinese businessmen and all the more recent immigrants feel differently; they fear that a divorce from the economy of continental Europe will not be a good thing. Young Chinese scientists and workers in the ‘high tech’ industries fear any kind of isolationism, because it greatly reduces the opportunities for cooperation, collaboration and career progression.”
“Personally, I see myself as a citizen of the world and I have an instinctive aversion to borders. It was my feeling that the Brexit vote was mostly a provincial vote, designed to keep England as it once was, even though this England no longer exists and hasn’t existed for a very long time. Essentially, the history of Britain is inextricably conjoined with the history of Europe and I find it perplexing that so many people seem to want to reject these simple facts of history. The country appears to want to close in upon itself, as if it were under some kind of existential threat - perhaps a sort of throwback to a wartime mentality. In the 21st century, I find this almost incomprehensible. If this is the path we choose, the path of empty, illusory nostalgia, it will be hard going for all of us.”
In the 2012 New Year’s Honours List, Dr Stephen Lui-Nam Ng was awarded the MBE for his contribution to the Chinese community in London. Stephen smiles: “Milan, when the Queen was visiting Hong Kong, I was a student leader and an anti-colonial activist. Then, I refused to meet her and to shake her hand, so it is perhaps ironic that, many years later, I have accepted ‘Membership of the Order of the British Empire’, that very same old Empire I used to protest against. But I make no apologies; after all, most things in life involve compromise. Indeed, is not the whole of life something of a compromise? I have tried to do my best for my community and sometimes you have to work the system in order to derive benefit from it. I use the little power and influence I have in order to make the lives of others better, to make changes that are beneficial to my community, and that will be of long-lasting benefit to society. I have always tried to do my best; every day, perhaps, I seek to make my small world just a little bit better.”
It was a pleasure to meet such an honest man and to have such a candid interview. I leave, thanking him for inviting me into his home and a little into his heart, and for enlightening me about the life of Chinese Londoners, ingress into whose world I had myself found so very difficult.
Text edited: 26th March 2018
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Page modified: 17th March 2019