In 1685, Jesuit priest Michael Alphonsius Shen Fu-tsung became the first Chinese person on record to visit Britain. While he was in the country, he went to work cataloguing Chinese-language books for the Bodleian Library, in Oxford.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of Chinese sailors, chefs, students, doctors, laundrymen (and women), artisans and others have contributed much to British society, although this has gone largely undocumented.

Today, about 400,000 ethnic Chinese call Britain home and their cultural influence is everywhere, from menus featuring chicken chow mein and sweet and sour pork dishes to the consumption of herbal teas and the use of loan words such as "ketchup" (literally "tomato sauce") and "chop chop". Long time no see? That's Chinese syntax.

In 2012, the Ming-Ai (London) Institute, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, began a three-year oral history project, collecting information about the Chinese people who settled in the British Isles. When the project ends, about 90 residents of Chinese heritage will have been interviewed. Their stories are being published online at the British Chinese Workforce Heritage website (www.britishchineseheritagecentre.org.uk) and will feature in exhibitions shown across Britain from next year.

As stories emerge (some of which follow), this marvellous resource promises to redefine both other people's understanding of the Chinese diaspora and that community's perception of itself.

 

SEAFARING In the 19th century, Chinese seamen were employed in the tea trade on East India Company ships and, at the turn of the 20th century, by the "Shell" Transport and Trading Company, later part of the Royal Dutch Shell Group. They were seen as more hardworking than their European counterparts and likely to drink and eat less (they were paid less, too). After the decline in merchant shipping following the second world war, many found work on land.

Chang Yew, 93, (1919-2012), seaman

"I was 19 when I started sailing in Hong Kong with a Dutch shipping company. China was already at war with Japan.

"I first came to Britain in 1941. I was below deck and my job was as a stoker. I would wake up at six o'clock every morning for work, two shifts of four hours each. I was responsible for getting the engines running. I had to fuel them. It was very hard work because the firebox blew out hot air and the hold became very hot.

"Later, I worked as the ship's chef and cooked for the crew. I cooked Western food, fish and chips, and Chinese food, dumplings and stir-fries. There were dozens of workers onboard, from all over the world, including Indians, Africans and Chinese.

"When not working, my Chinese workmates liked to play mahjong or poker. The ship's beds were separated into upper and lower bunks, two people per bunk; one room had more than 10 people in it. Clothes would be washed twice a day and we had to bathe daily because the ship was very hot and dirty.

"Our contracts with the shipping company normally lasted a year. Each voyage would last from a couple of months to several months, taking us all over the world.

"After the war, I left the merchant navy and, in 1953, settled in east London. England was still a powerful country and it was difficult for foreigners to become naturalised. I got a recommendation from a colonial minister who could speak Chinese. After coming ashore, I worked in catering, at a takeaway restaurant as a chef. At that time, the Chinese community was still located in Poplar, east London. There were only a few Chinese restaurants and grocery stores mixed with some Indian restaurants.

"I am a member of the Chun Yee organisation [founded as a social club for sailors in the London district of Limehouse, in 1906]. [Before Chang's time] it was a place where overseas Chinese could meet in opposition to the Qing dynasty and in support of the Ming dynasty. The womanising emperor and his entourage were using large pipes to smoke opium. The Chun Yee Tong organised the Chinese, and so they came to revolt against the Qing dynasty."

 

HAIRDRESSING

Many Chinese migrants entered the industry as the Soho Chinatown was being formed. They catered mainly to the diaspora, who appreciated their understanding of Chinese hair and styles.

Chen Jun, 82 years old, barber

"I was born in Yangzhou, in Jiangsu province, on June 13, 1932, into a family of farmers. Life was difficult because of the civil war and the impending invasion by the Japanese army. We'd been plunged into poverty for generations by natural disasters and war.

"I was the youngest of three children and only attended school for two years. I worked in the fields, tending the buffaloes, wore rags and was hungry most of the time.

"My father died when I was nine and, at 12, I went to Shanghai, to learn hairdressing. Yangzhou is famous for three blades: the chopper, scissors and razors. Chefs, tailors and hairdressers from Yangzhou are famous throughout China.

"In Japanese-occupied Shanghai, I worked in a hair salon as an apprentice for seven days a week for very little pay. Officials and businessmen were trying to make as much money as possible. Inflation was rampant.

"I was 17 when the Communists won in China and, at 20, I drifted into Hong Kong. I worked in a hair salon that was frequented by the rich and famous. Most of them would give us gifts during festivals, like football match tickets. Years later, some of them would visit my London salon. I worked in Hong Kong for 13 years and learnt Cantonese. My greatest reward was meeting my wife, who was in the same profession and with whom I have four daughters.

"I came to London in 1966 on my own and worked in a salon on Monmouth Street. My monthly wage was £22, even less than what I earned in Hong Kong. I often had bread for three meals a day, sometimes with milk. Seldom could I have rice. I watched every penny, even sleeping on the salon floor to save rent.

"There were hardly any Chinese and I had few friends. It was two years before I was reunited with my wife and daughters.

"In 1967, the salon owner retired and rented me the business. In 1968, I opened the China Beauty Salon - the first barbershop in Chinatown. Trade was good and, at its peak, my wife and 10 hairdressers were working there.

"Chinese people's hair is hard while Westerners' is soft. We have to be careful when cutting, and we learned new hairstyles by watching movies. The daughter of [the Burmese-Chinese entrepreneur who pioneered Tiger Balm] Aw Boon Haw and Tung Chao-yung, father of [first chief executive of Hong Kong] Tung Chee-hwa, were my customers.

"In 1980, I went into partnership with some friends and opened the Luxuriance Restaurant [in Chinatown]. We opened a second restaurant, Lux II, in Virginia Water. While the salon gave me a basic living, the restaurants gave me a surplus, as well as a place to entertain friends.

"In 2000, the China Beauty Salon closed after 32 years of business.

"It's not bad that I have had two out of the three cutting instruments from Yangzhou.

"Since 1991, I have been serving my homeland and helped [in the] construction of a road and schools in Yangzhou. I aim to keep busy and spend more time helping overseas Chinese."

 

LAUNDRY

From New York to old York, the laundry became a stereotype of the Chinese diaspora in the 20th century. From the late 19th century, sailors looking to settle on dry land found it easy to set up a laundrette as the job required little English. The first Chinese laundry in Britain is thought to have opened in 1877, in Holland Park, London. In the first decade of the 20th century, London saw a Chinese laundry boom - although the "yellow peril", a 19th-century term describing the Western fear of mass Asian migration, meant many fell victim to racist vandalism. In 1900, the Pall Mall Gazette reported that 33 employees of one laundry lived at a single address on Tottenham Court Road. The 1931 census recorded more than 500 Chinese laundries in Britain. After the second world, the proliferation of the domestic washing machine made traditional laundrettes obsolete.

Galy Leung, laundry worker

"I left Hong Kong in February 1964, to study in England. For the first three years, I lived in the home of a relative who operated a family-run laundry near Forest Gate, in east London. The laundry shop was on the ground floor while the family lived upstairs. I would help out in the laundry in my spare time: three hours after each school day. Business was very good.

"Everything was washed in big machines and hand-rinsed in big tubs. We had to use bleach and starch, and even filthy clothing soiled by drunks received a good service.

"There was a reception area and, beyond that, a large board for ironing clothing and so on. In the next room there was a gas-heated cylinder used for pressing bed sheets, table-cloths and other large items. The next room was used for drying clothing. Inside there was a coal stove and many wires suspended from the ceiling. By lighting a fire every morning, to heat the room, clothing could be dried indoors.

"After we folded the ironed clothing, we'd pack it according to the labels, wrapping it in paper and binding it with string, just like a present, waiting for the customer to come and collect.

"The shop did good business and the customers were mainly from the local neighbourhood, where the laundry shop had an excellent reputation.

"Bobby Moore, the captain of the West Ham football team who practised in a field off the high street, used to bring in his shirts. In 1966, he captained the national England team that won the World Cup. Sometimes he appeared on television in shirts which looked crisp and smart. He would always say his shirts were washed in a Chinese laundry, and then give the Forest Gate address, a nice promotion for the business."

 

CATERING

In 1884, Sir Robert Hart, of Chinese Maritime Customs Services, opened an exhibition entitled "The Chinese Restaurant" at the International Health Exhibition in South Kensington, London, and enlisted chefs from Beijing and Guangzhou to prepare "Noisettes de Lotus à l'Olea Fragrance" and "Petit Caisse à la Marquis Tsing" ("olea-scented lotus nuts" and "small treasure chest in the style of the Qing dynasty"). The display sparked the discussion of Chinese food in the British press. In 1908, Britain's first officially recorded Chinese restaurant - aptly named The Chinese Restaurant - opened in London's Piccadilly. By 1911, 4 per cent of Chinese-born males living in Britain were working in the catering profession, a figure that, by 1921, had dropped to 1 per cent, following the first world war. The catering boom came after the second world war; the end of food rationing in 1947 resulted in a proliferation of all kinds of restaurants. Still, in the 1950s and 60s, demand was not yet sufficient to support multiple Chinese restaurants in any one area, so families travelled far and wide to set up businesses. By the early 70s, Chinese restaurants and takeaways had been established all over Britain, and totalled about 1,000. Today, Chinese restaurants are a staple of British towns.

Cheng Chung-pun, 52, caterer

"My father was a chef in England. When I was 14, I came to London from Hong Kong to study. I lived with my grand uncle and every day, after school, I helped in his restaurant. From 5pm until 11 or 12 o'clock at night I would work, chopping and frying vegetables, and wake up at 7am to go to school the next day. Racial discrimination was severe. I was bullied at school. I even thought about returning to Hong Kong.

"A year later, I was working part-time at another restaurant four evenings a week, from 5pm until 1am, earning £4 a night, equivalent to about £30 [HK$373] or £40 today. Back then, a bowl of wontons cost £1.20, and duck-fried rice cost £1.50.

"My brothers and sisters in Hong Kong gradually came to England to earn a living and help out. I started fulltime work on the restaurant floor [of The Good Earth, in King's Road, Chelsea] in 1981. I became expert at chopping-board duties, responsible for providing ingredients, chopping vegetables and meat, and measuring them. These tasks are very important because being miserly or extravagant with ingredients directly affects the cost.

"After a few months training with a head chef, I started at the Esher [a town in Surrey] branch of the Good Earth Group and was promoted to head wok. A few years later, in 1985, I was promoted to master chef.

"I have no particular hobbies and do not gamble. I was originally a poor immigrant … so I don't squander money for which I've worked hard. I've seen many elderly Chinese immigrants in the UK return to Hong Kong because of gambling debts.

"I am thankful to my wife who, over 30 years, has helped me run the takeaway restaurant and care for the children, always without complaining. I keep my hand in with cooking demonstrations promoting Chinese cuisine, and I do charity and community work."

As paraphrased by Anna Chen based on summaries of the oral history interviews conducted by Ming-Ai Institute, 2012/13

 

Settling in

On the north bank of the Thames, by the docks that received opium and tea from Britain's empire, the east London district of Limehouse was home to the city's original Chinatown. The "yellow peril" paranoia of the late 19th and early 20th century saw journalists and "penny dreadful" authors paint a sinister - and wildly inaccurate - picture of this area: a netherworld inhabited by subhuman villains whose aim was the destruction of civilisation and the British empire. Sax Rohmer was perhaps the most famous of these pulp writers. His monstrous Dr Fu Manchu creation of 1912, "with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan", fed the new consumers of cheap fiction with lurid images of Chinese debauchery.

Former Limehouse residents Leslie and Connie Ho, born in 1919 and 1922, respectively, joke about searching Limehouse in their childhood for the mists rolling in off the Thames and the cunning Fu Manchu, the operator of opium dens to which he lured weak white women to a fate worse than death.

In reality, the Chinese in Limehouse were transient and scattered; there was certainly no large permanent community in the 19th century, as many Victorian writers liked to claim.

Growing up, the Hos were two of only 100 or so mixed-race children in the area, the offspring of a couple of hundred Chinese sailors who'd settled with white wives in Limehouse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Limehouse Chinatown was made up of two streets - Pennyfields (mostly Shanghainese) and Limehouse Causeway (popular with Cantonese) - boasting a handful of shops and a restaurant or two. The rest of the area was populated by Poles, Russians and Germans - who all outnumbered the Chinese.

Limehouse was heavily bombed during the second world war and so the tiny Chinese community dispersed to east London locations, such as Poplar. Limehouse is now an overpriced district just outside the banking centre of Canary Wharf.

In the 1940s, Soho Chinatown was still largely a Jewish and Indian centre of business. It wasn't until the 1950s and 60s that the influx of migrants from Hong Kong to the West End of London transformed Gerrard Street, Lisle Street, Newport Place and now Shaftesbury Avenue into an iconic and bustling centre for Chinese catering and services.

Anna Chen

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