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Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’

I was at a funeral in Poplar last week, near the London Docklands. It’s the first time I have visited the Catholic church there, or wandered round the area.

This was the old ‘Chinatown’, before the Chinese moved to Soho in the 1950s and 1960s. I had no idea that the memory of the Chinese presence endures in the street names:

sign1 by SW

sign2 by SW

sign3 by SW

One friend who grew up here remembered a nearby Chinese restaurant owned by ‘Harry’. Another friend who grew up round the corner in Limehouse told me years ago about the wok maker who lived on his street when he was a child.

There are lots of ‘local history’ and ‘ethnic history’ type books about the Chinese experience in London, I just haven’t gone into them very deeply. There is, amazingly, a famous protestant pastor who ministered to the Chinese in the post-war period. His name? Pastor Stephen Wang! I’m not joking; I have a book about him – available here on Amazon.

There are personal connections for me in all this. My Chinese great-grandfather first came to the UK at the very end of the nineteenth century, and his route was through the Liverpool docks. But when his son, my father’s father, emigrated with his Chinese wife from Canton in the early 1930s, they arrived at the docks in London, went straight to Chinatown (i.e. Limehouse/Poplar) to stock up on Chinese supplies, and then travelled to Sheffield to set up the Chinese laundry that kept them in business for many years. Maybe they stayed with friends on Pekin Street or Canton Street or Nankin Street…

Whenever I meet an elderly person from Sheffield I ask them if they knew the Chinese laundry on Ecclesall Road in Sheffield, and it’s amazing how many remember having their shirts ironed or collars starched by my grandparents all those years ago.

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Jonathan Watts has been reporting from China for the Guardian for nearly a decade. He has been there officially to report on the environment and development issues, but his journalism has ended up touching on most aspects of Chinese life over these last few years. He gives a summary of his experiences here, which ends up being a reflection on how China has changed over the period, and where it is going.

There are lots of positives; lots of unknowns; and one of the continuing negatives is the lack of freedom for journalists like himself, the authoritarianism, and the inability of the Chinese government to take criticism – both internal and external.

Criticism has rarely been appreciated. All too often, there have been flare-ups of anti-foreign media hostility. Some of my colleagues in other media organisations have received death threats. I never expected China to be an easy place to work as a journalist. For political and cultural reasons, there is a huge difference in expectations of the media. For historical and geo-strategic reasons, there is a lingering distrust of foreign reporters.

Run-ins with the police, local authorities or thugs are depressingly common. I have been detained five times, turned back six times at roadblocks (including during several efforts to visit Tibetan areas) and physically manhandled on a couple of occasions. Members of state security have sometimes followed interviewees and invited my assistants “out for tea”, to question them on who I was meeting and where I planned to visit. Censors have shut down a partner website that translated Guardian articles into Mandarin. Police have twice seized my journalist credentials, most recently on this year’s World Press Freedom Day after I tried to interview the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in hospital. When that happened, I debated with another British newspaper reporter who was in the same position about whether to report on the confiscation. He argued that it was against his principles for journalists to become part of the story. I used to believe the same, but after nine years in China, I have seen how coverage is influenced by a lack of access, intimidation of sources and official harassment. I now believe reporters are doing a disservice to their readers if they fail to reveal these limitations on their ability to gather information.

Yes, there is often negative coverage and yes, many of the positive developments in China are underemphasised. But I don’t think it does the country’s international image any favours to clumsily choke access to what is happening on the ground.

Treated like a spy, I have sometimes had to behave like one. At various times, I’ve concealed myself under blankets in a car, hidden in a toilet, waited until dark in a safe house and met sources in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

At other times, it is Chinese journalists and officials who pull the screen of secrecy aside. Take the foot-and-mouth outbreak on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005. I was first alerted to this by a Chinese reporter, who was frustrated that the propaganda department had ordered the domestic media not to run the story.

Foreign ministry officials often tell me China is becoming more open and, indeed, there have been steps in that direction. But restrictions create fertile ground for rumour-mongering. One of the biggest changes in this period has been the spread of ideas through mobile phones and social networks. The 513 million netizens in China (up from 68 million in 2003) have incomparably greater access to information than any previous generation and huge numbers now speak out in ways that might have got them threatened or detained in 2003. Microblogs are perhaps nowhere more influential than in China because there is so little trust of the communist-controlled official media.

It has been fun watching netizens create an ingenious new language to evade restrictions. In this anti-authoritarian world, the heroes are the “grass mud horses” (which, in Chinese, sounds the same as a core banned phrase: “Fuck your mother!”) while the villains are the river crabs (which is pronounced like “harmony” – the favourite excuse of the authorities when they crack down on dissent). But ultimately, a journalist wants to see things for him or herself. I will never forget the epic road trips – across the Tibetan plateau, along the silk road, through the Three Gorges and most memorably from Shangri-la to Xanadu. Along the way, I met remarkable people with extraordinary stories. True to the oft-heard criticism of the foreign media, many were from the “dark side”: a young man in Shaoguan who confessed – as the shadows lengthened on the building site where we had our interview – to killing Uighur co-workers at his toy factory because of a rumour they had raped Han women; a gynaecologist in Yunnan who argued with great conviction that it had once been necessary to tie pregnant women up to carry out abortions; the young boy who found the body of his dead grandmother who killed herself a year after his father – an illegal migrant – phoned her to say he was about to drown in what became known as the Morecambe Bay disaster.

Another thing that struck me in Watts’s report is the total lack of references to religion – absolutely nothing about religion, faith, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc (I did the word-search on the article). I know he is focussing on the environment, but he writes about many other aspects of Chinese life that catch his interest or come to find him as a journalist. Is this a Guardian blind-spot? Maybe I’m being unfair, and he was briefed not to write about religion because someone else in the office is on the case. It’s just striking that someone gives their impressions of a decade of change in China, and the growth in interest in religion isn’t mentioned.

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By nationality, I am 100% British – I was born in London and have a British passport. By blood-grandparents-heritage-ethnicity (I’m not sure about the best term), I am half-Chinese, quarter-English, and quarter-Scottish; two grandparents born in Toisan in southern China, one in the north of England, another in Scotland.

As a child at primary school, there were a few incidents that would rightly be called racist: teasing and name-calling because of my unusual surname; but I didn’t have a sense that I was being teased or provoked any more than the other kids. Everyone seemed to have a name or a hairstyle or a twitch or a football team that elicited some kind of faux-resentment when the pack mentality demanded it. Low-level playground stuff that didn’t leave too many emotional scars.

I don’t think I’m glossing over some unacknowledged but deep experiences of racism. The fact is, I look white, and not half-Chinese like some of my mixed-race cousins do. I haven’t really experienced what it is to be Chinese in Britain, as my father’s generation did. Now and then someone will give me quizzical look and ask if I’m ‘Greek or something’; but only Chinese people ever spot that I am actually half-Chinese.

In the wake of recent discussions about racism in this country, Elizabeth Chan writes about her experiences as a British Chinese woman.

Chinese Britons are often referred to as a “silent” or “hidden” minority. For although we are the fourth-largest minority ethnic group in the UK, we are virtually invisible in public life, principally the arts, media and politics.

On the surface, the Chinese seem relatively content and well-to-do, with British Chinese pupils regularly outperforming their classmates and Chinese men more likely than any other ethnic group to be in a professional job. Consequently, we are often overlooked in talks on racism and social exclusion.

But academic and economic successes do not negate feelings of marginalisation. A 2009 study by The Monitoring Group and Hull University suggested that British Chinese are particularly prone to racial violence and harassment, but that the true extent to their victimisation was often overlooked because victims were unwilling to report it.

Growing up in the north of England in the 80s, I had few role models. Popular culture was dominated by white faces and occasionally black and south Asian, but never east Asian. I’m not sure that much has changed since.

Shouts of “Jackie Chan!” and kung-fu noises from random strangers continue to greet me in the street, perhaps followed by a “konichiwa!” Just a few days ago, a friend was having a post-hangover drink in a trendy east London pub, only to be accused by the manager of being a DVD pedlar hassling his clients.

Going to drama school in London was a revelation; I was told I couldn’t perform in a scene from a play because it had been written for white people. The scene was two girls sitting on a park bench talking about boys, and the year was 2006. Worse was when it came from my contemporaries; one (white, liberal, highly educated) helpfully suggested I did a monologue from The Good Soul of Szechuan instead, and another rushed up after one performance to tell me how delighted her parents had been that I’d spoken perfect English (I’m from Bradford).

In hindsight it was good preparation for a profession where, on my first job, the Bafta-winning director chuckled to everyone on set that I’d trained in kung fu, and where any character who speaks in some kind of dodgy east Asian accent is considered hilarious.

I have friends who are shocked that such things actually happen. They are usually most surprised at the fact that it’s happened to me. Why? I suspect mainly because, like them, I am part of the educated middle class, and things like that don’t happen to people like us.

Well, they do, and quite often. And frankly, it isn’t surprising that prejudices are rife in a country whose media perpetuates the very images that evoke stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings: Chinese characters rarely appear on our television screens, but when they do, you can bet they’ll be DVD sellers, illegal immigrants, spies or, in the case of last year’s Sherlock, weird acrobatic ninja types. Many Chinese viewers were outraged at the portrayal of east Asians in this show, but typically, few complained.

Sadly, the British Chinese are reticent about speaking up for themselves, and simply do not have the numbers to make the same noise the black and south Asian communities do, whose vociferous and galvanising voices have been making waves against racism for decades. Racism is one of those horrendous, soul- and confidence-crushing things that, when faced with, you’d much rather forget or pretend didn’t exist. So we tend to brush it off, pretend it never happened, or laugh along with the rest rather than come across as bad sports. We Chinese have become dab hands at this, living up to the stereotype of the smiling but silent Chinaman.

If we are to make progress in understanding the true extent of racism in this country, we all need to be a lot braver in confronting truths about how we live. It’s about swallowing our pride and being less afraid of telling the world how racism affects us and really thinking about the people across Britain who have come to accept racism as a part of life. It’s about standing up in classrooms, television studios, offices, pubs and public transport, not just for ourselves, but for friends and strangers, too.

Denial gets us nowhere. But awareness, thoughtfulness and courage could make millions of lives so much better.

I don’t know enough Chinese outside my own family well enough to judge whether this description of British Chinese reticence is accurate or not. But it’s certainly good to broaden the discussion about racism to include the experience of British Chinese, especially if – as Chan writes above – British Chinese are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the UK.

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