Changing Chinatowns

Updated: 2012-11-16 08:48

By Cecily Liu (China Daily)

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Finding a voice

Despite historically being stereotyped as a "silent community" due to their lack of visibility in the mainstream society, British-Chinese are now playing an increasingly active role in the political arena, in an effort to express issues important to the community.

In 2007, Anna Lo, an immigrant from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region who arrived in the UK in 1974, was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, making her the first elected politician of Chinese origin in Europe.

Lo's success has led to an increasing interest in politics within the Chinese community, and in 2010, an unprecedented number of eight British Chinese candidates stood for election as members of parliament in the British general election.

Although they were unsuccessful, their collective presence has encouraged the British Chinese community to pay more attention to politics.

 Changing Chinatowns

Zhu Xiaojiu is headmistress of London Mandarin School. Provided to China Daily

"There is this idea that Chinese immigrants are not interested in politics," says Joseph Wu, who works with the BC Project, an organization founded in 2006 to promote the integration of British-Chinese into politics. "It is said that overseas Chinese have an emotional detachment toward politics, but I think this is a very stereotypical idea. From my experience I've found that if people feel that their voice is valued, they will communicate very passionately."

Hoping to better present the Chinese community to the mainstream British audience, the BC Project also conducts training sessions for young Chinese students to understand more about subjects like film production through its BCTV program.

"The older generation did not have so many opportunities. Times are different and many Chinese media organizations are expanding overseas. I'd say that younger generation Chinese are much more lucky," says Tom Hor, a lecturer in media production at Kingston University and a former British Broadcasting Corporation employee who heads BCTV lessons.

Hor says that he wants to pass on his experience and knowledge so that more young Chinese consider media as a career option apart from other professions like law, finance and medicine.

China's strong economic growth has provided overseas Chinese communities with new opportunities and led to a newfound confidence, says Li Kiu-hsiung, founder of Pagoda Arts. "When I first came to the UK in 1979, there were very few Chinese on the streets, and most of them worked in restaurants. But nowadays, I see so many young and educated Chinese international students, and I feel so proud of them," he says. "With China's importance growing, we can now stand up and be very proud to tell everyone that we are Chinese."

Li says that he was lucky to not have had any unfortunate experiences of racism in the UK, but explains that some of the earlier migrants were really looked down upon by the British society. "Some older migrants told me that they often got bullied. In some cases, the customers called them 'China pig'."

During Li's time at Pagoda Arts, he taught music to more than 300 Chinese students, who have moved on to have successful careers as lawyers, doctors and teachers.

"I know that their parents invested heavily in education so that their children could leave the catering trade. With China's rise economically, I'm sure the younger generation of Chinese will have a far brighter future than their parents," he says.

Maintaining identity

Despite the ease with which second-generation Chinese immigrants can integrate into Britain's mainstream society, Chinese culture and language still remain a part of their identity.

Mandarin learning is growing in popularity, says Zhu Xiaojiu, headmistress of London Mandarin School, which holds Mandarin classes every Sunday for school children. "The school was set up in 1997 by some parents who wanted their children to learn Mandarin. Times have changed and the school now has more than 300 students on its rolls," Zhu says.

She adds that most students at the school are second-generation Chinese immigrants, who are encouraged to learn Mandarin by their parents. "More and more parents realize that it is important for their children to learn Chinese not just for better job prospects but also keep up with the Chinese tradition."

Keeping up with the Chinese tradition is a goal shared by both British-Chinese parents and their children. This is particularly true for second and third-generation British-Chinese who have developed a curiosity for their identity as a result of being separated from their homeland.

One such third-generation immigrant is 30-year-old photographer Mike Tsang, whose search for his identity led him to showcase the exhibition Between East and West earlier this month in London.

Combining photographic portraits, interview excerpts and archived images, the exhibition documented the stories of 15 British-born Chinese from a range of occupations - actor, policeman, medical shop owner, music producer and artist, to name a few.

Tsang's grandparents moved to Mauritius at a young age, and his parents moved later on to the UK, where he was born. He says that working on the project has helped him better understand his own identity and that of his Mauritian-born parents.

"I think it has helped me connect with my parents more. My parents think they are Chinese, absolutely! But I find that quite interesting, because they've never been to China. So one of the interesting things I've learned about my own family is that cultural values have been passed down."

Tsang's urge to connect with his Chinese roots is shared by Steven Cheung, a 22-year-old torch-bearer at this year's London Olympic Games. After the Olympic Games, Cheung announced plans to travel across about 10 Chinese cities to exhibit his torch before auctioning it in aid of China's Project Hope schools, a charity project to help poor children.

"I am grateful for the opportunity to study in the UK, and I want to help Chinese children who are less fortunate," says Cheung, who arrived in the UK with his parents at the age of 12.

Cheung says that the torch relay made him feel closer to China, since Beijing was the city before London to host the Olympics. "The Beijing Olympics showed the world what China is capable of. As a young British-Chinese, I'll continue to develop links between Britain and China."

As a radio presenter for Spectrum Radio's Chinese program and an active member of the BC Project, Cheung became the first British-Chinese to receive the prestigious Princess Diana Award in 2009 for his work in the community.

Despite his achievements in Britain's mainstream society, Cheung says that he still sees China as home. "China is still home for me. It is a country just beginning to emerge on the world stage and I hope to play my part in helping it to gain global understanding and acceptance," he says.

(China Daily 11/16/2012 page1)

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