Foundations for the future

Updated: 2012-11-16 08:48

By Moira Kenny (China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Liverpool project will showcase the important role played by Chinese diaspora in UK

Liverpool is a World Heritage City, yet despite the Liverpool Chinese elders being the oldest Chinese community in Europe, little is known of their journey, settlement, dialects and rich history of industry and education. For 40 years the Chinese associations and community groups have aimed to develop a Chinese Heritage Center to share their culture and heritage.

In 2002 as an artist and researcher I was invited to document Chinatown by the Liverpool Chinese Business Association. I made a promise then to help realize the ambition to set up a Chinese heritage and cultural museum to pass down to the younger generations the importance of the history of the Chinese in Britain and the contribution of Liverpool Chinese people leading to the twinning of Liverpool and Shanghai.

Together with John J. Campbell, experimental sound artist and musician, we founded The Sound Agents, a social enterprise arts organization in Liverpool.

In the next 10 years, we produced a number of public arts projects to show how Britain's Chinese community has been changing. In 2007 I designed Chinese Reflection, a building wrap that covered the entire corner of a street close to the main shopping area funded by Liverpool City Council. The old watchmaker's shop was transformed into a celebration of photographs dating back from Chinese emperors to present day industries and education.

In the past, language barriers created by living and working in isolation resulted in a stereotypical concept of Chinese people as a "silent community". But in reality, the community is conscious of its own identity and guards its distinctiveness to conserve and celebrate its heritage and has invited us as artists to share their heritage and to document Chinese culture.

As non-Chinese British researchers, we recognized the importance of capturing the stories of people who developed a trust with us and have accepted us into their community groups and allowed us to interact freely and record events.

This unique relationship has led to an introduction to the last five remaining Blue Funnel Seamen who meet with us every Monday and tell us about their lives. A series of drawings and recordings are often collated from these meetings.

The origins of the Chinese communities lay with the Liverpool ship owners Alfred and Philip Holt, who established the first direct steamship service from Europe to China in the late 1800s.

It is documented that 20,000 Chinese sailors passed through the Chinese Seamen's Headquarters in 1939. They settled in Cleveland Square, Pitt Street and Frederick Street, already populated by Jewish, African and Scandinavian seamen. Eventually this area became known as Chinatown, before being heavily bombed in World War II. The Chinese community then spread into Nelson Street, Great George Square and parts of the Liverpool 8 district.

Liverpool's Chinese community has contributed greatly to the city. But unfortunately, the British government repatriated some Chinese sailors beginning in 1945, after World War II. Although most of the sailors were willing to return to China, some who had families in Liverpool were not given an opportunity to stay as the law prescribed. More than 200 were forcefully repatriated in a two-day period leaving behind devastated wives and children believing they were abandoned.

The Sound Agents developed The Chinatown Project, a plan to carry out an oral history of Chinatown including the forced repatriation of Chinese seamen and the British women who were left behind. This phenomenon of the Chinese integration into British society via the arts must also be evident within science, health, education, business and politics. Time will tell.

The author is the co-founder of The Sound Agents, a charitable organization with a plan to establish a Chinese cultural museum in Liverpool. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of China Daily.

(China Daily 11/16/2012 page7)