Figure 1: Mike Tsang Lord Wei taken from the East meets West series (2012)
Journalist Lui Hai Luang wrote the article ‘Where exactly are my British Chinese role models?’ for New Statesman in 2013 and opened with, “My father swam from mainland China to Hong Kong in order to claim political asylum. His story remains one of the only ones with inspirational Chinese characters that I encountered while growing up in the UK.” (Luang, L.H 2013)
Luang describes her experiences growing up in England, “I was always proud of being Chinese. My mother separated from my father and moved to live in Hastings where I grew up. Like many other Chinese people who grew up in Britain, I was often the only Chinese in my street, in school, among my friends, at work – and the list goes on.” (Luang, L.H. 2016)
The Chinese have been in Britain since the start of the 1800s with the first wave of Chinese seamen settling in the Ports of London, Liverpool and Cardiff. Liverpool had the first so-called ‘Chinatown’ after WW1 and then as the 20th century progressed more migrants came from British Colonies such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.
My own mother Yuet Wah (O’Neill) made the trip in 1955 from Hong Kong newly married to my father Frank who was returning to the UK after serving three years stationed in Hong Kong on behalf of the British Army.
The Chinese settled in Britain before anywhere else in Europe and the population in the UK is around 450,000 or 1% of the population. Not a major minority but still a sizeable number – considering the relative lack of visibility of the British Chinese in prominent life.
There are a number of reasons for this, firstly that political engagement is not a traditionally a strong element of Chinese society especially amongst Hong Kong Chinese who lived under British direct rule. A notable exception that proves the rule would be Nai Wei the youngest member of the House of Lords at 36 and the first British born Chinese to become a Lord at all.
The British Chinese suffer enormously from stereotyping and this becomes a particular burden for those who have grown up as the only Chinese in their community or network and this can lead to an embarrassment surrounding one’s own ethnicity; it becomes a hassle and it’s just easier to bury it and become totally English and this white-wash in effect silences the Chinese heritage.
“In the 18th century, the British view of China was generally admiring and benign. But as Frayling demonstrates, the change over the next hundred years was steady and dramatic.
The British imperialists conducted a series of wars to impose the opium trade on China and suppressed the Boxer rebellion that was the natural response to this brutal commerce. Paradoxically, the oppressive foreigners managed to cast the oppressed victims as a threatening, expansionist foe.
Meanwhile, starting with Coleridge and De Quincy, European writers created a cult around opium and the frighteningly exotic oriental dreams it unleashed, a movement that reached its literary peak in Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Droodand Wilde’s Dorian Gray.
By the end of the century, Chinatown and its notorious opium dens had become the locus of dangerous romance, alluring evil and spine-tingling threat in Europe and North America, with London’s Limehouse a top attraction for the intrepid tourist.” (French, P. 2014)
English actress Jessica Hardwick, who has a Singaporean Chinese mother, says, “In British TV, if there is an Asian character there usually has to be a reason for them to be Asian, whereas in America you have a lot more roles where the person just happens to be Asian,”(Henwick cited in Luang, L.H. 2013)
Whilst there is now a strong and clear representation for an identifiable British black identity and culture across the arts, sports and other areas of society and to a lesser extent the same can be said for British Asian and Muslim communities but the same isn’t true of the British Chinese.
Ben Chu, author of Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China Is Wrong, notes the diversity of Chinese society and perhaps the lack of a single uniform identity could be the cause of a lack of an over-arching identity among the British Chinese: “Geographically, China is very large with lots of communities, with differences in language and so on. So a lot of overseas Chinese may not feel very connected with other Chinese.” (Chu, B. cited in Luang, L.H. 2013)
Luang also quotes Malcolm Moore, Beijing correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, who says: “I never really saw myself as part of a specific community when I was growing up. I’m half-Singaporean Chinese, half British, and I never really knew anyone else of the same specific ethnicity. I imagine Malaysian Chinese British would identify themselves as such, and Hong Kong British, northern Chinese British and so on. I never felt close to people of any of these groups just because of ethnicity.” (Moore cited in Luang, L.H. 2013)
Because of the dearth of prominent British Chinese many are left to forge their own path and this is something that looking back I certainly felt on a personal level. “I do think it has an impact,” says Jessica Henwick on the lack of role models. “Like when I was reading books, I always imagined myself as the lead character, male or female, doesn’t matter. But if it doesn’t reflect you, doesn’t reflect the lifestyle you lead, you won’t pursue that career path.” (Henwick cited in Luang, L.H. 2013)
Daniel York, co-founder of the British East Asian Artists organization, argues that “only in the last 20 years” have there been enough British-born Chinese to make a substantial social mark. Mike Tsang, an oral historian and photographer, points out that the whole generation of British-born Chinese is really the first such generation and that the next 20 years will be crucial in the development of a comprehensive British Chinese identity.
I will finish with a quote from an interview with Nat Wei the first and only British born Chinese peer in the House of Lords and currently the youngest sitting Lord. The interview was part of the East Meets West (2012) photographic based project by photographer Mike Tsang celebrating the stories of British born Chinese people. I can certainly relate to a number of these points and can see the qualities and behaviors in my own mother – ‘of modesty, staying out of the limelight, not making a fuss.’
“I’d also say one thing that characterises many in the Chinese community, and probably an area where we may need to just work a bit harder and adapt, is we can be quite modest; stay out of the limelight, not really make a fuss. Which is on one level great because it means Chinese in Britain are often great citizens and generally very responsible, but on other level it means you can be quite invisible and you perhaps don’t have as much prominence, certainly compared to some of the other ethnic groups that are here. I think certainly for BBC’s and second or third generation Chinese, there’s an opportunity there to be a bit more – not raucous, not sort of shouting all the time, protesting or anything – but just being a bit more assertive and a bit more visible in society. And I think that’s important: people have to know who you are, what you stand for, and it may be a bit tricky as it’s not something we’re really used to, but if we don’t do it we’ll lose out.”
(Lord Nat Wei)
French, P. (2014) ‘The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu and the rise of Chinaphobia review – the factors that shaped our fear of China’ The Guardian [online] At:
(Accessed 7 January 2016)
Luang, L.H. (2013) ‘Where exactly are my Chinese role models’ New Statesman [online] At:
(Accessed 17 December 2016)
Tsang, M. (2012) ‘Interview with Lord Wei’ East Meets West: A project celebrating the heritage, identity and aspirations of the British Born Chinese. [online] At:
(Accessed 8 January 2017)
Figure 1: Mike Tsang Lord Wei taken from the East Meets West project [online] At:
(Accessed 8 January 2017)