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Life

British Chinese, long low-profile, worry about place in UK society

They have faced increased racism in the coronavirus-era as Trump has blamed China

Jun Kit Man, founder of the British East Asian-focused publication Resonate, has conducted research on why this minority appears unengaged with politics. (Courtesy of Jun Kit Man)

HASTINGS, U.K. -- When Rosie Shead was six months old, she was adopted from Wuxi, in the Chinese province of Jiangsu, by white British parents. She is now 25 and living in the English county of Essex. On a phone call, I ask her if she feels 100% British. "I really do," she says. "I don't know much about Chinese culture or even British Chinese culture."

But despite this, since the start of the U.K.'s lockdown, she has been afraid. Reports of racism against British Chinese people have surged and Shead has felt more anxious about going out: "It crosses my mind every time I leave the house," she says.

According to information obtained by Sky News from U.K. police forces, the rate of hate crimes against people of Chinese ethnicity in the first three months of this year was nearly three times that of the previous two years. Similar reports have come from Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the U.S.

This does not entirely come as a surprise. U.S. President Donald Trump, fighting trade and tech wars with China, has made a point of aggressively blaming Beijing for the pandemic -- and referring to the novel coronavirus as "the Chinese virus." In this fight, the Chinese diaspora has become collateral damage. Its members are now asking themselves about their place in British life and why it has been low-profile for so long.

Amber Hsu, a writer based in London, was born in Taiwan, raised in California and moved to the U.K. 17 years ago. She holds both American and British citizenship. In the U.S., she says, there is more of a community and sense of solidarity among Asian Americans, with discussions around race being more vocal than in Britain.

Rosie Shead, right, and her sister. (Courtesy of Rosie Shead)

There are 400,000 people of Chinese ethnicity in the U.K., according to the latest data, making up 0.7% of the population, and Hsu feels that British Chinese people's experience of racism -- besides outright hate crimes, there are casual racism and microaggressions -- often goes unheard. "I feel in the U.K. it's quieter, not as addressed, and put under the rug," Hsu says.

Britain's Chinese diaspora is the oldest in western Europe. The waves of this migration can, in part, be traced to British colonialism. The First Opium War, from 1839 to 1842, led to China ceding Hong Kong to the U.K. and the expansion of British influence on the mainland.

Trade, of course, is bound up with immigration. The first Chinese communities in the U.K. were established in port cities like Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and London. In the 20th century, there was further immigration from Hong Kong and from the Chinese diasporas in former British colonies like Malaysia and Singapore.

Amber Hsu, who holds both American and British citizenship, says racism in the U.K. is "quieter, not as addressed, and put under the rug." (Courtesy of Amber Hsu)

Jun Kit Man, founder of the British East Asian-focused publication Resonate, has undertaken research for the nonprofit British Chinese Project to investigate why this minority appears unengaged with politics.

The older generation, who often did not speak English well, were more focused on establishing businesses and could not see the benefits of being involved in British politics. Accessibility because of language difficulties in general was a barrier. Man makes the point that anti-Chinese hate crimes thought to be nonexistent were, in fact, unreported by their victims, sometimes because the police lacked translators.

The distribution of the British Chinese population is another factor. Outside of Chinatowns, new immigrants would often open Chinese takeouts in places where competition was low, leading to a dispersed community. This meant the British Chinese could not gather the necessary political capital, says Man.

A still from WeRNotVirus, a digital arts event created in response to the surge in anti-Asian hate crime in the U.K. (Courtesy of Moongate Productions)

But things are changing -- and so is how a new generation of British Chinese see themselves.

Johnny Luk, who ran for the governing Conservative party in the opposition stronghold of Hampstead and Kilburn in London in last year's general election, believes that the British Chinese need to "step up" in the political arena. Born in Hong Kong in 1990 when the island was still a British territory, Luk says he was born on British soil so there is no reason why he should not be able to make it into political office in the U.K.

Like many of those interviewed, Luk has struggled with his identity. "I hated it, being British Chinese. It felt embarrassing to bring Chinese food into lunch, for my Chinese parents to speak Chinese in front of my friends," he says of his youth. But after attending university, where he saw others who looked like him, he became more comfortable with his ethnicity. "Now, I really love it. I love my heritage."

Johnny Luk, who ran for the ruling Conservative party in London in last year’s general election, says he "hated ... being British Chinese" when he was young. "Now, I really love it. I love my heritage." (Courtesy of Johnny Luk)

China is now far more prevalent in the public consciousness today, reflecting the country's increased economic and geopolitical importance. This has had mixed results for the diaspora. Referring to the tensions between China and the West, Amber Hsu is worried: "You're seen as being responsible for your ethnicity's leadership, even though politically I'm not involved."

But prominent British Chinese figures are not staying silent. Jennifer Lim and Daniel York Loh's Moongate Productions, which makes theater, films and documentaries, responded to the surge in anti-Asian hate crime creatively with "WeRNotVirus" -- a series of commissioned stories from mostly British East Asian and Southeast Asian writers. The performances were livestreamed, along with prerecorded episodes, on Zoom, to positive reviews.

The lack of representation in the media and politics has been a self-reinforcing problem for British Chinese people. Rosie Shead says she wanted to be an actress as a child, but thought she could not make her dream a reality because she never saw a face like hers onscreen.

Top: A still from WeRNotVirus. The subtitle reads "Move down the carriage. I don't want an Asian sitting next to me." (Courtesy of Moongate Productions) Bottom: WeRNotVirus co-director Jennifer Tang. "It didn’t matter what I said to others," she says, "there was always going to be people to tell me ‘I wasn’t [British].’” (Courtesy of Jennifer Tang)

But British Chinese people are breaking through, like actor Gemma Chan, comedian Phil Wang and presenters Kevin Fong and Ching-He Huang. The same applies in politics: Anna Lo, who became a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007, was the first Chinese-born person to be elected to a legislature anywhere in Europe. Alan Mak, for the Conservatives, became the first British Chinese MP in 2015. And Sarah Owen became the first British Chinese Labour MP last year.

For Jennifer Tang, who was raised by a white British family and who co-directed WeRNotVirus, it was the growing realization of her ethnic heritage that helped her in her creative career. "It didn't matter what I said to others, there was always going to be people to tell me 'I wasn't [British],'" she says.

"I really needed to understand and accept myself. That I am undeniably Chinese. I had to feel really comfortable with that. It forced me to examine who I really am, to know your own story before telling other people's."

As the Black Lives Matter movement prompts public discussions of racism, many people from minorities in the U.K. are calling for change. The space for British Chinese people to make themselves visible in a less intolerant society could now be opening up.

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