Where exactly are my British Chinese role models?

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.

New Statesman
Image: 'Spirit Warriors', Jessica Henwick.

It is 1988 and a windy July night. In China, two men are about to attempt to swim to Hong Kong. My father and uncle will set off from She Kou (Snake’s Mouth), an industrial zone at the tip of Nantou peninsula in the south-eastern city of Shenzhen, in mainland China.

With a new moon in the sky, my father and his younger brother start to undress at the water’s edge. They stow their clothes, along with money, letters and prison sentences into plastic bags. With a bicycle inner-tube lashed around their possessions for floatation, they begin to wade into the sea at around 9pm. They will be trying to cross over into British-owned Hong Kong, escaping communist China, where my father is a wanted man.

My father had been a democracy activist, writing letters to student unions and universities exhorting democratic reforms, from Guilin, a picturesque little city in the south. He had already spent some time in jail for his activities. This was at a time of increased political engagement in China, when students, intellectuals, young and older people alike were calling for greater freedoms. The movement was nationwide, but most press attention centred around the big cities like Shanghai and Beijing - in other words, not the relative backwater of Guilin. Things would come to a head a year later, of course, and to international outcry, when on the evening of June 3rd the military moved toward Tiananmen Square and started shooting civilians, killing several hundred people.

My father wanted out. It wasn’t safe, so he decided to swim. After nine hours in the water, exhausted and desperate, he was picked up by the Hong Kong boat police. In the darkness, he’d become separated from my uncle, who had been the stronger swimmer, when a passing cargo ship came between them. It was dawn when the boat came into view, and climbing onto a light beacon, he started waving a white t-shirt at the vessel. They dragged him aboard, and he was eventually reunited with my uncle at a police station.

That is the story, in a nutshell, of my father’s escape from mainland China. At the time, I was still a well-hidden embryo, my existence unknown to both of my parents. A few years later, my mother would pay a boatman to take her across to Hong Kong but had to leave me behind. My father published a book in Hong Kong, managed to claim political asylum and moved to England, where my mother joined him.

I held this family legend close when I was younger. I myself finally came over to the UK with my grandmother in 1994, settling in London at the age of five. Perhaps because of that dramatic escape story of my family, which even at the time I knew was cinematic, 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.

The first wave of Chinese settlers to the UK occurred in the early nineteenth century, when travelling Chinese seamen began to reside more permanently in port cities like Cardiff, Liverpool and London. The first place to be called ‘Chinatown’ was in Liverpool, so called after the First World War. Subsequently, there were more waves in the latter half of the twentieth century, where many migrants came from British colonies such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

The Chinese in Britain are the oldest Chinese community in Western Europe. This history, however, has not really translated into visible and prominent roles within British society for the Chinese. The population stands at around 433,000, based on 2011 census figures, accounting for 0.7% of the UK’s population. Of course, this is not a large number - but for those who are here, the number of British Chinese in media or political positions remains astonishingly low.

Anna Lo, MBE, is the first ethnically Chinese person to be elected to any legislative body in the UK. She is a politician for the Alliance party in Northern Ireland, and she says she is surprised that there are not more like her. “I’ve worked a lot with the Chinese community," says Lo, whose background is in social work and then BBC journalism. “I understand how isolated they were. I understand the hardship and difficulties of the first generation. But there should have been more by now into politics, from the second generation."

Lo got into the political arena relatively late (“I had always been interested in politics, with a small ‘p’”), but says her decision to do this was met with concern from the Northern Irish Chinese community. “The elders were concerned. They thought it might not be good for the Chinese community, to be identified as Protestant or Catholic, green or orange. They didn’t want me to be interpreted as the whole Chinese community. So I joined Alliance, the only party which is across both sides," she says.

There have been a couple of other notable Chinese political figures, most news-making of whom was Nat Wei, the youngest member of the House of Lords at 36, and the first British-born Chinese to become a Lord at all. But young grassroots activism among second generation Chinese is still almost unheard of. The interviewees I spoke to mentioned that political engagement is not traditionally a strong element of Chinese society, particularly the Hong Kong Chinese who lived under British direct rule.

Someone seeking to change that is 24-year old Steven Cheung. Cheung moved over to the UK with his family in 2002. Going to a school with classmates from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but being the only Chinese, he suffered racist bullying. “They called me ‘chinky’ and asked me stupid questions. Then after a while, I became friends with them, and I asked them ‘Why did you do that before?’ and they said they never interacted with Chinese people before, they didn’t know anything about that."

In year 8, Cheung started to set up social activities at school that he hoped would aid in cultural understanding. “It’s about getting to know the community you live in. Both my parents are quiet, shy and there is pressure to not get involved [in politics]. But if I don’t start, no-one’s going to start. We really need someone motivated to help their community. Who want to change the whole stereotype – why should we be quiet? China’s economy is still growing, and British Chinese can build a bridge, create links for business." Cheung has been a Young Advisor to local councils and has organized events in Chinatown, as well as being a member of the BC Project, an all-party organisation to encourage British Chinese into politics.

The struggle against being stereotyped is an ongoing reality, especially for those British Chinese like me who have grown up as the only Chinese in their community. This experience can lead to embarrassment surrounding one's own ethnicity; elsewhere, the media portrayal of Chinese people in Britain is almost always about Chinese takeaway scandals, Chinese bumpkins with a ‘funny’ grasp of English, illegal immigrant prostitutes and Triad gangsters.

For British Chinese actors, such restricted portrayals are an especial problem. Jessica Henwick is a 21 year old actress whose mother is Singaporean Chinese. She spent a year in America where she says there are greater opportunities. “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," she says. Henwick reports that her white counterparts get five times more auditions than she does and that many Chinese actors are asked to play tokenist roles. Progress is being made, and she cites a recent jump in the number of British Chinese actors gaining visibility as positive. But depressingly, she also notes that her Eurasian features prevent her from playing the usual role of an “opium prostitute”. 

It is telling when British-born Chinese pick up on these stock roles and notice that their own reality is not borne out on screen. Jo Ho, a screenwriter and director, who was the first British Chinese person to be commissioned for a TV series by the BBC (one which, coincidentally, Henwick starred in), comments that most second generation Chinese are not likely to be triads, prostitutes and DVD sellers, but nurses, accountants and lawyers. “There are a lot of British-born Chinese actors, [but] they just don’t get work. And the reason there is a lack of dramas about British Chinese is not for lack of trying. It’s just really tough to get commissioned," she says.

There is a strong case to be made for a British black identity and culture; representation in music, TV dramas and in official recordings of the English language points to this. The same goes, perhaps to a lesser extent, for British South Asian and British Muslim communities. But is there a British Chinese identity?

“No, there isn’t, really," says Daniel York, co-founder of the British East Asian Artists organisation. He 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. Meanwhile, Ben Chu, economics editor at The Independent and author of Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China Is Wrong, notes that the diversity within Chinese society may be to blame for this lack of an overarching 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."

Malcolm Moore, Beijing correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, concurs: “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."

Because of the dearth of prominent British Chinese in the media and politics, some feel like they are striving on their own. “I do think it has an impact," says 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."

Being able to imagine yourself as the main character in your country's stories is incredibly important. Media role models provide a real life narrative for success and diversity, allowing those who identify with such role models to structure a similar narrative of their own. As a writer, this is why I always clung so tightly on to my father’s story. My father is not a strong role model or influence on my life - but his story is. It’s one of physical bravery, true courage, the likes of which I doubt I could ever repeat. But in my own chosen field, perhaps I could make the same intrepid swim across fabled waters, to success and a life’s story worth imagining. Grand, I know. But at the very least, I owe him that.