The old warehouses in the centre of Manchester resemble outsize Italian palazzos. They were built by proud Victorian textile barons when the city was Cottonopolis, the pumping heart of the world’s first Industrial Revolution. Today, the buildings are scattered over the city like the skeletons of a race of alien gods.
I remember sitting in the ribcage of one of these architectural curiosities some 25 years ago. It was Sunday and I was filling my exercise book with Chinese characters, surrounded by other Chinese-British children from Manchester, all engaged in the same wholesome orgy of repetition. We were attending a Chinese community school — a school for children to learn the script of a land 5,000 miles away, in a draughty Italianate warehouse, in the heart of a city that felt like it was under siege from a vindictive government. As a child, one accepts such juxtapositions without blinking.
Manchester deindustrialised. The cotton mills closed down. Charles Dickens’s soot-stained Coketown of “unnatural red and black” faded away. Most of those warehouses are now listed buildings. Other symbols of the industrial past, such as Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, have been appropriated by that welfare state for the upper classes more commonly known as the National Trust. My family used to escape at the weekend to Quarry Bank. We would gaze upon a recommissioned gin as it clattered furiously, looking like it was trying to chew the devil out of the thread in its jaws. Then we’d retire to the café for scones and tea.
Now there was an irony. We were on a pleasant day out to visit an industrial relic but, in the 1980s, tens of millions of young farmers in China were being sucked into new factories (not that different from Quarry Bank) on the Pearl River Delta, where my father was born. Another Industrial Revolution was gathering pace on the other side of the world, one that would give us plastic toys, cheap clothes and iPhones. China, however, was somewhere that people like my father, who emigrated in 1960, had come to Britain to get away from. Not somewhere to think about on your day off.
There are around 400,000 Chinese Britons, 20,000 of them in Manchester. The Chinese community is not very cohesive compared with other ethnic groups. Rather than clustering together like Indians or Pakistanis, it’s spread out geographically. It’s what economists call “path dependence”. Chinese Britons worked in laundries and there was more money to be made splitting up.
There was racism in the past. After the world wars, Chinese merchant seamen who had married British women in the nearby Liverpool and started families were abruptly sent back to China. (The shipping bosses were intimidated by the seamen’s unions, which wanted to get rid of this supposedly cheap competition.)
There’s still some xenophobia — more, probably, than gets reported — but there’s affection, too. A Chinese footballer named Sun Jihai played for Manchester City (in the days before the oil money gushed). To the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain”, Sun was serenaded by fans: “Singing ai ai yippee Sun Jihai, ai ai yippee Sun Jihai, singing ai ai yippee, his dad’s got a chippy, ai ai yippee Sun Jihai.”
Ah, the Chinese chippy. I remember the most expensive item on the menu of the one at the bottom of our road in Chorlton: a quarter of chicken, peas, chips and gravy. How decadent that combination seemed. I remember the shelf, high up, where they kept the huge bags of prawn crackers, to be distributed free with every order. Kipling was wrong: east and west could meet.
Chinese in the north have been adaptive. When the laundry business was killed off by domestic washing machines, they opened restaurants. Now their children are entering the professions. They are sucked away to London like the rest of the aspirational younger generation. Meanwhile, more Chinese are coming into Manchester every year as students. They speak Mandarin, not Cantonese like my father’s generation. Many will return to China but some will stay.
My own speech has changed since I came to London 13 years ago. “You don’t have an accent,” people often say, when I tell them I was born in Manchester. They should listen more carefully: I’ll debase myself in all sorts of ways to get ahead in the Great Wen but I will never say “barth” or “glarse” when I mean bath or glass. The Manchester accent matters. It’s part of the identity. Chinese brought up in the north all absorb it. The sons and daughters of the new immigrants will, too. They’ll be Chinese northerners.
Manchester is also pretty adaptive. The old chip shop in Chorlton is now a Persian restaurant. The locals take it in their stride. On the site of the Peterloo massacre, they built the Free Trade Hall. Now it’s a hotel. There are financial and legal services to replace cotton spinning and manufacturing.
The memory of what the city once was still aches a bit. How could it not? But there are new opportunities. Chinese firms have agreed to invest in the redevelopment of Manchester Airport. Many of those grand warehouses have been turned into bars, nightclubs and fancy flats.
These still hold a few Chinese. My grandmother lives in a housing scheme for the Chinese elderly in a converted warehouse directly overlooking the gay entertainment hub of Canal Street. It’s an eyrie of Chinese grannies overlooking a river of exuberant trannies. In London, they’d probably extol that diversity, make a fuss of it. In Manchester, they just get on with it. You see, in this greatest of northern cities, the exotic has long been a fact of life, like a Venetian palace overlooking the Manchester ship canal.
Ben Chu is the author of “Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve Heard About China Is Wrong” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99)