The curse of Fu Manchu

To many Brits, the Chinese are as enigmatic today as when they arrived in 1782. On the first day of the new Chinese year, Paul Wong delves into the hi story of London's Chinatown
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Multicoloured bunting hangs overhead and red banners wave from the gates at each end of Gerard Street in central London as Chinatown welcomes in the Year of the Pig. Every day the area is engulfed by Chinese people, working, shopping, eating and, at weekends, dragging their bundles of children to Chinese-language schools. Non-Chinese mingle with the shoppers, gazing at the roast meats through the steamy windows from the outside of restaurants, and heartily devouring the food inside. But familiar as they are with its cuisine, for many the Chinese community is as "inscrutable" as ever. The mystique surrounding the Chinese in Britain fascinates, and also fosters an ignorance that breeds fear.

The first Chinese sailors arrived in 1782. Recruited by shipping firms such as the East India Company to service the newly opened trade routes with the Chinese ports after China lost the Opium Wars (1842-60), the sailors, mainly from Canton, either jumped ship or were discharged and left to fend for themselves. Running laundries, the sailors began to form their own communities in Britain's bigger ports: London, Bristol, Liverpool.

This new ethnic group was viewed with suspicion by the indigenous British. Their fondness for gambling and opium soon earned the Chinese a reputation for vice. With the number of Chinese men far exceeding that of Chinese women, miscegenation was inevitable and the intermarriage between Chinese men and English women (generally from the lower classes) also fuelled British unease.

"The Yellow Peril incarnate ... with terror in each split-second of his slanted eyes," wrote Sax Rohmer of his creation Fu Manchu in 1911, reflecting the impression of exotic iniquity that had attached itself to Britain's proto-Chinatowns. A 1906 inquiry

into the moral habits and economic aspects of Liverpool's Chinese community found nothing to substantiate the xenophobic paranoia felt by local people except for the outrageous "seduction of girls by Chinamen". Four years later a London commission found these liaisons "undesirable from an English point of view".

Faced with such prejudice and bound by their common language, the Cantonese, who made up these first Chinese communities, kept themselves to themselves, developing quietly yet never quite able to shake off the image of corruption and vice. Even today, myths haunt London's Chinatown.

"I've got white friends who won't come to Chinatown. They think they're going to get mugged," says Justin, 16, a Filipino who travels from Croydon to hang out with his "oriental friends" in Chinatown's arcades and restaurants.

Suk Man Hui, director of the Chinese Community Centre in Gerard Street, says these stereotypes persist because the media are all too ready to jump on any crime involving the Triads (the Chinese mafia), making every cleaver-chopped waiter a representativeof the community as a whole.

"Because we don't make a fuss, the British see us only in relation to the local takeaway. I don't think they take much interest in the community unless it's Chinese New Year, or something to do with food or the Triads. The media always portray Chinatown as dangerous. It's always blown out of proportion. Chinatown is a meeting place for Chinese people, somewhere they can eat, shop and get advice and support."

The growth of Chinatowns was boosted by an influx of more sailors during the Second World War, then by the arrival of cooks and waiters from Hong Kong and the New Territories as the popularity of Chinese food grew. The population rose from a "floating" 400 in 1900 to 5,000 in 1946 and more than 250,000 today. Communities developed in all Britain's major cities, in particular Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and London.

The original base for London's Chinese community, Limehouse in east London, did not survive the Blitz, and the people decamped to an area where they could afford the low rents. In 1965 five Chinese restaurants opened on Gerard Street in Soho. The capital's theatreland had become tainted by prostitution, but the Chinese community made it their own, with restaurants spilling over into Lisle, Wardour and Macclesfield streets as the demand for Chinese cuisine continued to grow.

With more than 150 Chinese (and more recently, Vietnamese) restaurants in London's Chinatown today, most of the Chinese in Britain still work in the catering trade.

"Although more and more young people are moving away from the restaurants and takeaways, it is hard to move out of the catering environment," says Ms Hui. "Children often have to juggle helping out in the restaurants with doing their schoolwork. That canaffect how well they do at school, which limits their options."

But a new generation of Chinese is breaking the mould. "I have nothing in common with a waiter in Chinatown," says Tom Yow, a British-born-Chinese (BBC) banker. "I'd like to see more images of Chinese people in Britain. Stereotypes will always exist, butit becomes a bit dangerous when every Chinese guy is a Triad gangster, kung fu master and restaurateur.

Finding an identity for the Chinese in Britain is not easy. "It is difficult to talk about the Chinese community as a whole here. There are mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, Malaysians, BBCs. More and more Chinese are moving into the city, into the media and the arts - we're not so easy to classify any more," says Vivienne Huang, who works in advertising and was born in the Royal London Hospital, within the sound of Bow Bells.

"I feel Chinese and English and also a little French because I lived in France for three years. I'd call myself a Chinese European. I was taught to be proud of being Chinese by my parents, and I am - I appreciate Chinese culture: the traditions, the language, the Confucian principles of filial piety. I am aware of my roots and my people."

For Ms Huang, Chinatown will always be important. "I couldn't live without it - it feels like home. I'd feel like a stranger if it didn't exist."

Tom Yow agrees: "I stand out at work as a non-white in a mainly white profession; Chinatown represents an opportunity to vanish into the masses."

Despite rumours of a move back to east London, Chinatown, the focus for the 70,000 Chinese in London and those who commute in at weekends, looks likely to stay where it is. Although the catering trade seems saturated, there seems to be an never-ending queue of businesspeople waiting to open a herbal medicine clinic, hair salon or tearoom.

"I hear Chinese businessmen complaining about how impossible it is to run or start a business, yet every time I look around there's another new shop or restaurant," says Ms Hui.

"Chinese people are becoming more aware of their rights and are more prepared to fight for what they want," she adds. "It is natural that if you are born in this country, you will want to participate more than if you felt you were just a guest or a visitor. The younger generation of Chinese is slowly but surely moving into other areas, which is good. It is the way forward."

"I think the British Chinese will become more integrated in British society as well as discover their own identity and strength," the British-Chinese actor David Tse says. "I look forward to the day when we have a Chinese stand-up comedian, when we have the confidence to take the piss out of ourselves. Then we'll have made it."