There's more to the Asian rich-list than meets the eye

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I WAS slightly puzzled by the list which was recently issued of the top 100 richest Asians in Britain. I read it through from top to bottom, hoping against hope that I was on it, as one reads the New Year's honours list in the vague hope that one might have been knighted by accident. But it wasn't my absence that puzzled me. It was the fact that there was not a single rich Chinese person on the list.

The Chinese must be at least as good businessmen as the Indians, which is why the Chinese are regularly persecuted throughout Asia, and there must be several millionaires among them in Britain. Why were there none on the list of rich Asians? Are the Chinese so secretive that it was impossible to find out how much they were worth ?

Then it struck me with the force of a kick on the behind from a pantomime horse.

An Asian is not a person from Asia, and certainly not from that part of Asia where most Asians live, called China. He is a person from India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh. He is a person from the great subcontinent that used to be part of the British Empire. It is the shorthand term that has been evolved to describe people of Indian origin, no matter where they now come from, so that people who have never seen Asia in all their lives can happily be described as Asians (Ugandan Asians, for instance, or writers of Indian origin from Trinidad), whereas a man who has just got off the plane from a genuine part of Asia such as Japan, Thailand or Burma, and has every right to be called Asian, would be told by British prejudice that he is no such thing.

It is highly convenient for us to use the word "Asian" because it is a glib term for one of the two main streams of immigration we have known since the war. Most immigrants to Britain in my lifetime have been either Middle Eastern in origin or Caribbean. There has been incredible variation among them, and I don't suppose that Sikhs, Hindus, Tamils, Bengalis and all the rest like being lumped together as "Asians". I certainly don't think that Trinidadians and Jamaicans feel blood brothers back home in the West Indies, any more than we would care to be rounded up with New Zealanders and Canadians in a group of "Anglo-Saxons", but that's too bad. We as an island culture can't handle too many shades of meaning, so we lump everyone together as black or Asian.

Only this morning on the radio, I heard Jack Straw insisting on the police recruiting more black and Asian officers. He would be somewhat surprised if the police responded by taking him literally and recruiting hundreds of black Chicagoans, or promoting hordes of Vietnamese policemen. That isn't quite what he meant. When he uses words such as "black" and "Asian" he means something very specific, and yet very vague at the same time.

The funny thing about reading the list of the top 100 rich Asians (why no list of black, or Arab, or Irish, by the way?) was that I didn't read about it in the English press. As it happens, I was up in Scotland, staying with cousins in Blairgowrie, when this list of the top 100 richest Asians was issued, and the way it was reported in Scotland was very different from the way it was reported down here. Why? Because, of course, there are some very rich Asians in Scotland, and so the Scottish media wanted to know how the rich Scottish Asians had done compared to rich English Asians, and how many Scottish Asians were on the list of the top 100. (Quite a few, as it happened.)

I can't make my mind up whether there is something reassuring or worrying about this immediate impulse to see things through Scottish eyes, to see how our Scottish Asians are doing. Is it a natural impulse to be pleased by the success of immigrants to Scotland? Or an equally natural impulse to see our Asian lads do well against the damned English Asian lads? Bit of both, I should think. And it isn't confined to a national level. I remember once commenting to my cousin on the fact that there were no fewer than two Indian restaurants in Blairgowrie, and saying that at least the Indian families involved would have each other to talk to.

"I am not sure they will actually be on speaking terms," said my cousin drily. "There is a gulf between them."

"What gulf might that be?"

"One is a family of Indians from Dundee and the other is an Indian family from Glasgow."

Ah. So the dislike of some Scots for some other Scots has spread further than we think. But right now, at a time of Scottish elections for a parliament which binds all Scots together, that is a kind of prejudice we have to pretend doesn't even exist.