Why marvel at Asian wealth?

Do these `success stories' carry out business differently from white people? One suspects not
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The Independent Culture
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young (and Asian) was very heaven." That's the euphoric cry, only partially a lie, that future cultural historians will be tempted to let out when they look back on the late 1990s.

Poring over the style mags and listings guides in archival research centres, fast-forwarding and freeze-framing through acres of video footage, they'll assemble myriad examples of how, after decades of being treated with indifference or contempt - by black and white people alike - Asian culture was suddenly viewed as cool and cuspy.

They'll seize upon a documentary about occasional Big Breakfast presenter and lad mag totty Melanie Sykes - she of the Indian mother - wandering around Southall sari shops and thinking thoughtfully about identity and stuff. They'll enthuse about the polychromatically-coiffured Asian DJs who grafted Bollywood samples onto generic drum 'n' bass tracks for a well-heeled and monochromatic crowd of Barnes and Belinda Trustafarians to shudder to at Notting Hill Arts Club. They'll note how well-educated Asians were rarely off news and current affairs programmes, interviewing princesses and such like. A handful of them - usually men, none of them born in England - produced bestselling fiction. They ran hugely profitable independent television companies and were invited to enter the House of Lords where they could represent the swinging, swishing Britannia envisioned by modish left-of-centre think-tanks.

Elsewhere, Asians scored painstaking half centuries and threw regular tantrums while playing cricket for England. They stormed to the top of the pop charts and soundtracked ads for Levi's and Guinness. They helped spearhead the campaigns for racial justice that followed the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Young Asian women, many of them reading cultural studies in east London universities, bared their breasts for glossy fashion magazines.

Oh, and one or two friends of Noel Gallagher's wife sported bindis for at least a fortnight.

It's easy to forget just how novel this blizzard of hype and hipness is. Asians ranked low in the pecking order of post-Second World War ethnic subcultural cool. Second generation kids born in this country, or who were brought over at an early age, were assailed in playgrounds with taunts about how they stunk of curry, about their shoddy grasp of English, and, crucially, about the squalid and risible jobs their parents occupied.

Beturbanned bus conductors were a constant source of hilarious jokes - "Butt butt ding ding, tickets please!" they'd sneer at us. "Why do Asian people never play football? Because every time they get a corner they build a shop on it," they'd laugh. Desperate to ingratiate ourselves, we'd laugh at these jokes too, sometimes trumping them - simultaneously exposing our mastery of English modes of self-deprecation by piping up: "What's the difference between a Paki and a bucket of shit? The bucket." They'd laugh - not with us, but at us. Deep down we knew this.

How we hated our parents! How we were embarrassed by them! They ordered us to wear manky blue parker coats come rain, shine or Indian monsoon. They forced us to fritter away whole evenings reading holy verses and practising Punjabi and Hindi orthography. They never let us go out without dousing our hair in coconut oil that ponged almightily. They repeatedly administered savage shoe-beatings for the tiniest social infraction.

Work was our parents' real religion. They looked askance at play or pleasure. Asians in this country almost never went on holiday. While they might occasionally return to their ancestral villages in India and Pakistan to pay court to their families and relatives, to whose values they pledged unflagging adherence, they never thought to fritter their sweated savings on trips to holiday camps or Judith Chalmers-endorsed Algarve packages. Every penny counted, every grocery receipt repeatedly scrutinised in case the cashier had accidentally charged an extra tuppence for a kilo of aubergines.

This obsessive penny-pinching was understandable. Our parents had been doing crappy jobs for crappy wages for as long as they - or we - could remember. Many of our fathers had come to England in the mid-1960s from rural areas. With only basic schooling and speaking little English, they were forced to head for cities such as Bradford, Leicester and Birmingham whose foundries, steel mills and textile factories offered them ready - if menial - employment, and where rents and travelling expenses were enticingly low.

Their main goal was to save enough money to bring over the wives and children that they'd left behind. They worked all the shifts and overtime slots they could. They bunkered up with colleagues in grotty terraced housing to save on renting costs. There's a hoary but accurate joke that runs: "How do you get six Asian families into a tyre? Tell them it's a flat."

Our dads laboured and they were lonely. They know they were being exploited but they didn't really have a bundle of remunerative alternatives they could turn to. Their lack of fluency in English discouraged them from mingling with white people. Rarely did they have the energy to go out to pubs or cinemas after work. Or the inclination - did they want to be stared and laughed at all evening? Entertainment cost money that they could ill afford.

Nor did their work ethic lapse after their families arrived in England. They prized money, not culture. This led to the accurate perception that most Asian parents would never be happy unless their children became doctors, lawyers or accountants.

I find it hard to care about the latest rollcall of Asian millionaires. Surveys about Asian wealth are a boom industry in themselves. Do they really tell us much we didn't already know? That there are few Pakistani or Bangladeshi faces just proves the limitations of using "Asian" as a catch-all social category. Flicking through Eastern Eye's encomium to rapacious capitalism, it's striking that many of those featured come from wealthy backgrounds, from families noted for their retailing and entrepreneurial nous. As they pose - tidy, arse-clenched, corporate-smiled - at their gleaming desks, I'm struck at how familiar they seem. We're meant to marvel at their Asian-ness; all I see is the universal gait of the finance mogul, the conglom king.

Do these "success stories" - some younger than others, a handful of them women - carry out business differently to white people? One suspects not. Many of them have made it rich in textiles, an industry notorious for paying women, often middle-aged Asian women, less than pounds 20 for 100-hour weeks.

It's these women - our mothers, our aunts - who should be highlighted today. Under-educated and over-exploited, they sacrificed their health and happiness so that their children could get an education, would not want. It was their dogmatic will-to-succeed - so hateful to us as we grew up in the 1960s and 1970s - that permits us now to gallivant and skitter around the circuits of metro-bohemianism. It's their uncoolness that enabled us to be cool.

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