Overrun by Chinese! A tidal wave of immigrants! Chris Patten's idea that 3.3 million Hong Kong people should have the right to live here brought the usual howls. But as this journey into the discreet world of Britain's Chinese community shows, the truth is that another major infusion would probably be a great boon. The trouble is, few Hong Kong inhabitants think Britain is where they want to be. Report by Peter Popham. Interviews by Lesley Downer. Photographs by Sivan Lewin
David Tang, entrepreneur

Hong Kong's most colourful businessman founded the lavish China Club in the old Bank of China building in Hong Kong. Decorated in the style of pre-revolutionary Shanghai, it includes a Long March Hall full of Mao kitsch and costs pounds 15,000 to join. Both the club and his duplex in London's Eaton Square are hung with his collection of contemporary Chinese art, probably the largest in the world. Tang, aged 41, has always had a home in London. He visits once or twice a month to do business and see friends, who are "all sorts - some East Enders, some bourgeois, some royal", but they certainly include Princess Diana, whom he recently escorted to Italy

Britain still makes very nice cars - the Rolls Royce or the Bentley. And it's still got nice clubs, because there are still places where you don't allow women in. But I don't wear many British things now. I wear Chinese coats, for instance; they're all made by Chinese.

You do have your problems. A Government which has been in power for 12 or 13 years, inevitably it's a bit stale. And I believe that there are no leaders who are statesmen. I think that Britain should take pride in having created the welfare state, but they've also reduced people to not only laziness but a great degree of dependency. You cannot accumulate wealth in a place like Britain, not with your taxation; that in itself will prevent people from becoming rich by virtue of working hard. But I do think Britain is coming round to a sort of respect for money. The lottery is an indication; in fact, the country's become rather money mad.

Now the British are leaving Hong Kong. I think it's rather sad; they have been there 150 years and, if there was one instance where the British Empire has got it right, it's probably in Hong Kong. A magical chemistry developed between the British administration and the enterprise of the Chinese. Hong Kong is now the envy of the world. It's got the biggest port in the world, the busiest airport. We have a per capita income of $21,000, higher than the UK, Australia or Canada. In Asia we're third only, behind Japan and Brunei. That's quite something if you consider that it was once only a barren rock. But, because one is Chinese, one is also excited by the prospect of 1997, of being returned to the motherland.

Of course, there are people leaving, about 60,000 a year, but more are returning. Frankly, they're not indispensable. A lot of people have a second home. A lot of people have a third home, or a fourth home. They're very rich.

When Chris Patten told an Any Questions audience in Hong Kong last month that he believed the 3.3 million British passport-holders in the colony should have the right of abode in Britain, the reaction was swift and sharp. "The country is full up," said David Wilshire, the Tory MP. "We have too many immigrants - the last thing we want is more." Lord Tebbit repeated his opposition to "large enclaves of non-British people within these islands", and a serving minister, declining to be named, said, "we don't want a new coolie class".

Three million Chinese! With a little effort, one can see that dread, hypothetical future through these people's eyes: ferries, jumbo jets and Eurostar trains disgorging an endless stream of extended Oriental families, their luggage clanking with woks and griddles, swarming across the countryside, force-feeding us chop suey, and before long, no doubt, demanding bilingual traffic signs.

It's the atavistic fear which always surfaces when this issue is debated in Britain. "Would you like a Hong Kong Chinese family living next door to you?" demanded another minister unattributably in 1989 when the nationality debate was raging. Only last month, the most ingeniously insulting idea was dusted off again when a correspondent to the Times wrote that the "three million" should be admitted - but carefully channelled to "a piece of land, however inhospitable, [and] allowed to operate their own utilities, social services, schools..."

This vision of a Chinese inundation is about as probable as the colonisation of Pluto. Hong Kong Chinese constitute Britain's third largest ethnic minority, behind only West Indians and South Asians: the total number is about 115,000. Like all other immigrants, their access to Britain has been getting harder and harder over the past 30 years with the passing of successive exclusionary laws. But means of entry do remain: for dependants, for spouses of British citizens, for business people willing to invest pounds 200,000 in Britain, for students and others in artistic fields. Last year, a new investor category was created offering residency to those with disposable funds of more than pounds 1 million. In 1990, the Government decided to issue full passports to 50,000 of the colony's leading citizens and their families, and under this scheme about 70,000 passports have so far been issued.

Yet, despite these opportunities, during the past five years only 5,514 Hong Kong Chinese have immigrated to Britain - about 1.4 per cent of all Hong Kong residents who have settled overseas - at a time when anxiety about Hong Kong's future has been intense and the motive to establish a home abroad as a hedge against Communist tyranny has been at its most powerful.

The reason is simple: most Hong Kong Chinese think of Britain as both unwelcoming and unrewarding - our gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of pounds 7,890 is little more than half Hong Kong's. "Most Hong Kong Chinese don't like Britain," says Stephen Yiu, a senior reporter on Sing Tao, the Chinese language daily in London. "It's considered to be a very poor country, with a relatively low standard of living - compared, for example, to France." He blames the colonial past, the recession, and lack of business opportunities, and believes that even those Chinese who have been issued with passports will use them only as a last resort. "Wealthy Hong Kong people are big investors in the property market here, both for investment and as a possible refuge. And many send their children to boarding schools here so they can receive a good education. But my friends say that, unless there was a very big disaster in Hong Kong, they won't come over here."

Many resident Chinese who have assiduously built their careers since coming to Britain in the Sixties find that their success is dwarfed by the wealth of those who stayed behind. "Chinese lawyers go back to Hong Kong because they can't make a living here - they can make much more money in Hong Kong," continued Yiu.

Typical is Roger Lee, an accountant who left Hong Kong in the early Sixties and did much to create the infrastructure of the Chinese community in Birmingham, in the process becoming a JP. But last year, after 30 years in Britain, he returned to Hong Kong. His best friend, Billy Ko, a mental health worker in Birmingham, was sorry to see him go. "He and I were among the leaders of the Chinese community in Britain," he says. "Together, we organised a lot of things: a Chinese school, Chinatown Lions Club, Chinese Conservative Association... I miss him a lot. He went because he saw that there were green pastures in China."

Lee was unusual in leaving it so late in his career. According to Stephen Yiu, ten years is the normal cut-off point. "All the professionals who want to go have already gone," he says. "Those still here are the ones who can't go back because they have no client base left in Hong Kong and everything there has changed beyond recognition."

But, if Britain is indeed so uncongenial to Hong Kong Chinese, why are there so many here in the first place?

The Chinese have been on the move for centuries: at first southwards, through China itself, then, in the 19th century, fanning out across southeast Asia, trading in gemstones, wormwood, saffron and opium, and following the gold rushes to California, Australia and British Columbia. Poverty, war and political anarchy propelled them from their homes, dreams of wealth lured them on. Embryonic Chinese communities sprang up around the Pacific Rim, in Melbourne, San Francisco and Vancouver. Then, in 1923, racist American legislation froze their development, and similar laws in Australia and Canada had the same effect. Migration only resumed in earnest in the late Sixties.

Everywhere they went around the Pacific, the Chinese were pioneers, seeing in the wide-open spaces of undeveloped continents the opportunity to haul themselves out of poverty. But Britain fitted awkwardly into this scheme: it was on the wrong side of the world, already densely populated and highly developed. As a result, it was never considered a promising destination by most migrants. From the end of the 18th century onwards, a few Chinese sailors appeared in the port cities of London, Liverpool, Cardiff and Glasgow, but they were waifs and strays, men paid off and dumped by the East India Company, either waiting for another ship or happy, for one reason or another, not to go back East.

Slowly, their numbers increased, from 78 in 1851 to about 2,000 in 1931, by which time they had found their first economic niche, the Chinese laundry, of which there were about 500. These were wiped out, however, by the arrival of large steam laundries and small laundrettes, and, by 1950, the community had practically disappeared. Like all traditional Chinese migrants, those who now came to Britain saw themselves not as settlers but as "sojourners", staying in foreign parts in order simply to make money. "No Chinese leaves his home not intending to return," AH Smith wrote in his classic work, Chinese Characteristics. "His hope is always to come back rich, to die and be buried where his ancestors are buried."

The second and much larger wave of Chinese coming to Britain began in the Fifties - the result of two unrelated phenomena. Firstly, thousands of peasant rice farmers in the New Territories were hit by the arrival of cheap rice from southeast Asia; and then the British developed an appetite for exotic food after years and years of powdered eggs and spam fritters. British demand was met by Hong Kong supply in a fashion unimaginable in today's world of immigration controls: the number of Chinese restaurants exploded from 36 in 1951 to more than 1,000 in 1967, and Chinese men poured into the country to staff them.

If the task of transforming a peasant rice farmer into a chef seems a daunting one, that is to overestimate the culinary pretensions of the new restaurants. Professor Hugh Baker was told by one restaurant proprietor that the task was simple. "Half an hour's training is enough," he said. "Tell them to use plenty of ginger, bean sprouts and dried citrus peel, give them a wok and a bottle of soy sauce, and they know all there is to know about 'Chinese cooking'."

The new arrivals, too, were in the old Chinese tradition of sojourners: almost all were men who had left their families behind and were sending large sums home, so that when they finally retired they would be welcomed back with full honours. This pattern was fatally distorted by the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which, for the first time, limited the numbers who could come from the Commonwealth to live in Britain. The new law was designed to put a brake on immigration, but, inadvertently, it turned the sojourners into settlers. Demand for restaurant labour continued to soar and, as single men could no longer be recruited, the solution was to bring in the dependants of those already here. Wives turned up in large numbers, and, for the first time in history, Britain had the makings of a permanent Chinese community.

In some ways, it is the most peculiar of our minority peoples, and one of the most deprived. It remains concentrated to an extraordinary degree in catering: estimates range between 70 and 90 per cent. And, because the appetite for Chinese food is inevitably limited, and an average-sized town can sustain only a few Chinese restaurants, the community is finely scattered across the country. The isolation of those in small and far-flung places is almost total. Add to this the fact that kitchen staff routinely work 12 hour days, not getting off work until after midnight, and the image of cultural deprivation is complete. "It is not uncommon", wrote Ng Kwee Choo in The Chinese in London, "for a Chinese cook to emigrate here to work for several years and then return home to the New Territories without exchanging a word with English people." A 26-year-old woman told an anthropologist, "I feel like I am living in a prison. I can't go anywhere alone because I am afraid, and my husband works all the time."

It is small, hidden tragedies of this sort that account for the invisibility of Britain's Hong Kong Chinese compared to other minorities settled here, and it is the rather pathetic image of the kitchen worker that constitutes the stereotype of the Chinese immigrant. Yet this is a stereotype which, in global terms, is drastically out of date.

Nearly 20 per cent of Hong Kong Chinese emigrants have degree-level education, and more than 70 per cent of those of working age have white collar careers. Canada has made a speciality of attracting wealthy Hong Kong residents, and the average so-called "investor-household" there is worth C$1.5 million (pounds 700,000). In 1992, when nearly 30,000 Hong Kong Chinese emigrated to Canada, the resultant flow of money from Hong Kong to Canada was more than pounds 2.3 billion - over pounds 75,000 per individual immigrant. The contrast with the old-style Chinese immigrants, who came in penniless and collectively remitted millions of pounds back to Hong Kong every year, could not be more pronounced. The immigration game today is very different from what it was.

But it is a game which Britain fastidiously declines to play: frightened off by those hypothetical millions of immigrants, we have allowed Britain to be relegated to the margins of Hong Kong Chinese interest - a destination associated with all the negative images of migration.

A little political imagination and flair five years ago might have made a difference; might have enabled the Government to persuade the country that immigrants from Hong Kong need not be a political embarrassment, let alone a burden on the state or "a new coolie class"; but rather, like the Japanese car plants which have transformed the British car industry in the past 15 years, a source of wealth, a powerful stimulus to the economy. By offering the passport-holders the right of abode, we would have earned not only their gratitude but also honorary membership of the Pacific Rim and a ticket to the 21st century.

Unfortunately, Geoffrey Howe was foreign secretary at the time, and it was not to be. The dead sheep won the day

Nin-Fat Lam, chef

Nin-Fat Lam (his English name is Tony) came to England in 1959. He has two sons by his first (English) wife, and a two-year-old son by his present (Chinese) wife. Now 55 and living in Limehouse, he has had a variety of jobs, mainly in catering, and currently works as the chef at the Chopstix takeaway in Ladbroke Grove

I came to England just a few years after leaving school, and stay until now. Sometimes I go back Hong Kong, stay Hong Kong a couple of months or a few weeks. I like Hong Kong very much because I born in Hong Kong, you know, born in the Second World War. I was an unlucky baby. My father was killed by Japanese soldiers when I was three or four years old. I can't remember my father's face. We lived in the New Territories. My mother was a farmer and grew chickens, pigs, everything to sell in the market.

I worked, and my mother saved, and we got the fare and I came here. That was expensive then, 20 or 30 years ago. I came by ship, big ship. It took nearly a month to come here. Everyone was from Hong Kong, Asia, something like that. It was very cold. Every day not much sun, the weather very bad weather. I didn't feel cold because I was still young. I never put an overcoat on. It's different now as I get older.

I stayed at my uncle's, in a double room. It was really nice. I remember it. I worked in a place like this, making coffee, washing up. Then I worked in the milk bar in Piccadilly, by the Haymarket; it was only pounds 7.50 a week.

I had friends working in the laundry. They came 1940, something like that. In those days, when Chinese people came to England, they did the laundry; now it's only restaurants. I saw my friend do the laundry. He had a very big drum, put in 100 or 200 clothes. Nowadays it's all non-iron - every family get a washing machine.

The first time I left that milk bar, I went to a Chinese restaurant in Luton - I worked there for a few years, then moved to London. Last year, I came to this takeaway. Sometimes I take holiday, I come back and haven't got a job and start again. I worked in a fish shop in Limehouse called the Fish Bar for four or five years, 1984 until 1989. And from 1979 or 80, I working in British Telecom canteen. I be management. You know why I left? Because it was all English people, only me Chinese. This [pointing to his skin] was different. Always the manager was arguing with me. He can't get me out, I just leave. Every day, argument. But I can find any job. In 1954, I went to the Cape Cod fish bar - my close friend is Spanish. He always call me back to help him.

I got an uncle in Hong Kong who's old. I look after him. He happy to see me. And my great uncle has a house in the New Territories, a small house - awful. No garden, no fields. I work for a couple of years, saving money, then go to Hong Kong. I don't pay anything there, just a little bit pocket money.

Hong Kong is still pretty busy and clean. Here it's dirty. The law is too soft. In Hong Kong, if you go outside and drop litter, if I see you I can catch you and call the police and you'll get fined. In London, public telephone is broken, and the trains. The law is too soft. Must be tougher. Then you can get clean. But I like it here very much. I know the English life. Tell me now to change my life, maybe I wouldn't like it. I've lived here longer than my own country. I meet my friends, mostly in Chinatown, but I don't go there much because skinny [skint]. If you're poor, a penny is money, isn't it? Me in England, I haven't got one bicycle in my life - don't go talking about your car!

I don't think much will change in 1997. Hong Kong is still going up. They're still building. [1997 will be] nothing to worry about. Tiananmen Square, that was different. It's a different law. You can't worry about that. If I've got the money and time, I will go in 1997 to see the change.

The Cheungs, banking

Born in Hong Kong of a family wealthy in property, Philip Cheung studied finance and management in San Francisco and London. He moved here permanently in 1987. Aged 35, he is the data operations manager and system administrator for a finance company. His wife, Amy, aged 31, came to England in 1980. She graduated in fashion design but now takes care of their two children. They live in an exclusive road near Queensway, west London, but return to Hong Kong once a year to see their parents - Amy's have another home in Canada

Philip My father was in the property business for quite a long while. We're more down-to-earth here. In Hong Kong, you've got servants attending to you all the time.

Amy Everybody's got some help in Hong Kong. A lot of my friends actually went back a few years ago because of that. If you're used to having someone helping you with everything, it's rather difficult to go back to a lifestyle where you have to use your hands. But the people [in Hong Kong] are worried now, though I don't think anyone will admit it. Hong Kong people are always more stressed than anyone else in the world anyway, but they have that kind of nervousness - you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. My father's generation will be the first to leave because they experienced what happened in...

PC ...in 1949, the Revolution. They've seen it all happen before, the way that the government can go down all of a sudden.

AC Some of the family actually ran to Hong Kong in their underwear because of the troops coming to their houses. They didn't have time to pick up their belongings.

PC 1960 was the first time there was something wrong in Hong Kong. The situation was quite tense - you'd see soldiers on the streets. At that point, some Chinese left Hong Kong to go to Canada.

AC I remember my Mum saying that Daddy wanted to move to Canada [in 1987]. It was a major move for them. My Mum doesn't speak much English, she had to learn all over again. And she couldn't take the Filipino maid with them, she had to learn cooking all over again. Both my parents were very brave.

PC My brothers have all got British passports, and they've gone back to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is like living in a five-star hotel, whereas they compare living here to a three-star hotel. But we don't really care. There are other things than a comfortable lifestyle. In Hong Kong, if I work in a bank, I won't have so much time with my children; it's more demanding, the job. My friends who work in the bank in Hong Kong work from 7am to 11pm, whereas here you work from 9.30 to 5.30. Here the pressure is not as great as in Hong Kong, and you choose your own pace. In Hong Kong, people are constantly demanding results.

Veronica Needa

Veronica Needa, 39, is an actress and a member of Hong Kong's large Eurasian community. Her mother is half-Chinese and half-English, her father was half-Japanese and half-Lebanese. She first came to England to study at Nottingham University, and settled permanently in 1983, when she went to the Old Vic Theatre School. Eighteen months ago, she founded Yellow Earth Theatre, a cooperative of British Oriental performers. She lives in a small house in west London with her mother

I grew up in Hong Kong and went to an English primary school because my mother wanted me to grow up as an English girl. At junior school I was forbidden to speak Cantonese, though I still speak it without an accent.

My mother's mother was Chinese; her father was a sea captain from Everton. She never knew her father. She grew up in the Eurasian community in the Twenties and Thirties. My father was probably born in Japan. His father married a Japanese wife, had two children and disappeared: his name was Andre Zaho - he was French, Syrian or Lebanese. My father grew up in China as a stateless Eurasian.

People brought up like me in a colony are taught to be totally apathetic to political issues and issues of self-government because it's not an issue. We are taken care of. So when I first came to this country, it was amazing to meet people who had political opinions. That's why, for Hong Kong, the past six or seven years is such a phenomenal development. There's been a sudden politicisation of an entire culture.

My interest is in working with Chinese who were born here - their direct Hong Kong influence is only through videos. The local British Chinese community is like Hong Kong but 30 years behind. They've isolated themselves, they've slowed down. Then there are Vietnamese and mainland Chinese who came after Tiananmen, and British-born Chinese who don't speak Cantonese at all. My theatre work is very much concerned with healing our identity.

The recently arrived Hong Kong Chinese are very sophisticated, very upmarket, used to mobile telephones and five- star hotels. They're pragmatic about 1997: they're bothered, but that transforms into energy to do all they can. They're going to get on with it. That's why it's thrilling that the Liberal Democrats have got in [in Hong Kong]. They have a real commitment to do everything possible to transform the consciousness of Hong Kong people.

But already those who have ways of getting out of Hong Kong have bought their insurance. An old Chinese man I know sent his wife to Canada for four years to gain residency. Not many people are coming to the UK as their first choice. Maybe there's an affinity because of the associations they've had in Hong Kong, or maybe they prefer the European lifestyle. They just want British passports for insurance. But, even with a British passport, Hong Kong people would not wish to leave Hong Kong unless their physical lives literally depended on it. For most Hong Kong people, life is good. It's a bit more of a struggle in Great Britain.