The adaptable immigrants who look after themselves
Sunday 29 June 1997
Mei Ling, in flip-flops and a cotton cheongsam, is in her nineties now, which makes her almost as old as the New Territories lease. She came to Britain in 1934, following her husband, a Hong Kong seaman who had jumped ship to settle in Limehouse, in the London docks, in the Twenties. "We worked a laundry out the back of the house under a tin roof," she says. "The whole family helped and we had just about enough to get by. In Hong Kong I hadn't worked and my husband had employed two men on a farm, so it was a bad shock at first and the language was difficult. But we never asked the state for anything.
Han Wei Jing, a 75-year-old grandmother shopping at the Chinese supermarket in Lisle Street, came over from the New Territories to work in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants as a vogue for ethnic food swept through Britain in the Fifties. Her six grandchildren have grown up to become management consultants and advertising executives.
"I THINK that Hong Kong should go back to China, but I am worried about what this might mean for my family," she says. "I do visit regularly, but I no longer consider it to be my home. My home is Shepherd's Bush."
Maria, aged six, was born in Camden Town. Her parents, from Hong Kong's Kowloon-side, have settled in Britain on British passports issued in 1990 in the run-up to the handover. She is already bilingual in Cantonese and English and her parents, a doctor and a lawyer, had no trouble finding jobs. "I haven't been to Hong Kong," she says, a little wistfully, "but I have seen it on television. It seems noisy."
Migration to Britain began with a trickle from the 1850s, as Britain forced open treaty ports on China's south coast. Early settlers were seamen, who later sent for their families. They found a niche in the laundry trade, a labour-intensive job nobody else wanted to do, which required little English and could be run from the family home.
In the Fifties, the washing machine forced the adaptable immigrants to turn to cooking. Chinese food could be made in minutes, was cheap to prepare, and those working in the kitchens required no fluency in the English language. As more Chinese came over, families moved out from the ports to open restaurants in inland cities and more remote communities, giving the Chinese a unique pattern of dispersal among British immigrants.
Today, the Chinese are the UK's third largest ethnic community, after Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis from the sub-continent and West Indians. Although there are no accurate figures on how many have settled, the 1991 census found there were 157,000 Chinese people living in Britain - and they are mainly from Hong Kong. Moreover, the Government has granted 135,000 Hong Kong Chinese British passports since 1990.
The Hong Kong Chinese have made a virtue out of invisibility. "There is a definite culture of self-reliance among the community in Britain," says Hugh Baker, Professor of Chinese at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies. "There is a desire not to be visible as far as the authorities are concerned, which is compounded by the nature of their work. If you worklong hours in restaurants you are rarely seen in daylight. This tends to keep them out of trouble, but can bring problems. They may be lonely, not know about their rights, not use the NHS. Many never learn any English."
LAST week, at the Chinese supermarket, heaving with noodles, tinned rambutan, mangoes, Tsingtao beer and huge sacks of monosodium glutamate, customers were reluctant to speak. "It's not a good idea to talk about China," said one man. "You get yourself into trouble and you might get your family abroad into trouble. And although some of us had a very difficult time from the British when we first came over, it would be discourteous to say so. It's best to keep your head down."
Community workers reportthere is no sense of celebration among London's Hong Kong Chinese about the handover, particularly among the working classes, who cannot afford to visit their homeland regularly. Some are worried about their relatives as its partial democracy hangs in the balance, others are proud that the colony is being handed back to its rightful owner. Some will attend the celebrations at London Arena in Docklands, where a satellite link-up will show minute-by-minute footage, but for most it will be just an ordinary weekend.
"I have lived here for over 60 years," says Mei Ling, who says she never expected to outlive the 99-year lease. "I'm not British and I'm not Chinese and I'm no longer Hong Kong Chinese. I'm Hong Kong Chinese British. But it doesn't much matter who's running this country or Hong Kong because we look after ourselves."
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