A wake-up call for a community that has stayed silent for too long

'Young and old have risen to protest at the Chinese restaurant trade being blamed for foot-and-mouth'
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'Young and old have risen to protest at the Chinese restaurant trade being blamed for foot-and-mouth'

Chinese Britons are seen but never heard in this country in spite of being the third largest group among the so called "ethnic minorities". In fact there are as many Chinese settlers in Britain as there are Bangladeshi Britons ­ approximately 160,000 ­ but you wouldn't know that. They suffer as much external discrimination and internal oppression as people in other communities, but they rarely bring this out into the open, not even when terrible events destabilise their precarious sense of security.

When the 58 young Chinese men and women were found dead in a truck in Dover (the driver and others are at present on trial for this horrific tragedy), Chinese Britons felt too frightened to hold a memorial service and some asked us, a number of journalists and actors, to remember their dead, which we did. A paralysing trepidation seemed to engulf the Chinese people I know and like.

Suddenly, the diffidence has been replaced by resounding fury. Chinese Britons, young and old, have risen to protest at the way Maff and the media have been buzzing around like demented flies seeking the source of this latest foot-and-mouth outbreak and the way they have settled on the Chinese restaurant trade as the (completely unproven) "cause" of the epidemic.

How neatly the focus moves away from Maff and farmers who should never have used pigswill. How vindicated Mr Townend and his repulsive bigots must be feeling as they hug their Anglo-Saxon virtues even more tightly in the face of this latest foreign damnation. One newspaper says that an official report will claim that the "likely" source of foot-and-mouth was "illegally imported meat for possible use in Chinese restaurants". Note: not one restaurant, but all such places.

One tabloid ran a headline "Sheep and Sow Source", panicking readers by suggesting that if they had been into Chinese restaurants recently they might have eaten contaminated meat. Africans too have been "exposed" as importers of smoked rodents and other foul fare; you know, the stuff dark and dangerous "aliens" stuff themselves with.

As ever, the misdemeanours or mistakes of one non-white person drag down the entire race. Mr Fox, the Food Hygiene officer in Newcastle, confirmed to me that he had told the North East Chinese Association that although illegally imported dried beef had been found in a Chinese supermarket, it was for personal use and not for restaurants.

Young Chinese activists such as Jabez Lam, Anna Chen and others refuse meekly to accept this slander. As Chen says forcefully: "We will not put up with this pinning of a yellow star, the yellow-peril warning, pinned to every Chinese living in Britain." They have organised a demonstration next Sunday, and are using the BBC (meaning British Born Chinese) website to inform people and get them to stand up for their rights. For Lam, this is a wake-up call to end the degrading silence of previous generations, who never claimed their place in this society except as servers to satiate the greed and needs of their hosts.

This silence is, in part, a survival strategy and in part the result of being ignored by most institutions, and (ironically) by the more vocal black and Asian Britons who rarely include the Chinese in their anti-racism. It is also the result of a bitter history, collective memories of which still make Chinese Britons anxious. They too have their Windrush stories, only nobody outside knows them.

Like Indian Lascars, low-paid Chinese seamen came here on British merchant ships, from the 18th century onwards. The end of the Opium Wars (which I used to think were about the British trying to stop the Chinese from exporting opium, not the result of forcing them to buy the drug), which ended in 1860, forced many desperately poor Chinese men to take jobs on the ships, ending up on the seaports where they were subjected to vile physical and verbal assaults, especially if they were seen with white women.

In 1908 and 1911 there were violent demonstrations in Liverpool and Cardiff against these men. A large number were deported; a minority were allowed to stay only because they ran useful laundries. Self-op laundries killed those off. The community drew inwards and created a discrete business base. In the 1950s and 1960s Chinese immigrants arrived here from Hong Kong. Many were rice farmers who had been ruined when the US flooded the world markets with American rice. Like other "coloureds", they faced naked racism and discrimination in housing and other areas. Although their children now are doing better than almost any other group and there are many stories of economic success, Chinese Britons still feel they must "behave" in order to be tolerated. They rarely use state benefits or complain. Their dispersal into every corner of the country makes them particularly vulnerable to racism and violence and this, it is feared quite understandably, will now get much worse because of the new foot-and-mouth accusation.

Business has fallen as much as 40 per cent in some restaurants; and 80 per cent of Chinese people here work in that industry. Physical attacks and verbal abuse have started to accelerate. Even before this issue erupted, racist behaviour in Chinese restaurants was causing such concern that the Met has recently initiated an experimental scheme in Westminster, sending plain-clothes police officers to these restaurants to keep an eye on the perpetrators.

A new European Union report, Attitudes Towards Minority Groups in the EU, reveals that "multicultural optimism" is decreasing in Britain, and that compared to many other countries people in the UK display more antagonism towards refugees and other "outsiders".

This is also the week the newly amended Race Relations Act (a commendable achievement, Mr Straw) comes into force. Those who believe in fairies may insist that this is a totally free and fair country, but the rest of us have an obligation not to ignore the racism that is still too common and too easily raised by events. It would be catastrophic if careless talk and generic allegations are allowed to ignite a wave of anti-Chinese racism to add to the frightening national crisis we are already dealing with.