As in so much else the Chinese are almost constantly absent from the migration discussion. This despite the fact that apparently the Chinese, followed by the Indians, are historically the biggest migrators of them all. The Chinese, alone among all other ethnic groups, are present in every single district in the UK. Think of it: in every small town, even in villages where the sight of a black person can still cause people to stare, there is generally a Chinese takeaway.
This, of course, also means the Chinese are very possibly the most disparate and diverse ethnic group. People talk of the Chinese “community” but in truth there is no “Chinese community”. A Hong Kong take-away owner has little in common with a Mainland student who has little in common with a Singaporean IT professional who has little in common with a Taiwanese lawyer who has little in common with a Vietnamese restaurant owner who has little in common with a British born mixed-race actor/playwright. And that’s just a simplified version.
Though it speaks strongly for the willingness of the Chinese diaspora’s willingness to break boundaries to eke out a living, the truth is we pay a heavy price for this adventurism in terms of our isolation. The highest proportion of unrelated race crime is directed towards the Chinese and other East Asians. We are little seen or considered in public life and, although this is improving, have minimal presence on British stages and screens. We have no community “voice”. There is little that binds us, unlike South Asians, united by religious bonds, or African-Caribbeans bonded by a collective experience of savage racism. Robert Winder, in his book Bloody Foreigners, makes the point that the British often complain that migrants won’t “fit in” and, yet the irony is that the Chinese, have made themselves strangely tolerable by keeping their heads down and resolutely not getting involved in any visible aspect of British life i.e. by not “fitting in”.
It wasn’t always the case. The lurid early 20th Century “Yellow Peril” tabloid headlines and election scare-mongering (one party even dressed people up as “Chinamen” to intimidate a constituency into voting against cheap migrant labour) mean the Chinese can lay claim to being the first ethnic group who were actively discriminated against on mass. The US even had an exclusion act solely aimed at the Chinese.
An even more savage irony is that, in the UK, two of the biggest tragedies involving tragic loss of undocumented migrant lives involved Chinese workers. The infamous Dover lorry disaster in 2000 where 58 Chinese migrants suffocated to death in the back of a lorry was followed in 2004 by the Chinese cockle-pickers tragedy where 23 workers drowned on Morecambe Bay beach. The latter event forms the subject matter of our project, Sinking Water, which seeks to musically examine the events that led to this terrible tragedy but also the events that followed. How did the British media and politicians react to this terrible tragedy? What value to the lives of migrant workers, from a traditionally quiet ethnic group, have in the collective British media psyche? Yasmin Alibbhai-Brown wrote an article following the tragedy on “the terrible silence of Britain’s Chinese community”. It was this article that inspired me to try and write this story. In my very humble opinion, we Chinese have been silent too long.