Occasionally a book comes along that makes you wonder why no one thought to write it before. Barclay Price’s recently published The Chinese in Britain: A History of Visitors and Settlers falls into that category, using letters, photographs and interviews to show how the community has grown in the UK.
The first recorded Chinese immigrant to settle in Britain was William Macao, who arrived in the mid-1770s. He travelled to Britain as a servant to a Scottish doctor in the East India Company, staying on in Scotland after leaving his original employer.
By 1778 he was working as a footman in Edinburgh, before securing the position of Assistant for Male Servants in Edinburgh, a minor government post.
This was the beginning of a lengthy career in the civil service, climbing through the ranks from Excise Accountant to Cashier of Yachts, and then Junior Accountant General.
Macao came to wider prominence because he tried to claim Scottish citizenship through ownership of stock in the Bank of Scotland. The Aliens Act of the time restricted his rights to British nationality, but the courts held that he had a right to be considered a naturalised Scot in a landmark case.
Two years later the decision was reversed, but Macao stayed on in Edinburgh until his death, aged 78.
Price’s book takes us through the stories of those who followed Macao and how the Chinese community began to enlarge.
An increasing number of Chinese visited Britain through the nineteenth century, from travelling entertainers to students and diplomats. Steamships to Hong Kong and Shanghai brought more Chinese to Britain’s shores and the press remarked on their costumes and customs. Chinoiserie (which had been in vogue in interior design and decoration during the eighteenth century) experienced a revival.
PT Barnum even created a Chinese exhibition which toured Edinburgh and London in 1851 and visitors marvelled at the “Chinese family” (performers hired by Barnum, and not a real one).
They wore traditional costumes and the wife’s bound feet attracted much attention.
The group was even invited to visit Queen Victoria.
The arrival of more Chinese saw the creation of Chinatowns in some of the largest cities.
London had the beginnings of a district by the late nineteenth century, and Liverpool also had a small population.
Most of the Chinese were passing through, particularly sailors while their ships were in port, and businesses were established to cater for their needs, offering lodgings and food.
For those who settled more permanently, employment opportunities were limited, so many Chinese chose to open laundries (as their counterparts did in the US and Canada).
By 1930, there were at least 500 Chinese laundries across the UK. Most were family businesses, often run by a Chinese man and his English wife. (As with the Chinese diaspora elsewhere in the world, there was a gender disparity because fewer Chinese women emigrated).
As the twentieth century progressed, Chinatowns became a permanent feature in more cities and even smaller towns began to boast their own Chinese restaurants.
Today people in Britain are generally familiar with Chinese food but it was a novel experience in 1884 when a pavilion was set up at the International Health Exhibition in South Kensington, supported by the Chinese Maritime Customs Service.
It included a restaurant where visitors chewed tentatively into specialities like sea cucumber and birds nest soup. Newspapers across the country reported on this exotic cuisine and the first formal restaurant was opened in Glasshouse Street off Piccadilly Circus in 1908. The proprietors kept things simple, calling it The Chinese Restaurant.
What was once exotic is now a popular part of the UK diet: a 2015 report from research firm Mintel found that 78% of Brits had eaten Chinese food at home in the prior three months and that 12% were eating it at least once a week.
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