History of Chinese immigration to the United Kingdom

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Chinese immigration to the United Kingdom began during the early 19th century, Because many of the Chinese settlers were originally seamen, the first settlers established themselves in the port cities of Liverpool and London. In London, the Limehouse area became the site of the first European Chinatown. The East India Company, which imported popular Chinese commodities such as tea, ceramics and silks, also brought Asian sailors and needed trustworthy intermediaries to arrange their care and lodgings while they were in London.[1] A Chinese seaman known as John Anthony took on this lucrative role looking after Chinese sailors for the East India Company in the late 18th and early 19th century. By 1805, Anthony had amassed both the fortune and the influence to become the first Chinese man to be naturalised as a British citizen—an act so rare it required an Act of Parliament.[2]

Immigration History[edit]

1800s to World War II[edit]

In 1877, Kuo Sung-tao, the first Chinese minister to Britain, opened the country's legation in London while in 1882 Wu Tin Fang became the first Chinese student to be admitted to the bar association in London. In the mid-1880s, Chinatowns started to form in London and Liverpool with grocery stores, eating houses, meeting places and, in the East End, Chinese street names. In 1891, the Census recorded 582 Chinese-born residents in Britain, though this dropped to 387 in 1896. 80% were single males between 20 and 35, the majority being seamen.

By 1890 there were two distinct, if small, Chinese communities living in east London. Chinese from Shanghai settled around Pennyfields, Amoy Place, and Ming Street (in Poplar, London Poplar) and those from Guangzhou Canton and Northern and southern China Southern China lived around Gill Street and Limehouse Causeway. There was much prejudice against the East End Chinese community largely due to exaggerated reports of gambling and opium dens. This may have been true of some, but for the majority of Chinese people, life consisted of hard work in the London Docklands, struggling to save for a passage for the return voyage to the Far East.[3] Like much of the East End of London East End docklands remained a focus for immigration, but after the devastation of the Second World War many of the Chinese community relocated to Chinatown, London Soho.[4][5]

After the 1890s, the Chinese community in the East End grew in size and spread eastwards, from the original settlement in Limehouse Causeway into Pennyfields. This area was provided for the Lascar, Chinese, and Japanese sailors working the Oriental routes into the Port of London. The main attractions for these men were the opium dens hidden behind shops in Limehouse and Poplar, London Poplar, as well as the availability of prostitutes, Chinese grocers, restaurants, and seamen's lodging-houses. Hostility from British sailors and the inability of many Chinese to speak English fostered racial segregation and concentrated more and more Chinese into Pennyfields. Gradually the shops of Pennyfields were transformed into Chinese Marketplace emporia and their colourful interiors became an exotic contrast to the grey streets of Poplar. It was said at the time that "the Chinese shops are the quaintest places imaginable. Their walls decorated with red and orange papers, covered with Chinese writing indicating the "chop" or style of the firm, or some such announcement. There is also sure to be a map of China and a hanging Tung shing Chinese Almanac."[6] The smells of burning opium, joss-sticks, and tobacco smoked through the hubble-bubble, produced an atmosphere much sought after by the literary and artistic clique coterie of fin-de-siècle London. From the 1890s until the 1920s, parties regularly went east at night, expecting to find the unusual and morally degenerate in Pennyfields. "In the darkness of Pennyfields dark faced men are passing. Over the restaurants and shops are Chinese names."[7]

In 1901, the first Chinese laundry opened in Poplar only to be immediately stoned by a hostile xenophobic crowd. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), concerned about the importation of Chinese labour into the South African gold mines, suggested that the mine-owners and the Conservative Party (UK) Conservative government were "preventing South Africa becoming a white man's country". Also during that time, the first report on the Chinese in Britain was produced by Liverpool City Council amidst concern over Chinese marrying English wives, gambling, and opium-taking. Liverpool's Chief Constable, however, expressed the view that the resident Chinese were "quiet, inoffensive and industrious people".

The first recorded Chinese restaurant opened in London in 1907. By 1918, the number of Chinese living in Pennyfields, Poplar totalled 182; all were men and nine of them had English wives.[8] At its height during the 1930s, Chinatown (which included Limehouse Causeway) consisted of 5,000 residents, many of whom were sailors. A few Chinese remained in Pennyfields until its demolition in the 1960s.[9] As early as the 1920s, many of the houses occupied by the Chinese were described as "very old and in many cases extremely dilapidated externally". Internally, most were clean, uncrowded, vermin-free and less susceptible to infectious disease than their English neighbours.[10] In opposition to cheap Chinese crews, many crowds of angry British seamen prevented Chinese seamen from signing on as ships' crew in 1908. The Chinese had to return to their boarding houses under police escort to avoid molestation. In response to the general increase in hostility, from around 1900–1910, Chinese Benefit society Mutual aid (or Benevolent) associations were set up in London and Liverpool. In contrast to the semi-mythical Hui (secret society) Chinese secret societies, these associations looked after the interests of their members, arranged burials, and assisted in cases of exploitation.

The 1911 Census recorded 1,319 Chinese-born residents in Britain and 4,595 seamen of Chinese origin serving in the British Merchant Navy. At this time, China also underwent domestic and international turmoil as the Republic of China was established with the overthrow of the Manchu Qing dynasty. Turmoil in the Chinese community also affected Britain when during the 1911 Cardiff riots in Wales, every one of the city's 30 Chinese laundries was attacked by Welsh mobs. As more Chinese seamen began to settle in the ports of London and Liverpool, a powerful set of myths began to develop about "Chinatown". The 1913 publication of the first Sax Rohmer novels about the evil genius Dr. Fu Manchu kick-started a near-hysterical interest in London's Limehouse, turning it from a few drab streets of shops and restaurants to the most infamous patch of land in Britain—which supposedly harboured cunning "Chinamen" who lured white women into their opium dens. This exotic netherworld was featured in countless novels, films, and songs, and engrained the stereotype of the Chinese as inscrutable criminals in the heart of western popular culture.[11] A short-lived plan was proposed by the British Government to introduce several hundred thousand Chinese labourers into Britain in 1916, but trade union leaders protested that such a project would have had "calamitous effects on the standard of life". In 1917, 1,083 Chinese left Shaming on a British ship bound for Le Havre, as the first group of a total of nearly 100,000 recruited to unload munitions and supplies in France for the Allies of World War I Allied effort in World War I (see the article Chinese diaspora in France for more details).

After World War I ended, the Aliens Restriction Act was extended in 1919 to include peacetime, bringing about a decline in the Chinese population in Britain. The Zhong Shan Mutual Aid Workers Club was established, offering a meeting place free from British ridicule and humiliation. It aimed to unite the overseas Chinese in Britain, to improve their working conditions and to look after their welfare.[12] Also in 1919, the Cheung Chinese clan|clansmen founded a limited liability company controlling a group of successful restaurants, the first step in a new business trend. The 1921 census figures put the Chinese-born resident population at 2,419, including 547 laundrymen, 455 seamen and 26 restaurant workers.

In the early 1920s, many of the literati of the Crescent Moon Society spent time in British universities, including the Cambridge romantic poet Xu Zhimo (1896–1931) and LSE essayist Chen Xiying. In 1925, the Kuomintang sent a representative to London and established a close relationship with the Zhong Shan Workers Club to gain their support. The 1925–1926 Canton-Hong Kong strike included Chinese workers who were based in the UK, following the May 30 Movement massacre of workers in Shanghai by the British.[13] Effects of the immigration regulations were felt in Liverpool's Chinatown as the local press reported in 1927 that "the whole Chinese quarter has a dying atmosphere". The 1931 Census showed a drop to 1,934 Chinese residents. There were over 500 Chinese laundries established in Britain as well as two to three Chinese restaurants open in Soho catering to the British clientele of the West End theatre crowds.

The first Chinese school—the Zhonghua Middle School—was established in 1935 in Middlefields, Ealing with thirty students. In 1937 at the beginning of World War II, Second Sino-Japanese War Japan attacked China, which led to the establishment of the China Campaign Committee in Britain with the support of Chinese students, intellectuals (such as Professor G.H. Wang, researching at the London School of Economics), and the Chinese communities in London, Liverpool, and Manchester. In 1938, two attempts to load a cargo of iron for Japanese munitions were defeated by dockers on Teesside and in London when Chinese seamen refused to sign on as crew for the Japanese ship, despite the offer of bribes. Also in that year, "China Week" and "China Sunday", supported by the Archbishop of York and other Church leaders as well as the Chinese communities in Britain, raised funds for the International Peace Hospital in Yenan.[14]

When World War II broke out in full in Europe in 1939, the Chinese Merchant Seamen's Pool of approximately 20,000 was established with its headquarters in Liverpool. These men manned oil-tankers on the dangerous Atlantic run. The China Campaign Committee and Chinese students, including K.C. Lim and Kenneth Lo, organised a petition of 1.5 million signatures in 1940, in protest at the closure of the Burma Road by the British Government. During both world wars, hundreds of thousands of Chinese seamen and workers were recruited and many hundreds were killed and injured aboard British ships, including those torpedoed by German submarines. A Chinese seaman called Poon Lim set the world record of 133 days for survival on a wooden raft after his ship was sunk by a German U-boat in 1942.[15]

Despite such risks, Chinese seamen were treated far worse, with less pay and fewer rights than their British counterparts. A London meeting of Chinese seamen launched a campaign, which eventually successful through a strike in 1942, won a wartime danger bonus for Chinese seamen equal to that granted to British seamen.[16] However, as a result, shipping companies including Alfred Holt's Blue Funnel Line labelled the strike leaders "trouble makers" from then on.[16]

After the Second World War was over, with: the UK's infrastructure dilapidated, especially an acute housing shortage after the extensive Nazi Luftwaffe bombing of ports; the shipping companies facing newly launched low-cost competition from the Netherlands and Scandinavia; rising crimes levels associated with the opium trade; and the expected break-up of the former British Empire; the British Government and the shipping companies colluded to forcibly repatriate thousands of Chinese seamen.[16] Most Chinese seamen were employed by the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co Ltd and the Blue Funnel Line, who to legally enable the expatriation of their Chinese seaman, in 1946 forcibly administratively changed the home ports of all of their Chinese workers from the UK back to Asian-based ports within the influence of the British Empire, mainly Hong Hong, Shanghai and Singapore.[16] If seaman refused to be repatriated, they were then legally pursued by the police and the courts with deportation orders.[16] Once repatriated to Asia, with resultant over-staffing, most of the Chinese crews were fired. Many of the seamen left behind wives and mixed-race children that they would never see again.[16] More than 50 years later in 2006, a memorial plaque in remembrance for those Chinese seamen was erected on Liverpool's Pier Head.[17][18]

Post-World War II[edit]

The 1951 Census recorded a big increase in Britain's Chinese population, then standing at 12,523, of whom over 4,000 were from Malaysia, and 3,459 single males from Hong Kong. The influx of Chinese into Britain coincided with the increased pressure in Hong Kong due to the build-up of the huge numbers of refugees streaming in from China following the end of the Chinese Civil War. At the time, nearly 100 Chinese restaurants were open, as former embassy staff and ex-seamen found a niche in this trade. Records showed remittances to Hong Kong of HK$ 2.5 million.

The largest wave of Chinese immigration took place during the 1950s and 1960s and consisted predominantly of male agricultural labourers from Hong Kong, particularly from the rural villages of the New Territories. This also included immigration, through Hong Kong, from the Guangdong province of China. The majority of these Chinese men were employed in the then growing Chinese catering industry. Chinese-run laundry businesses were the other major source of employment for the Chinese, but it was a declining industry and Chinese-run laundries are today non-existent. By 2004 for comparison, according to official figures, just under half of Chinese men and 40% of Chinese women in employment worked in the distribution, hotel, and restaurant industry.[19]

The 1961 Census recorded Britain's Chinese population at 38,750, with a fivefold increase in Hong Kong-born residents in London. The Association of Chinese Restaurateurs was formed to maintain the good reputation of the Chinese catering business and to organise recruitment from the New Territories. Since the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, restrictions were placed on immigration from current and former British colonies, and these were tightened by successive governments. The Immigration act included a voucher system and significant Chinese migration to Britain did still continue by relatives of already settled Chinese and by those qualified for skilled jobs, until the end of the 1970s. Today, a significant proportion of British Chinese are second or third generation descendants of these post-World War II immigrants. Approximately 30,000 workers from the New Territories were resident in Britain in 1962 and records showed remittances at HK$40 million. Ninety-six wives from Hong Kong joined their husbands in Britain in the beginning of that year, indicating a new phase from 'sojourning' to family reunion and a more settled life.

In 1963, Soho's Chinatown finally took over from the East End as the Zhongshan Workers' Club opened in the West End, showing films and running classes. The first Chinese New Year celebrations were held in Gerrard Street. The Overseas Chinese Service opened the first specialised agency to assist the Chinese in dealing with the host society by offering a translation and interpreting service. The Kuo Yuan restaurant introduced Peking Crispy Duck to Britain. In 1971, the Census recorded Britain's Chinese population at 96,030, more than doubling in ten years. By now, nearly every small town and suburb in the UK had its own Chinese restaurant. Out of the 4,000 Chinese owned businesses, about 1,400 were restaurants, indicating that as the market for restaurant trade reached saturation, the takeaway trade had already taken off.

In 1976, Britain's Chinese population included approximately 6,000 full-time students and 2,000 nurses. The Chinese Community Centre opened in Gerrard Street with Urban Aid funding to deal with the problems experienced by the Chinese community. In Northern Ireland, the first ethnic minority to arrive in significant numbers was the Chinese in the 1970s. There are 4,200 speakers of the language (as of 2004)[20] and, although this is dwarfed by the numbers claiming to be able to speak Irish and Ulster Scots, it was said for many years that Mandarin Chinese was the second most widely spoken "first language" in Northern Ireland after English. Chinese people first arrived in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Chinese is the largest non-native restaurant genre in Northern Ireland, as many of the initial immigrants set up food outlets in order to make a living.

In 1980, in what was considered a media breakthrough, David Yip starred as the main character in the popular TV series, The Chinese Detective. The 1981 British Nationality Act deprived Hong Kong British Overseas Territories citizens of the right of abode in the United Kingdom, an issue that caused some controversy in the years leading up to the territory's handover to China in 1997. After the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, it was considered necessary to devise a British Nationality Selection Scheme to enable some of the population to obtain British citizenship to maintain confidence in Hong Kong and to counteract the effects of the emigration of many of its most talented residents. The United Kingdom made a provision to grant citizenship to 50,000 families, whose presence was important to the future of Hong Kong, under the British Nationality Act (Hong Kong) 1990. (See also British nationality law and British nationality law and Hong Kong).

In 1981, the Census recorded Britain's Chinese population as 154,363. Thirty-five Chinese-language newspapers and 362 periodicals were on sale from seven bookshops in Soho. Sing Tao itself had a circulation of 10,000 in Britain. The Chinese population now numbered the elderly, and 30,000 children in British schools. Of these, 75 percent were born in the country, representing a new phase of settlement. In 1982, the Merseyside Chinese Community Services opened the 'Pagoda of Hundred Harmony', an advice centre built with the help of an Urban Aid grant. In 1983, the Chinese Information and Advice Centre (CIAC), an amalgamation of the Chinese Workers Group (1975) and the Chinese Action Group (1980) received Greater London Council (GLC) funding for a centre. Sixty Chinese associations, including women's groups and old people's clubs, were consolidated into two national umbrella organisations. There were approximately 7,000 restaurants, takeaways and other Chinese owned businesses, indicating a slow-down in the rate of growth. There were 926 students attending the Chinese Chamber of Commerce Mother Tongue School, which ran classes up to O-level standard.

The most significant migration from China commenced in mid-1980s. This coincided with the Chinese government's relaxed restrictions on emigration, although most left for the United States, Canada, and Australia. In 1984-85, the British and Chinese governments signed the Draft Agreement on the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong to China in 1997. Construction was also begun of Manchester's Chinatown archway (now the largest in Europe), and was completed in 1987. The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report identified five main problems faced by the Chinese in Britain. Recommendations included more language training, careers advice, community centres, and interpretation and advice services. Over 50 percent of the Chinese population was under 30; 50 percent lived outside the large metropolitan areas; only 2 percent were professionals, which included doctors, solicitors, architects, bankers, stockbrokers, business executives, teachers and university lecturers.

In 1986, Ping Pong, the first Chinese film from the Chinese community in Britain, opened in London. Directed by the British-born director Po-Chi Leong, who had directed several features in Hong Kong, the film was a rich, lively tale set in London's Chinatown. It had a largely unknown cast and dealt with traditional Chinese themes of family responsibility and duty. In 1987, Manchester's Chinatown Archway, the largest in Europe, was completed, marking co-operation between the government of China, Manchester City Council and the local Chinese community. Currently, the largest Chinese arch in the UK is located in Chinatown, Liverpool. It was constructed in 2000 and is also the largest such archway in the world outside of China.[21]

As Hong Kong and China became wealthier during the 1990s, Hong Kong and Chinese parents increasingly sent their children to study in the UK and elsewhere. An estimated 80,000 Hong Kong and Chinese students attended UK universities in the academic year of 2004-05. Small numbers of unskilled migrants from China sought employment in the UK in the early 1990s. In recent years, there has been an increase in illegal immigrants coming from China and other countries into the United Kingdom, some of whom pay traffickers (so-called "snakeheads") to smuggle them into many Western countries. Due to historical and cultural reasons, a sizeable proportion originate from Fujian province in southeast China. Others are citizens from the Commonwealth countries (mostly former British colonies), who have been able to obtain tourist or student visas and remain in the UK after their visas have expired. Most work in the black economy or are employed as illegal cheap labour, usually in agriculture and catering. This activity became publicised nationwide in tragic consequences in the form of the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, though most migrants have remained invisible.

In April 2001, one of the largest demonstrations by the Chinese community, with around 1,000 people protesting, was held in London against media reports that Chinese restaurants had started the 2001 United Kingdom foot-and-mouth crisis by using diseased meat. Within weeks, a Chinese community monitoring group reported that trade at restaurants and takeaways had plummeted because an unsubstantiated rumour had become a scare story labelling an entire community as "dirty". Following the march, the then Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown publicly denied that the rumours had begun in his department and described the controversy as a racist attack on the Chinese community.[22] As of 2001, there were about 12,000 Chinese takeaways and 3,000 Chinese restaurants in the UK.[23]


The Chinese Arch in Liverpool's Chinatown is the largest such arch outside of China

From the beginning of Chinese settlement in the ports of London and Liverpool, there were no Chinatowns but communities of mixed families. Because few Chinese women were able to come to Britain, Chinese seamen established homes with local women. Many did not actually marry because that meant the woman could lose her British citizenship and would become an alien, resulting in restrictions on travel and benefits. The children of such unions often faced discrimination when it came to finding jobs. Many followed the example of Yorkshire-born Harry Cheong who had an exemplary army record during the Second World War, including fighting in Burma for which he was mentioned in dispatches. But on leaving the army he had to change his surname to get a job interview and has since lived as Harry Dewar. Such name changes have meant much Chinese history in Britain is now difficult to trace. Notable people who had Chinese fathers and English mothers include footballer Hong Y "Frank" Soo, who played for Stoke City (1933–1945) and Leslie Charteris who wrote The Saint novels that were made into the successful 1960s TV series.[24]


The first presence of Chinese people in Liverpool dates back to the early 19th century, with the main influx arriving at the end of the 18th century. This was in part due to the Alfred Holt and Company establishing the first commercial shipping line to focus on the China trade. From the 1890s onwards, small numbers of Chinese began to set up businesses catering to the Chinese sailors working on Holt's lines and others. Some of these men married working class British women, resulting in a number of British-born Eurasian Chinese being born during World War II in Liverpool. At the beginning of the War, there were up to 20,000 Chinese mariners in the city. In 1942, there was a strike for rights and pay equal to that of white mariners. The strike had lasted for 4 months. For the duration of the War these men were labelled as "troublemakers" by the shipowners and the British Government. At the end of the conflict, they were forbidden shore jobs, their pay was cut by two-thirds and they were offered only one-way voyages back to China. Hundreds of men were forced to leave their families, with many of their Eurasian children continuing to live in and around Liverpool's Chinatown to this day.[25]


London's Chinatown, located in the Soho area of the West End of London.

Britain began trading with China in the 17th century and a small community of Chinese sailors grew up around Limehouse over the next two centuries. From the early 20th century, restaurants and laundries dominated this dockside Chinatown. Due to heavy bomb damage, however, the area was demolished after World War II. The Chinese established a new and larger Chinatown in Soho. Many immigrants found employment in its restaurants during the 1960s and it is now a flourishing Chinese community in the heart of London.

The history of Chinese migration to London can be traced to the early 15th century, when the Ming Emperors of China sent out a series of fleets, many under the command of the Admiral Zheng He. These fleets consisted of the largest ships built anywhere in the world at the time. Their missions were to sail throughout the Far East, across the Indian Ocean to India, the Red Sea, and the East coast of Africa.

The Chinese communities of Southeast Asia, especially those of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, are thought to date from this period. The arrival of the first Chinese seamen in London was linked to the growth of British trade with China and Southeast Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries. Chinese sailors had reached London on board East India Company ships by 1782. This small group lived around Pennyfields and Limehouse Causeway near the docks.

As the activities of the most important commercial association in the world at that time, the East India Company, expanded, China became a hugely important and profitable market. In the mid-18th century, imported Chinese products became fashionable, particularly porcelain. Tea dominated the Anglo-Chinese trade as it quickly became an English habit and its consumption grew in Britain, but there was nothing comparable that the Chinese wished to buy from the British.

The Company began to export opium from India to China, selling the drug to raise the money to buy shipments of tea. This was against the law and angered China's authorities. In 1839, war broke out between Britain and China over the opium trade. Britain defeated China and under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, Hong Kong became a British colony.

In 1857, the Second Opium War resulted in the unequal Treaties of Tianjin which included a clause allowing Britain and France to recruit Chinese to the British Colonies, North American, South America, and Australia as cheap labour (otherwise known as "Coolies") following the cessation of the slave trade. Forced to pay for defeat in these and other colonial wars, impoverished Chinese people were driven abroad where they were often treated with suspicion, hostility, and even violence. Cheap labour was often used as a pretext by British employers against demands for higher wages, and Chinese people became targets for frustrated British seamen. For example, the Ebbw Vale Company threatened to import cheap Chinese labour from Nevada to break a strike of their workers in Wales. Yet frequently the community did organise itself to better its conditions. The record of British people is not all negative either; for the most part, it was only a minority who did speak out and join with Chinese people to fight these injustices.[26] Chinese sailors were employed as Lascars on East India Company ships. Most Chinese seamen were engaged in the "country trade" between China and the main Indian ports. Some did make it to London on East Indiamen. Later in the 19th century, as more ships—especially the fast tea clippers—sailed directly from China to Britain, the number of Chinese sailors in the port increased. There was even a visit to London by a Chinese junk. The Keying reached Gravesend on 28 March 1848, after sailing from Canton to New York. This was the first Chinese vessel to enter the Port of London. Queen Victoria boarded it while moored in the River Thames.

For those Chinese who were left destitute in east London, there was some hope that they would be accepted into the Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders. This place of safety was opened in 1857 in West India Dock Road. Research into local inquests has highlighted some maltreatment of Chinese crew. In one case, a Chinese Lascar called Chan arrived in London from Calcutta on the ship Norma. Chan, who was in a very weak condition, was found by two other Lascars who carried him to the Dreadnought hospital ship at Greenwich. Almost as soon as he boarded the ship, he collapsed and died. A coroners' examination showed that he had died from starvation. In 1860, a total of 47 Chinese were admitted to the Seamen's Hospital. In 1863, two Chinese inmates who had been at the Strangers' Home for a year retired to spend the rest of their days in London. Between 1854 and 1856, many Chinese seamen were housed at the "Oriental Quarters" by the riverside at Shadwell. They were off the High Street, near the present day Wapping Underground Station. These Oriental Quarters were lodging houses frequently run by English women who often spoke Oriental languages, and went by names such as Chinese Emma or Canton Kitty. Their premises were often used as gambling houses and opium dens. Some ran Chinese gambling houses, where card games were held downstairs and the upstairs served as an opium room. About 20 Chinese men lived in each. The 1851 census found 78 Chinese-born residents all living in London and a parliamentary enquiry expressed doubt as to whether there was sufficient space for living conditions. The China tea trade via Canton was resumed despite increased competition from India, which quickly surpassed China as the primary source of tea. In December 1877, the Louden Castle discharged 40,000 packages of China tea at the London Docks. Chinese seamen stranded in London were allowed to work in the docks and many were involved in unloading China tea. One of the best-known Chinese Lascars was James Robson. Robson had been found as a castaway baby and taken on board a British ship by the wife of the captain. James was brought to London and grew up at Poplar. He became a seaman and cook on the Cutty Sark between 1885 and 1895. Another Chinese man who served on the Cutty Sark was Ah Sing Lee, a steward from Singapore. He was taken on at Shanghai in 1879 and discharged at London in 1880.

The 1881 British census included British vessels at sea that had a number of Chinese aboard Royal Navy vessels, such as the HMS Encounter, the HMS Comus, and the HMS Sheldrake. There were also Chinese cooks, stewards, and servants on board the HMS Mosquito and the HMS Iron Duke. The British India Steam Navigation Company (BISNC), with ships such as the SS Almora and the Blue Funnel Line brought more Chinese seamen to London, especially after 1890. By the 1850s, there were occasional records of Chinese women arriving in Britain as the nurses or 'Amahs' to British missionaries who had served in China. One example is Sing Seng, who arrived in London in 1858 from Ningpo. After some time in London, she returned to China in the service of a bishop to Hong Kong. Local sources suggest that by 1860 there were some Chinese men married to English women. Many lived at riverside settlements such as Deptford and Woolwich. Most Chinese seamen lived to the north of the river. By 1880, the Chinese community was based in Limehouse and consisted mainly of seamen from Shanghai and Canton who catered for the Chinese and Indians that arrived at the docks. In 1881, there were several Chinese seamen living in the boarding house of Mr M. Lamar at 14 Limehouse Court. By 1890, there were two distinct communities in London— Chinese from Shanghai were settled around Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street (presently the area between Westferry and Poplar DLR stations), and the Chinese from Canton and Southern China were settled around Gill Street and Limehouse Causeway. The historian Sir Walter Besant put the Limehouse Chinese community at less than 100 people in 1891.

By the end of the 19th century, the transient Chinese dock community in London numbered over 500. Virtually all were single men, and some married English women. In 1901, there were more than 40 Chinese sailors aboard the Bulysses at the Royal Albert Docks: 21 were from Canton, 12 from Soochow, at least three from Hainan Island, and one from Hong Kong. By 1911, the area of Limehouse and Pennyfields was known as Chinatown. At Pennyfields there was a Christian Mission for the Chinese and a Confucian temple. At Limehouse Causeway there was the famous Ah Tack's lodging house. There was much prejudice against the East End Chinese community, with much of it initiated by the writings of Thomas Burke and Arthur Henry Ward. Both of these men wrote about the Chinese community. Burke and Ward exaggerated the Chinese community's true size and made much mention of gambling, opium dens, and "unholy things" in the shadows. Though there were some individuals involved in gambling and opium smoking, for the majority of Chinese people life was hard work in the docks. It was a struggle to find passage for the return voyage to the Far East. The novelist Arnold Bennett, who visited the Limehouse Chinatown in April 1925, correctly remarked: "On the whole a rather flat night. Still we saw the facts. We saw no vice whatever. Inspector [of Police] gave the Chinese an exceedingly good character."

Changes to labour laws during the early 20th century meant that Chinese sailors found it increasingly difficult to find employment on ships. They turned instead to running restaurants and laundries. The rector at St Anne's, Limehouse, estimated that at its peak after the First World War the local Chinese community never numbered more than 300 people. At that time, the community was still based around Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields. The area was marked with lodgings for seamen and restaurants. These streets were heavily bombed during The Blitz. During World War II, around 10,000 Chinese men enrolled in the Merchant Navy while others defended Hong Kong and undermined Japanese forces in the Far East. London's docklands were badly damaged by bombing, and the remains demolished by the council. Now, only their names remain to evoke the past community. There are names such as Canton Street, Mandarin Street, Pekin Street, Ming Street and Nankin Street. Today, mostly elderly Chinese people live in the Limehouse area. Despite the decline of the London shipping industry, the Chinese population grew steadily after the Second World War. After the war, the Chinese began to move into Soho and bought up cheap property. Entire families were also entering the laundry trade. Chinese hand laundries were made obsolete in the 1950s by the introduction of laundrettes and eventually much later the widespread use of domestic washing machines.

Yet the Chinese community continued to grow in the 1960s. This expansion was in part due to the labour shortage in Britain and the demand for Chinese labourers. During the same period, there was a collapse of traditional agriculture in the New Territories (the mainland area of Hong Kong), as farmers became disillusioned with land reform in Hong Kong and faced tough competition from rice farmers in Thailand and Burma. This led to the migration of single men seeking employment in Chinese restaurants in London, especially in the Soho and Bayswater areas. Most spoke Cantonese or Hakka, though written Chinese was a means of communication for the whole community. These restaurant workers sent part of their wages home to support their families. The increase in immigration was initially composed of single men coming to Britain on work permits. Sometimes the men would register their age as 10 years younger than they really were. This was especially true of those seeking employment in the Merchant Navy. After saving enough money they would bring their families over and establish their own catering businesses. During the 1960s, the number of Chinese people in London rose fivefold. The Chinese established various organisations such as language schools, gambling houses for socialising, and a Chinese Church in the West End. One notorious club was the Chi Kung Tong (Achieve Justice Society), the first Triad Society in Britain.[27]

The city's largest ethnic minorities. See also The Guardian newspaper's January 2005 survey and maps of ethnic and religious diversity in London[28]

By the late 1960s, the Chinese restaurants and shops around Gerrard Street, Lisle Street, and Little Newport Street had evolved into "Tong Yan Kai", otherwise known as Chinatown. The general public developed a taste for Chinese food during the postwar restaurant boom. In the 1970s and 1980s, many ethnic Chinese who had settled in Vietnam for generations were forced to leave as "boat people" following the Vietnam War. Many settled in Lewisham, Lambeth, and Hackney, as well as elsewhere in the UK. The 1980s and 1990s saw a migration of academics and professionals from Chinatown to the suburbs of Croydon and Colindale. Since the 1980s, London's Chinatown has been transformed by Westminster City Council to become a major tourist attraction and a cultural focal point of the Chinese community in London. Today over 100,000 Chinese people live in London, and are more evenly dispersed throughout the city and its boroughs. Roughly a quarter of the Chinese population of the United Kingdom now live in London, mainly in the boroughs of Barnet, Haringey, Waltham Forest, Hackney, Southwark and Westminster. Mare Street in Hackney is the hub of a small Vietnamese community. The principal languages of the London Chinese community are Cantonese and Hakka (from the New Territories, Hong Kong, and Vietnam). There are also some speakers of Hokkien, Teochew and Hainanese. The Chinese from the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, and Singapore tend to speak Mandarin (or Putonghua). A large network of Chinese schools and community centres offers support and a means of passing on cultural identity from one generation to the next.


Sheffield has no official Chinatown although London Road, Highfield is the centre of the Sheffield Chinese community. There are many Chinese restaurants, supermarkets, and community stores as well as the Sheffield Chinese Community Centre. The Sheffield Chinese community is pressing for the street to be formally labelled Sheffield's Chinatown. The Chinese community in Sheffield is also spreading toward the city centre, with a notable number of Chinese people, greatly influenced by the city's university, which has the largest number of Chinese in the country.


The largest two communities of Chinese people in Wales are in Swansea (approx 2,000+),[29] and Cardiff (approx 1,750+), both of which were major port towns. A number of the former seamen from the port of Liverpool have also retired like the native locals into rural North Wales, with a resultant aged community in Gwynedd.[30] There are noted Chinatowns in both cities, as well as dedicated Chinese cemeteries.[31]


  1. ^ A South Asian History of Britain: Four Centuries of Peoples from the Indian Subcontinent, Michael Fisher, Shompa Lahiri and Shinder Thandi. London: Greenwood Press, May 2007.
  2. ^ The Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1805 - obituary of John Anthony
  3. ^ Pennyfields British History Online
  4. ^ Port Cities: London's First Chinatown accessed 29 May 2007
  5. ^ 'Chinatown' literature accessed 10 May 2007
  6. ^ J. Platt, 'Chinese London and its Opium Dens', Gentleman's Magazine, vol.279, 1895, pp.274–82.
  7. ^ E.S. Pankhurst, "From Piccadilly to Poplar", Workers Dreadnought, vol.XI no.8, 10 May 1924.
  8. ^ 29. THLHL, Pennyfields Application for Ration Books 1918.
  9. ^ GLRO, LRB, Property Services Dept, Register of Property 3780/3, 4, 11, 45, 50, 51.
  10. ^ PBC Mins, 1920, p.302.
  11. ^ "Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900-1940", Dr John Seed. History Workshop Journal, No. 62 (Autumn 2006), pp.58-85
  12. ^ Aliens Acts 1905 and 1919 - Exploring 20th Century London
  13. ^ Carroll, John Mark Carroll. A concise history of Hong Kong. Rowman & Littlefield publishing. ISBN 0-7425-3422-7, ISBN 978-0-7425-3422-3. pg. 100
  14. ^ T. A. Raman and Anup Singh China's International Peace Hospitals. Far Eastern Survey, Vol. 12, No. 8 (19 April 1943), pp. 79-81.
  15. ^ Sole Survivor: A Story of Record Endurance at Sea, Ruthanne Lum McCunn (Scholastic NY 1996) The fictionalised account of the Chinese seaman Poon Lim, whose British merchant ship was torpedoed by German submarines in 1942. His 133 days of survival on a wooden raft is still the longest recorded survival story in modern history.
  16. ^ a b c d e f https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33962179
  17. ^ Yvonne Foley has set up Half and Half, a network for families of Chinese seamen who were repatriated after the Second World War.
  18. ^ Chinese Liverpudlians: A history of the Chinese Community in Liverpool, by Maria Lin Wong. Liver Press, 1989.
  19. ^ National Statistics 2004
  20. ^ House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 20 January 2004 (pt 13)
  21. ^ http://www.visitliverpool.com/site/chinese-arch-p54681
  22. ^ Chinese Britain BBC News Online
  23. ^ Chinese restaurant 'not disease source'
  24. ^ BBC - Radio 4 - Chinese in Britain
  25. ^ Liverpool and its Chinese Seaman
  26. ^ The Chinese in Britain This is a historical article from an early issue of China Now magazine. Jenny Clegg tells the story of Britain's Chinese community and their hosts' ambivalent reaction. Abridged from SiYu magazine Feb/March 1988.
  27. ^ Robertson, Frank. Triangle of Death. The Inside Story of the Triads - the Chinese Mafia. Routledge 1977. p. 14.
  28. ^ January 2005 survey and maps of ethnic and religious diversity in London Guardian Online
  29. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_west/3654578.stm
  30. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/north_west/5052176.stm
  31. ^ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_east/8602713.stm