‘The Chinese’ by P.J Waller was an article published in History Today in 1985. It describes in detail the role of Chinese immigrants who came to Britain post 1851. This article covers a range of topics from attitudes towards Chinese immigrants, the influence the Chinese had on horticulture, and the presumptive stereotypes the British had on the people still living in Asia. One of the main points of this article is to show that despite Chinese immigration being one of the lowest in Britain – 91,000 in 1983 (0.2% of population.) – they still had a profound impact on British culture.
This article focuses on how the Chinese were described as ‘ambivalent’. This was because those who began to dislike them were the poorer classes, whereas those who embraced their culture were typically the British elite. The poorer classes were more likely to dislike the Chinese because they created greater competition for jobs. However, the Chinese were willing to take lesser wages and did not mind harsher working conditions making them more desirable to employers. For example, they opened laundries taking business away from women and the poor who relied on doing washings to help get extra income. This caused 30 Chinese laundries to get wrecked in 1911 by rioters during the transport workers strikes. This was different from the elite who admired their metal, cloisonné, stoneware, porcelain, and ivory designs. However, even amongst the British elite they were still sceptical of what type of people are coming over from China. For example, it was primarily male who immigrated over from China – by 1911, 87 Chinese born were female – causing concern about British racial purity.
Interestingly, the Chinese rarely ever created homogenous communities in Britain and out of all the different immigrant groups, the Chinese were the least assimilated. They were typically dispersed across Britain with there communities covering one or two streets. These were adequately nicknamed, ‘Little Chinatowns’. These communities were quickly given a negative reputation based on the already negative Chinese stereotypes. For example, they were associated with crime, gambling, and opium abuse. The Chinese immigrants were usually refugees escaping persecution from Hong Kong and Malaysia, particularly during the late 19th century. This resulted in them getting homed by the government which was perceived as ‘special’ treatment by the poorer Brits. This meant that Chinese homes were frequently broken into and looted. Chinese restaurants were also a significant economic driver and acted as a communal meeting place for the Chinese. By 1960, there was over a thousand restaurants in Britain, employing anywhere between 5 and 15 people.
Waller spends a good portion of his article describing how the British perceived the people on mainland China. They viewed it as a country with centuries of despotism ruled by the same family for 1300 years. The Brits felt that the Chinese were more primitive as a result due to what they believed was citizens being oppressed for centuries whilst the rich just stayed rich. This also went against the British increasing liberal views, hence why they feared the prospect of millions of Chinese immigrating to Britain at once in the future.