- 1686: A young Jesuit convert from Nanking called Shen Fu Tsong arrives at the court of James II, becoming the first-recorded Chinese person to enter Britain. The King has Shen’s portrait painted and hung in his bed chamber. Shen works to catalog the Chinese collection in the Bodleian Library.
- 1700s: The English East India Company, which imports popular Chinese commodities such as tea, ceramics and silks, brings some Chinese sailors ashore.
- 1805: A specific Act of Parliament allows a Chinese man known as John Anthony to become the first Chinese man to be naturalized as a British citizen.
- 1803-1815: British merchant shipping companies employ Chinese sailors during the Napoleonic wars to replace the British sailors called up to serve in the British navy. They discover that the Chinese are cheaper, do not get drunk and are easier to command.
- 1842: Britain defeats China. Under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking, Hong Kong becomes a British colony.
- 1855: Wong Fun from Edinburgh receives his MD and becomes the first Chinese student to graduate from a British university.
- 1857: The Second Opium War results in the unequal Treaties of Tianjin, which include clauses allowing Britain and France to recruit Chinese to the British Colonies, North and South America and Australia as cheap labor (“coolies”) following the cessation of the slave trade.
- 1860s: The launch of new steam ships leads to increased recruitment of Chinese seamen to work on trading routes from the Far East. Chinese seamen are subjected to maltreatment, provided with less pay and afforded fewer rights than their British counterparts—a practice that will continue well into the 1900s.
- 1865: The first direct steamship service from Europe to China is established in Liverpool by Alfred and Philip Holt’s Blue Funnel Line, utilizing cheap Chinese crews.
- 1877: Kuo Sung-tao, the first Chinese Minister to Britain, opens a legation in London.
- 1881: Census indicates a total of 224 Chinese in Britain. (This figure errs on the conservative side, as the Chinese living in Britain tended to treat all agents of the British state with suspicion and hide themselves from census officers.)
- 1882: Wu Tin Fang becomes the first Chinese student to be admitted to the bar in London.
- mid-1880: Chinatowns begin to grow in London and Liverpool, with grocery stores, eating houses, meeting places and Chinese street names in London’s East End.
- 1890: There are two distinct-but-small Chinese communities in East London. Those from Shanghai settle around Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street (in Poplar) and those from Canton and Southern China around Gill Street and Limehouse Causeway. Prejudices arise against the East End Chinese communities due to exaggerated reports of gambling and opium dens.
- Late 1800s: Chinese seamen settle in ports such as London and Liverpool. A thriving Eurasiatown/Chinatown emerges in Liverpool, the hub of the Empire’s sea trade. Few Chinese women are able to come to Britain and Chinese seamen begin setting up home with local women. Many of these mixed couples cannot marry because the woman would automatically lose her British citizenship as a result of such a legal union.
Zhang Zhidong, an eminent Chinese politician of the late Qing Dynasty, advocates educational reform, believing that western learning is crucial to helping China to catch up with the West. A steady flow of students from China arrive in Britain to study at Cambridge or the LSE. Many Chinese graduates end up staying on in Britain.
From this period until well into the 1900s, educated Chinese are shunned from certain careers. The first Chinese doctors trained in Britain are unable to pursue preferred careers such as obstetrics and gynecology because of a lingering taboo against foreign doctors having intimate contact with European women.
- 1891: Census records indicate 582 Chinese-born residents in Britain.
- 1896: Census records indicate a decline in the number of Chinese-born residents to 387, of whom 80% are single males between 20 and 35, the majority being seamen.
- Late 1800s to early 1900s: The violent, anti-Christian and anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion in China causes the Chinese living in Britain to be viewed with suspicion.
- Early 1900s: Hundreds of Chinese laundries around Britain serve the needs of the British army, as well as British households and businesses.
The Liverpool City Council becomes concerned about Chinese men marrying English wives, gambling and opium consumption. Liverpool’s Chief Constable, however, expresses the view that the resident Chinese are a “quiet, inoffensive and industrious people.”
The Trades Union Congress (TUC), concerned about the importation of Chinese labor into the South African gold mines, suggests that mine-owners and the Conservative government are “preventing South Africa becoming a white man’s country.”
Acrobat and remarkable Chinese woman, Song Ling Whang, makes an overland journey of more than 10,000 km from China to Britain on foot (or rather on her tiny claw-like feet that had been bound and mutilated, as was the custom of the bourgeois in China at the time).
A powerful set of “Chinatown” myths begin to develop:
- An exotic Chinatown netherworld is featured in countless novels, films and songs. The stereotype of the Chinese as inscrutable criminals is firmly planted in the western popular culture.
- refer to 1913: Sax Rohmer below
The children of mixed unions face discrimination and many of them change their names, making it difficult to trace their Chinese-British heritage. One example of a notable person in this category is Leslie Charteris, who wrote The Saint series of books that were later made into successful TV series.
- 1900 to 1910: In response to the general increase in hostility against the Chinese, Chinese Mutual Aid (or Benevolent) associations are set up in London and Liverpool. In contrast to the semi-mythical Chinese (Masonic) secret societies, these associations look after the interests of their members, arrange burials and assist in cases of exploitation.
- 1901: The first Chinese laundry opens in Poplar and is immediately destroyed by a hostile xenophobic crowd.
- 1907: Opening of the first Chinese restaurant in London.
- 1908: Crowds of angry British seamen opposed to the hiring of cheap Chinese crews prevent Chinese seamen from signing on ships; the Chinese return to their boarding houses under police escort.
- 1911: Census indicates 1,319 Chinese-born residents in Britain and 4,595 seamen of Chinese origin serving in the British Merchant Navy. (This figure errs on the conservative side, as the Chinese living in Britain tended to treat all agents of the British state with suspicion and hide themselves from census officers.)
In a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, every single Chinese laundry in Cardiff is attacked during the Cardiff riots.
- 1913: The publication of Sax Rohmer’s series of novels about the evil genius Dr. Fu Manchu creates a hysterical interest in London’s Limehouse district, turning the few drab streets of shops and restaurants into an infamous patch of land in Britain which supposedly harbors cunning “Chinamen” who lure white women into their opium dens. This exotic netherworld is featured in countless novels, films and songs and puts the stereotype of the Chinese as inscrutable villains firmly at the heart of western popular culture.
- 1916: The British Government abandons plans to introduce several hundred thousand Chinese laborers into Britain, when trade union leaders protest that such a project would have “calamitous effects on the standard of life.”
- WW1: A British ship carries 1,083 Chinese from Shandong, China, bound for Le Havre, as part of the first group of 100,000 coolies recruited from to serve in the British Chinese Labour Corps digging trenches and latrines, repairing roads and railways, and unloading munitions and supplies in France for the Allied effort. Hundreds of Chinese students serve as translators. Many also work in armaments factories and naval shipyards or help to build munitions depots for a pittance of one to three francs a day. The Chinese are never allowed beyond camp grounds or to fraternize locally. The Chinese workers are identified and addressed not by their name, but by a reference number. (Their contribution will largely be forgotten until military ceremonies resume in 2002 at the Chinese cemetery of Noyelles-sur-Mer, France. Some 5,000 to 7,000 remain in France, forming the nucleus of what becomes the Chinese community in Paris. See also: Strange meeting: China and the First World War and China’s WWI effort draws new attention.)
- 1918: Census records show the number of Chinese living in Pennyfields, Poplar at 182; all are men, 9 of whom have English wives.
At the end of WW1, the Chinese Labour Corps numbers some 96,000. The remaining Chinese workers are put to work learning mines, recovering the bodies of soldiers and filling in miles of trenches.
- 1919: The Aliens Restriction Act is extended to peacetime, causing a decline in the Chinese population in Britain.
Some 80,000 in the Chinese Labour Corps continue to be contracted in post-WW1 Europe. They become the target of scapegoating by returning Belgian refugees and are ordered out of the country by the Belgian government. Some of the Chinese workers are allegedly rounded up in shacks and blown up by grenades to avert repatriation expenses.
The Zhong Shan Mutual Aid Workers Club is established, offering a meeting place free from ridicule and humiliation by the British, aiming to unite the overseas Chinese in Britain, improve their working conditions and to look after their welfare.
The Cheung clansmen found a limited-liability company controlling a group of successful restaurants — the first step in a new trend.
- 1920s: Many houses occupied by Chinese are described as “very old and in many cases extremely dilapidated externally,” although internally, most are clean, uncrowded, vermin-free and less susceptible to infectious diseases than their English neighbors.
- 1921: Census reports 2,419 Chinese living in Britain, including 547 laundrymen, 455 seamen and 26 restaurant workers. (This figure errs on the conservative side, as the Chinese living in Britain tended to treat all agents of the British state with suspicion and hide themselves from census officers.)
- 1925: The KMT (Kuomintang—Nationalist Party of China) sends a representative to London, establishing a close relationship with the Zhong Shan Workers Club.
British police in Shanghai open fire on demonstrators, killing 12 and wounding many more. A few weeks later, Anglo-French military forces shoot and kill 52 protestors in Shanghai. Strikes in China and Hong Kong spread to the Chinese living in Britain, who call for a boycott of British goods. The British government clamps down on Chinese immigration and the Chinese population begins a decline that will last several years.
- 1930s: Chinatown (including Limehouse Causeway) comprises some 5,000 Chinese residents, many of whom are sailors.
- 1931: Census indicates a decline to 1,934 Chinese residents. There are more than five hundred Chinese laundries established in Britain, and two Chinese restaurants in Soho catering to British clientele and West End theater crowds.
- 1935: The first Chinese school, Zhonghua Middle School, is established in Middlefields, Ealing, with 30 students.
- 1937: Japan wages full-scale war, attacking Chinese cities. The China Campaign Committee is set up in London, Liverpool and Manchester.
- 1938: Two attempts to load a cargo of iron for Japanese munitions are defeated by dock workers in Teesside and London, led by Chinese seamen who refuse to sign on the Japanese ship, despite hefty bribes offered.
The Archbishop of York and other church leaders organize “China Week” and “China Sunday” to raise funds for the International Peace Hospital in Yenan, China.
- 1930s to 1940s: Chinese women, mostly the wives of Chinese diplomats and intellectuals, mingle with the upper stratum of British society.
- 1935: Hsiung Shih-I becomes the first Chinese to write and direct a West End play, an adaptation of the popular Chinese story Lady Precious Stream. It runs for 1,000 nights in London to glowing reviews and becomes a staple of repertory and school productions.
- 1938-1944: Author Chiang Yee publishes his immensely popular Silent Traveller books in London, Oxford, Edinburgh and the Lakelands, through which he casts a humorous Chinese gaze on British life.
- 1939-1945: On the outbreak of WW2 in Europe, thousands of Chinese seamen are recruited to serve aboard British Navy and merchant ships. The Chinese Merchant Seamen’s Pool of approximately 20,000 Chinese seamen is established, with its headquarters in Liverpool. Chinese seamen are stationed on oil tankers for dangerous Atlantic runs. The British Merchant Navy keeps vital supply lines open, with 15% of its crew comprising Chinese seamen. Hundreds are killed and injured. Despite such risks, Chinese seamen are treated far worse than their British counterparts and provided with less than half the standard pay and afforded fewer rights. The Chinese Seamen’s Union leads strikes to demand and eventually win, a War Risk Bonus of £10(month normally available to all other British sailors.
Many Chinese sailors start families with English women, who are unable to marry them, due to being under 21 and the prospect of losing British nationality. The British press refers to these women as “loose” and of “the prostitute class.”
- 1940: The China Campaign Committee and Chinese students organize a petition of 1.5 million signatures to protest against the closure of the Burma Road by the British government.
- 1942: Chinese seaman Poon Lim sets the world record for surviving 133 days alone in the South Atlantic on an 8-by-8-foot raft after his ship is sunk by a German submarine. After months at sea, a freighter passes nearby, but on approaching and realizing he is Chinese, the crew ignores his calls for help and moves on. He is spotted by a German U-boat performing gunnery drills in the area, which also chooses not to rescue him. He hits landfall at the mouth of a Brazilian river and spends four months in hospital until he is repatriated to the UK. Fully recovered, he decides to emigrate to the US to join the Navy, but is denied entry due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. However, due to his fame, Senator Warren Magnuson grants him a special dispensation.
The US Navy subsequently deems him “unfit to be a sailor” due to having flat feet (although this is a prevalent genetic trait in Asians and Africans, and it is merely a structural issue and not one of dysfunction).
- 1945: At the end of WW2, the Home Office holds a meeting on October 19 and decides to remove all Chinese seamen from Liverpool, referring to them as an “undesirable element.” Chinese pay is immediately slashed. The War Risk Bonus still afforded to all seamen who served in WW2 efforts is withdrawn from the Chinese, who instantly become personae non gratae. Many find their contracts terminated or unrenewable, and hundreds are rounded up and repatriated. This is supported by local seamen's unions seeking to thwart competition from foreign labor.
- 1946: The British Government and British shipping companies (particularly Holt and the Blue Funnel Line) collude to secretly expel thousands of Chinese seamen, permanently separating many from their English wives and children. Some 300 families are left without a breadwinner and many mothers are forced to give up their children for adoption. As the mail seems to be intercepted, many Chinese seaman attempt to contact their families through Chinese secret societies in the UK. The Chinese sailors find themselves blacklisted from all British shipping companies in Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.
Mrs. Lee, wife of a Chinese mariner and mother of his children, leads a protest on the mysterious disappearances of the Chinese sailors, demanding information from the British government, but to no avail. (British authorities will keep their whereabouts a secret, until some public records are released in the 2000s.)
The Daily Mail campaigns successfully for the wholesale removal of the Chinese community which has been established in Liverpool over several generations. (see Liverpool and its Chinese seamen: Deportation and Repatriation.) A major portion of the British Chinese community relocates in Soho.
- Early 1950s: Following the end of the Chinese Civil War and Mao’s population relocations, famine sweeps through China and refugees stream into the British colony of Hong Kong. Many of these refugees eventually end up in Britain, working menial jobs in the growing Chinese catering industry or Chinese-run laundry businesses.
- 1951: Census records show a considerable increase in Britain’s Chinese population to 12,523, of whom more than 4,000 are from British Malaya and 3,459 are single males from Hong Kong. Nearly 100 Chinese restaurants are operating in Britain, staffed by former embassy workers and ex-seamen. Remittances to Hong Kong reach an all-time high of HK$ 2.5 million.
- 1950s - 1960s: The largest wave of Chinese immigration takes place, consisting predominantly of male agricultural laborers from the rural villages of the New Territories in Hong Kong, and Guangdong province in mainland China.
- 1958: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman, is shot in Snowdonia, Wales, using hundreds of British Chinese children from Liverpool as extras. The story is based on the true story of a Liverpool missionary who led a group of orphans across the mountains of north China to escape the invading Japanese army.
- 1960s: Electric washing machines lead to a decline of Chinese laundries and many Chinese mom-n-pop operations switch to the thriving Chinese-restaurant business.
Chinese settle in Northern Ireland.
- 1961: Census shows Britain’s Chinese population at 38,750, with a fivefold increase in Hong Kong-born residents in London. The Association of Chinese Restaurateurs is formed to maintain the good reputation of the Chinese catering business and to organize recruitment from the New Territories.
- 1962: Ninety-six wives from Hong Kong join their husbands in Britain.
A new Commonwealth Immigrants Act places restrictions on immigration from current and former British colonies, which is subsequently tightened by successive governments. A small number of relatives of the Chinese who are already settled in Britain, as well as some skilled Chinese workers, are allowed into the UK. This policy continues until the end of the 1970s.
Census records indicate some 30,000 Chinese, mostly from the New Territories (HK), residing in the UK, and who send remittances to HK in the amount of HK$40,000,000 annually.
- 1963: Soho’s Chinatown takes over East End as the Chinese hub. The Zhongshan Workers’ Club opens in the West End, showing films and running classes. The first Chinese New Year celebrations are held in Gerrard Street. The Overseas Chinese Service opens the first specialized agency offering translation and interpreting services assists the Chinese in orientation to a new society.
- 1970s: Significant numbers of Chinese settle in Northern Ireland. Mandarin Chinese becomes the second most widely spoken “first language” in Northern Ireland after English.
- 1971: Census records show Britain’s Chinese population at 96,030. Nearly every small town and suburb in the UK has a Chinese restaurant. Of the 4,000 Chinese owned businesses, approximately 1,400 are restaurants; the takeaway trade is firmly established.
- 1976: Britain’s Chinese population includes approximately 6,000 full-time students and 2,000 nurses. The Chinese Community Centre opens in Gerrard Street with Urban Aid funding to deal with the problems experienced by the Chinese community.
- 1980: Considered a media breakthrough, David Yip stars as the main character in the popular TV series, The Chinese Detective.
- 1981: Census figures show there are 154,363 Chinese living in the UK, 35 Chinese-language newspapers and 362 periodicals on sale in 7 bookshops in Soho and some 30,000 Chinese children in British schools, of whom75 percent are UK born.
The British Nationality Act deprives Hong Kong British passport holders of the right of abode in the United Kingdom.
- 1982: The Merseyside Chinese Community Services opens the Pagoda of Hundred Harmony Advice Centre with the help of an Urban Aid grant.
- 1983: The Chinese Information and Advice Centre (CIAC), an amalgamation of the Chinese Workers Group (1975) and the Chinese Action Group (1980) receive Greater London Council (GLC) funding.
There are some 7,000 Chinese restaurants, takeaways and other Chinese-owned businesses (indicating a slow-down in the rate of growth).
- Mid-1980s: China relaxes emigration. Although most emigres leave for the US, Canada and Australia, a significant number settle in the UK.
The British and Chinese governments sign a Draft Agreement on the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
- 1985: Construction begins on Manchester’s Chinatown Archway.
The House of Commons’ Home Affairs Committee report recommends an increase in language training, career advice and community centers, as well as interpretation and advisory services to offset the “weaknesses” in the Chinese community—of which only 2 percent comprises white-collar professionals such as doctors, solicitors, architects, bankers, stockbrokers, business executives, teachers and university lecturers.
- 1986: Ping Pong, the first film by and about the Chinese community in Britain, opens in London. Directed by the British-born director Po-Chi Leong and starring Lucy Sheen, David Yip, Ric Young, Barbara Yu Ling and Robert Lee, the film is a lively tale set in London’s Chinatown, dealing with the traditional Chinese themes of familial responsibility and duty.
- 1987: Manchester’s Chinatown Archway, the largest in Europe, is completed, marking cooperation between the government of China, the Manchester City Council and the local Chinese community.
- 1989-1990: Following the Tiananmen Square protests, a British Nationality Selection Scheme is devised to enable some Hong Kong British passport holders to obtain British citizenship in order to maintain confidence in the handover of Hong Kong to China and to counteract the effects of the emigration of many of its most talented residents. Under the British Nationality Act, the UK grants citizenship to 50,000 Chinese families whose presence is regarded as important to the future of Hong Kong.
- 2001: In one of the largest demonstrations by the Chinese community, 1,000 people protest in London against media reports that Chinese restaurants were responsible for starting the 2001 UK foot-and-mouth crisis by using diseased meat. Trade at restaurants and takeaways had plummeted due to the unsubstantiated rumor and the labeling of an entire community as “dirty.” Following the protest march, Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown publicly denies that the rumors were started in his department and describes the controversy as a “racist attack” on the Chinese community.
There are some 12,000 Chinese takeaways and 3,000 Chinese restaurants in the UK.
- 2002: The BBC airs a program, Shanghai’d, about the efforts of Keith Cocklin to investigate the disappearance of his Chinese mariner father from Liverpool in 1946. Cocklin had found evidence of forced repatriation of Chinese mariners in 1946, at the end of the war effort.
The Children of Chinese mariners who were secretly expelled by the British government after serving in WW2 form an organization, halfandhalf.org.uk, to investigate the secret expulsions of their fathers.
- 2004-2005: An estimated 80,000 Chinese students attend UK universities.
- 2006: A memorial plaque in remembrance of Chinese seamen who served during WWII is erected at Liverpool’s Pier Head. Most of the Chinese seamen were forcibly repatriated after WWII, leaving behind wives and children they would never see again.
- 2009: A significant portion of British Chinese are second- or third-generation descendants of post-WWII immigrants.