These ‘orientalised’ tropes of perversion and depravation linger to this day. In the hugely popular BBC drama ‘Killing Eve’, for example, a Chinese politician named Zhang is assassinated whilst participating in a kink role-play involving nurses, medical equipment and gas.
More often, nowadays, though, the Chinese man is presented in Western culture as a desexualised, hard-working nerd. And this illustrates the second, sometimes contradictory, sometimes overlapping, set of tropes used to stoke fear against people of Chinese origin.
In the aftermath of the First World War, with unemployment high and the British economy struggling, fears that migrants were occupying the jobs of white people led to violent race riots across the country. A Malay boarding house in Limehouse was razed, and Chinese houses were damaged in Liverpool, Cardiff, Glasgow and London.
London’s Limehouse Chinese population was deliberately cleared in the 1930s, and by the 1950s the majority had settled in Soho, often working to provide Chinese restaurants to a British population that had begun to develop a taste for Chinese cuisines as former soldiers returned from the Far East.
As a burgeoning tourist hotspot, Chinatown nonetheless evolved to highlight the exotic and ‘oriental’, full of images of dragons and gates in the style of the Qing Dynasty.
Looking Ahead: Assimilation, Acceptance, or Celebration?
East Asian people are now often presented as hard-working, submissive, ‘model migrants’ who assimilate into British society. But there remains a foreignness, a cultural dissonance between the country of dragons and England’s green and pleasant lands.
Violence has remained ever-present – the 2005 murder of Mi Gao Huang Chen in Wigan, Greater Manchester, by a group of teenagers being perhaps the most tragic example.
For ESEA people in the UK, racism has been a fact of life. Growing up in south-east London, one of my earliest memories was being assaulted by a group of six children while delivering newspapers – being hit in the jaw as well as by slurs such as “small eyes” and “chink”. Countless times I’ve been told to “go back where you come from”, or told that we “all look the same”.
The pandemic has brought these issues that were bubbling under, back to the surface. The fragility of the ‘model migrant’ idea has been made apparent, as the mistrust of ESEA people has manifested itself in violence and hatred.
For years I have struggled with my own cultural identity. With my father hailing from Malaysia and my mother from Singapore, I can’t quite claim to be Chinese. But when I say British I am usually met with raised eyebrows. The cumulative effect of every glance is to impress upon me that I will likely never be truly accepted in the country I was born in.
Acceptance is not what we should be fighting for. We should not be trying to ‘assimilate’. Being quiet, hardworking and ‘good’ migrants has never protected us from racism and violence. Perhaps now, facing a wave of hate, ESEA people can fight back. We should take pride in the rich cultural tapestry from which we are woven, and celebrate who we are.
Maybe then I can tell people where I am ‘from’.