The British Chinese community and the UK media
The recent negative attention received by Chinese Olympic athletes in the press has made me consider the role that Chinese people often take in the UK media. Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen and badminton doubles partners Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli have encountered heavy criticism in the UK press. This is clearly a highly contentious and sensitive issue but there is a strong feeling on Chinese websites that the West is resentful towards China’s Olympic success and, as a result, choosing to paint the country in an unfavourable light.
Negative Chinese stereotypes seem to be perpetuated in the UK media, while there is an obvious lack of positive Chinese role models for young British Chinese. I accept the argument that naturally there will be a lot of press attention focused on Chinese competitors; there are 384 of them after all (minus a couple of badminton players). China was also the host nation of the 2008 Olympics therefore comparisons between the Beijing and London games are unavoidable. But surely there should also be positive and inspiring articles about the Chinese team in the UK’s mainstream media outlets rather than just ramblings about young Chinese children being ripped away from their homes to compete in future Olympics?
Although the ethnic Chinese community in the UK is estimated to stand at around 700,000, growing at a rate of 9.9% annually according to the Office for National Statistics, people of Chinese ethnic origin living in Britain still feel ‘invisible’ in mainstream UK culture.
I am of mixed race Chinese origins, with a full-blooded Chinese father born overseas, but strongly associate myself with Chinese culture and customs. I spent the majority of my early twenties living and studying in China and I am now very familiar and comfortable with my ethnicity. As a young child growing up however, I tried to disassociate myself from my cultural heritage in order to avoid standing out or appearing different in a school with barely any cultural diversity. I often felt ashamed to bring out my packed lunch of home cooked rice and vegetable stir-fries in front of tables crowded with my western classmates who all seemed to eat identical, neatly cut cheese and ham sandwiches on white bread. I was even once referred to as a ‘mongrel’ by a friend’s parent who also, incidentally, happened to be a police officer. But, as is the Chinese custom, my family and I put our heads down and said nothing rather than complain.
The BC Project (integration of British Chinese into politics) carries a British Chinese Online Identities paper on its website. The paper states that there has been a lack of cultural visibility highlighted in the early years of the 21st century and brought to light a survey conducted by the Guardian in early 2005 which revealed the low level of integration among Chinese people in Britain, who reportedly felt the least British among all ethnic minority groups. The Chinese British society seems disengaged with UK society and electoral commission figures suggest around 30% of registered Chinese voters never vote.
It has always been very clear to me that there is a massive lack of positive role models of Chinese origins in UK politics, arts and in the media. But British Chinese citizens are notoriously known for doing well in education, examinations and the professional sector. The importance of doing well in education and therefore achieving a high powered, well-paid job is instilled from birth in Chinese culture, and there is the mantra of put your head down, work hard and don’t draw attention to yourself. However, I believe that it is now time for British Chinese to step forward into the spotlight, vocalise their issues and opinions thereby empowering future generations and promoting British Chinese culture.
Chinese people in Britain rarely talk about discrimination choosing to instead focus on taking advantage of education and securing a professional job. Elizabeth Chan, a British actress of Chinese descent stated, “Chinese Britons are often referred to as a “silent” or “hidden” minority… On the surface, the Chinese seem relatively content and well-to-do… But academic and economic successes do not negate feelings of marginalisation.”
A possible reason as to why the Chinese community remains so underrepresented in UK media is due to British Chinese social norms and upbringing. Chinese families tend to place a high emphasis on business, financial security and career advancement and therefore many British born Chinese children are discouraged from careers with job uncertainty and a loss in income. When the question “why are we so underrepresented in the media” was asked on dimsum.co.uk, the British Chinese Website, one sharp witted contributor named Well Hung Wang (!) replied “because our parents expect us to run their business. That may mean being in a triad or being in catering.” Although this statement is ironic there is a clear sentiment that Chinese parents have certain expectations from their children, mainly to do with economic wellbeing.
When British Chinese people do manage to somehow stumble into mainstream UK media, they have to contend with being type caste in stereotypical Chinese roles. Jo Ho, a British born Chinese screenwriter and director who was the first person of Chinese origin to create a television drama series in the UK, bemoaned the offensive stereotypes faced by the Chinese community in an interview by the TV Collective. Jo said “more realistic and contemporary representations needed… please, please do away with the criminal storylines – there really are more of us in this country who are doctors, nurses, lawyers and accountants than there are triads, illegal immigrants and prostitutes. I’d like to see more stories about the second generation.”
Krishnan Guru-Murthy revealed his thoughts when he was interview for an article in The Independent about Race in Britain 2012. “TV has changed massively in 18 years, in terms of diversity. Portrayal is also much better than when I was a kid, but in many ways things haven’t changed… There are reasonable numbers of middle-class people from Indian origin, like me [in broadcasting], but it’s much harder to encourage working-class Bangladeshis, or African Caribbeans, or Chinese.”
I am not denying that other minority groups in the UK are also under-represented, but the British Chinese community is one of the longest standing ethnic groups in the country and the international importance of the community should not be overlooked. China is an economic powerhouse and the UK can benefit greatly from good relations and trade with the global superpower. Lord Wei, the only active parliamentarian of Chinese origin, said in a House of Lords speech “there is a role for the British Chinese in helping British and Chinese firms connect and do business together across the cultural and linguistic divide… That will create jobs and prosperity at a time when we most need it.” There are clearly many potential benefits in easing the integration of the Chinese community into mainstream society.
The British Chinese community remains a very insular, self-reliant and self-sufficient community, but we should be encouraging more British Chinese to take the spotlight in British society in order to offer role models to young people. After all, diversity is what makes Great Britain so great, and a more international outlook will benefit all UK communities. I urge my fellow British Chinese to step out of the shadows and bring our unique cultural heritage into the UK’s multi-ethnic and multi-faith society.
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