Jo has recently been doing some work on the Exploring our Roots oral history collection. This post looks at the lives and experiences of three interviewees from the Chinese community in Manchester. What emerges is a picture of how Chinatown developed and how different people fared in their journey from East to West as they came to settle in Manchester.
Exploring our Roots is an oral history project focusing on South Asian local heritage (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sikh) and Chinese, African Caribbean and West African communities. Among the topics covered are personal memories regarding migration and settlement; community-building, education and work, religion and culture; and experience of racism and prejudice.
The project acknowledged the contributions of local ethnic minority groups to the creation of modern Manchester and the North West. It was generated out of a desire to provide the young people of Manchester with opportunities to find out more about the heritage of their own communities.
Master Chu, or Chu Siu Han, was born in Tibet, where his father, grandfather and great grandfather had fled to during WWII. His father, a Buddhist who sold beaded necklaces and silk scarves, and who traded in India, married a Tibetan woman. When Master Chu’s father died, he left to look after his sisters and tried to settle in China.
He was able to build a house with money his father had left him, but subsequently lost the house due to a relative’s gambling habit. Master Chu and his little sister had to resort to begging for food, with no money, no home and no education. Master Chu met a Shaolin monk and became a Kung Fu student, although sadly his sister died.
Eventually Master Chu came to Manchester to work in a Chinatown establishment, the Tak Gok Restaurant. He enjoyed participating in lion dancing, dragon dancing and Kung Fu, and began his own martial arts club, the first in Chorlton. He co-founded the Chinese Cultural Centre. “I have been in Manchester for 36 years and helped a lot of different communities and charities. I am 78 years old now.” Master Chu was interviewed in 2004 by Ann Hardy. Jenny Chow translated.
Davidine Sim was interviewed by pupils from Cedar Mount High School. She was born in Borneo, an island of Malaysia, although her parents were from China. She came to the UK in 1973 for a better education and to escape political turmoil in Malaysia. Following her A levels, she became a nurse.
She now edits a Chinese/English magazine about Chinese culture and works freelance for the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester, promoting Chinese culture and teaching Tai Chi. She feels that here in the UK she has not experienced any restrictions of expression or freedom of speech.
In her interview, Davidine Sim discusses the way that the British Chinese communities are made up of many different religious groups; also the diaspora that brought many Hong Kong Chinese here in the 1950s following Hong Kong’s urbanisation when people’s lands were being forcibly taken from them.
Traditionally, Chinese men came over as seamen (for example, Liverpool, as a major British port, has the longest-established Chinese community in the country). They were later involved in the laundry business until this niche sector was eventually wiped out by the ubiquitous washing machine. Meanwhile, British servicemen returning from war abroad were more used to Asian and Chinese food, and so the restaurant industry boomed.
Gerry Yeung was interviewed for Exploring our Roots in the Yang Sing boardroom in Chinatown. He was born in Guangzhou. His family moved to Hong Kong, a poor but happy family which eventually moved to the UK as economic migrants and with family connections; a cousin had restaurants in London. Gerry remembers that there were no Chinese supermarkets to begin with. They used to go to Asian community shops or to Liverpool. Then the Wing Yip Chinese Supermarket was established in the 1950s. The Bank of China was also established in Manchester, and in 1977 the Yang Sing was founded, originally where the Little Yang Sing stands now on George Street, although it is now a separate restaurant.
Gerry explains the Yang Sing name: it is a phonetic translation of a nickname for the city of Guangzhou – city of the goats. Legend has it that five celestial beings flew down to bless the city on five flying goats. The god or goddess flew back to the celestial palace and left the goats behind which turned into the stones of the mountain of the city – the ‘city of five goats’ sounds like the name Yang Sing – but also Yang literally means goat and Sing means city.
These oral histories are available as reference volumes. Elsewhere on our shelves you will find items such as:
Chinese Education Cultural Community Centre by Tyze Li and Jenny Wong, a book written in Chinese and translated into English.
Wai Yin: At the Heart of the Chinese Community in Manchester. Collection of cards promoting the activities of the Wai Yin Chinese Women Society; support and guidance for parents, good mental health and promoting Chinese culture.
Chinese community in Britain: The Home Affairs Committee report in context, from the Runnymede Trust. Includes the Government’s response and a response by the Chinese Information and Advice Centre.
Teaching Chinese Children, 1981, a book giving practical guidance.
Chinese Community in Liverpool: Their unmet needs with respect to education, social welfare and housing, 1982, Irene Loh Lynn. Part of the investigation into racial disadvantage by the Merseyside Area Profile Group.
Education and Class: Chinese in Britain and the US by Yuan Cheng. This book compares the relative chances of occupational success of the Chinese diaspora in Great Britain and the United States.
Chinese Older People: A need for social inclusion in two communities by Wai Kam Yu. Through interviews with 100 Chinese older people, focus groups and discussions, this book investigates retirement and self-esteem, culture and traditional values, social networks used by Chinese people.
Such a Long Story! Chinese Voices in Britain, London, 1994, Ethnic Communities Oral History Project. The Roving Reader talks about this elsewhere on the blog in Chinese Whispers.
By Jo Manby