Chinese Britons are often referred to as a "silent" or "hidden" minority. For although we are the fourth-largest minority ethnic group in the UK, we are virtually invisible in public life, principally the arts, media and politics.
the surface, the Chinese seem relatively content and well-to-do, with
British Chinese pupils regularly outperforming their classmates and
Chinese men more likely than any other ethnic group to be in a
professional job. Consequently, we are often overlooked in talks on
racism and social exclusion.
But academic and economic successes do not negate feelings of marginalisation. A 2009 study by The Monitoring Group and Hull University
suggested that British Chinese are particularly prone to racial
violence and harassment, but that the true extent to their victimisation
was often overlooked because victims were unwilling to report it.
up in the north of England in the 80s, I had few role models. Popular
culture was dominated by white faces and occasionally black and south
Asian, but never east Asian. I'm not sure that much has changed since.
of "Jackie Chan!" and kung-fu noises from random strangers continue to
greet me in the street, perhaps followed by a "konichiwa!" Just a few
days ago, a friend was having a post-hangover drink in a trendy east
London pub, only to be accused by the manager of being a DVD pedlar
hassling his clients.
Going to drama school in London was a
revelation; I was told I couldn't perform in a scene from a play because
it had been written for white people. The scene was two girls sitting
on a park bench talking about boys, and the year was 2006. Worse was
when it came from my contemporaries; one (white, liberal, highly
educated) helpfully suggested I did a monologue from The Good Soul of
Szechuan instead, and another rushed up after one performance to tell me
how delighted her parents had been that I'd spoken perfect English (I'm
In hindsight it was good preparation for a
profession where, on my first job, the Bafta-winning director chuckled
to everyone on set that I'd trained in kung fu, and where any character
who speaks in some kind of dodgy east Asian accent is considered
I have friends who are shocked that such things
actually happen. They are usually most surprised at the fact that it's
happened to me. Why? I suspect mainly because, like them, I am part of
the educated middle class, and things like that don't happen to people
Well, they do, and quite often. And frankly, it isn't
surprising that prejudices are rife in a country whose media perpetuates
the very images that evoke stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings:
Chinese characters rarely appear on our television screens, but when
they do, you can bet they'll be DVD sellers, illegal immigrants, spies
or, in the case of last year's Sherlock, weird acrobatic ninja types.
Many Chinese viewers were outraged at the portrayal of east Asians in
this show, but typically, few complained.
Sadly, the British
Chinese are reticent about speaking up for themselves, and simply do not
have the numbers to make the same noise the black and south Asian
communities do, whose vociferous and galvanising voices have been making
waves against racism for decades. Racism is one of those horrendous,
soul- and confidence-crushing things that, when faced with, you'd much
rather forget or pretend didn't exist. So we tend to brush it off,
pretend it never happened, or laugh along with the rest rather than come
across as bad sports. We Chinese have become dab hands at this, living
up to the stereotype of the smiling but silent Chinaman.
If we are
to make progress in understanding the true extent of racism in this
country, we all need to be a lot braver in confronting truths about how
we live. It's about swallowing our pride and being less afraid of
telling the world how racism affects us and really thinking about the
people across Britain who have come to accept racism as a part of life.
It's about standing up in classrooms, television studios, offices, pubs
and public transport, not just for ourselves, but for friends and
Denial gets us nowhere. But awareness, thoughtfulness and courage could make millions of lives so much better.