Model Citizens

In the taxi, Smith began to speak. 

“I must tell you something, Petrie. The world today has an enemy. He is a great scientist. He is one of the greatest thinkers in the world. But perhaps there is no man worse than him on earth. He is very dangerous.” 

“Who is this man?”

“Dr Fu Manchu.”

This gives the flavour of the popular Edwardian pulp-fiction writer Sax Rohmer. His most famous work was The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu. It is marvellous stuff, with toxic green gas and a killer red ant, all the action oscillating between fog-bound Limehouse and Fu Manchu’s victims in Belgravia’s stucco terraces, where he drugs and kidnaps leading scientists.

Rohmer was indebted to an earlier writer called Matthew Shiel, whose serialised story  The Empress of the Earth (1898) featured the Chinese criminal mastermind Dr Yen How. Both writers played on fears which can be traced back to Kaiser Wilhelm’s mania about die Gelbe Gefahr, for the mad Emperor saw himself as the Archangel Michael leading Europe’s nations against the “yellow peril”.

Amidst all the entirely justified concerns about what Jack Straw called “Pakistani-heritage” Britons, together with Bangladeshis the main drivers of Islamist extremism, we tend to lose sight of other significant minorities who make a valuable contribution to life in this country. They include around 400,000 British Chinese, a minority which both integrates and actively eschews any attention this column may give it.

Chinese sailors were recruited into the merchant navy during the Napoleonic Wars, to release native tars for the Royal Navy. During the 19th century, some settled around the docks in Limehouse and Poplar, as well as Cardiff and Liverpool. Lurid reports of opium dens and white slavery attracted the more venturesome high-society bucks, although the reality was of small “chop houses”, so-called because of their individual signs, and steam laundries. 

The Second World War saw many of these sailors toiling deep in the engine rooms of Atlantic convoys, while heavy bombing of the East End forced Chinatown’s  relocation to Soho, where, since the mid-1930s, a few restaurants had opened to cater to theatregoers. Once oil-fired engines and restrictive labour laws did for Chinese seamen, catering and laundries became their major occupations, until the advent of launderettes and domestic washing machines in the 1960s.

There have been fresh waves of immigrants, notably ethnic Chinese boat people who fled communist Vietnam or those who left Hong Kong before the handover. Around a quarter of British Chinese still live in Greater London. While the underpaid and weary waiters of Chinatown are often just off the boat, many Chinese have moved to suburbs like Colindale or Croydon, for there is a growing Anglo-Chinese professional middle class as the children of successive immigrants assimilate. 

Although Muslims complain of “Islamophobia”, one gets the impression they relish the importance that interminable discussion of Islam confers on them, along with CBEs and knighthoods for agreeing not to kill us. Religion is not an obstacle to Chinese assimilation since many, especially growing numbers of young professionals, are evangelical Protestants, while Buddhism and Confucianism have always taken second place to life’s competition. Education is akin to a civil religion among this demographic, with Chinese girls achieving the highest GCSE results in the country, especially working-class girls who do better than their more affluent sisters. At only two per 10,000, the Anglo-Chinese have the lowest school exclusion rate in Britain. The gruelling hours and low incomes associated with catering mean that the children of Chinese immigrants have used educational opportunity to branch out into a host of professions.

Although Chinatown gives the impression that Britain’s Chinese are huddled together, they tend to be both mobile and willing to venture into even the smallest market towns to operate a unique business. Chinese women are more likely to marry out of their own community than South Asians. Doubtless there have been periods when Chinese people have been picked on, and no one denies there is a Chinese black economy, as we saw with the tragedy of the Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers. But unlike the depressing number of Pakistani-heritage welfare claimants who not only hate this society but connive at harming it, the Anglo-Chinese are model citizens who appreciate the benefits of life in this country and strongly identify with it. Maybe we should celebrate them more frequently and publicly, while being less mealy-mouthed in stating our society’s expectations of all who choose to live here.

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