I BET YOU DID NOT KNOW that Michael Alphonsus Shen Fuzong (c1658-1691) was the first documented person from China to visit England. I did not know that he met King James II in 1687. Furthermore, did you know that the Chinese sculptor Tan-Che-Qua (c1728-1796) from Canton, who visited London between 1769 and 1772, not only exhibited at London’s Royal Academy but also met King George III before returning to his native land. Maybe, I might have stumbled across these two notable men from China by accident had I not visited the British Library today (the 20th of March 2023), but this is highly unlikely. Until the 23rd of April 2023, there is a fascinating, well-displayed exhibition called “Chinese and British” at London’s British Library.
Beginning with the earliest Chinese visitors to Britain, this splendid exhibition charts the growth and considerable achievements of Chinese people who chose to live in Britain. John Hochee (1789-1869) was one of the first people from China to have settled permanently in England. He arrived from Canton in 1819, worked as a property manager with John Fuller Elphinstone (1778-1854; son of William Elphinstone a Director of the EIC: see https://www.rh7.org/factshts/hochee.pdf), whom he probably met whilst working for the East India Company in China. Hochee married an English lady, Charlotte Mole, and James (1832-1897), one of their seven children, became a surgeon. John was naturalized in Brighton in November 1854.
Since Hochee (Ho Chee) settled in Britain, many more people from China have followed in his footsteps. The exhibition at the British Library illustrates this well. Early settlers included many who had worked on ships and had landed in Liverpool or London. Chinese communities became established in the 1880s, notably in London’s East End. The Chinese in Britain established businesses to serve their community and their British neighbours. Chinese restaurants and laundries figured largely amongst the early enterprises. With the advent of laundrettes in the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese laundry business faded away, but still today the Chinese are very important in Britain’s catering industry. It was after WW2 that restaurants and take-aways really took off in Britain. These outlets supplied both British and Chinese food. Many of their workers and owners were from Canton and Hong Kong.
During WW1, nearly 100,000 Chinese men provided support for The British Army in Europe – digging trenches, burying the dead, and other tasks. Some of these men had signed 3-year contracts, which obliged them to return to China after the war, which most of them did. The exhibition devotes some space to the activities of these men.
Apart from what I have already described, the exhibition has displays illustrating the many other achievements of the Chinese British. One exhibit that particularly amused me was a selection of books in English by Chinese British authors. They were displayed on a ‘lazy Susan’, a revolving serving platform often found in the centre of round tables in Chinese restaurants.
All in all, I am very pleased that a post on Instagram alerted me to this interesting exhibition, and I encourage everyone to visit it.