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 You are in: Analysis
Asian Britain
How communities have changed over 50 years

By Barnie Choudhury
Social affairs correspondent

Asian Britain as seen by the Goodness Gracious Me team

We are in a state of flux over how we should describe ‘Asians’. What does the word actually mean? Who are we referring to when we use the term in relation to modern Britain? And would those who we refer to describe themselves the same way?

But one thing is for sure: There is no such thing as a single Asian ‘community’.

There are different communities. According to the latest official estimates, British-Indians number almost a million, the British-Pakistani community a further 675,000, Bangladeshi 257,000 and Chinese 149,000. A further 242,000 people have varying Asian backrounds. So, even on a simple level, we need to consider the experiences of many different groups rather than generalise.

Do the children give up their cultural heritage and assimilate? Do they hang to past traditions or embrace a compromise of being a British-Asian: British by birth, Asian by cultural roots?
According to the National Office of Statistics, there were two million Asians in Britain by the end of 1999, an increase of more than half a million since the 1991 Census. Accurate figures will be revealed later this year with the publication of the 2001 Census.

But what exactly does "two million" tell us? What cannot be disputed is that Britain is truly multi-cultural.

If anyone doubts that Chicken Tikka Masala has joined fish and chips as one of greatest national dishes, they just need to look at the sales. Just one of the UK's leading supermarkets sold 1.5 million of them last year alone.

The television comedy show ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ is just as popular as ‘The Fast Show’.

Mass immigration

Mass immigration to Britain started more than 50 years ago when it was still a colonial power. Despite restrictions introduced in the years since then, the process has not stopped.

BBC News Online: Race survey

Question: "Do you agree or disagree that chicken tikka masala is now a national dish?"

Click here to find out the answer
Home Office figures for 2000, the latest that are available, show that an estimated 183,000 more people migrated to the United Kingdom than chose to leave.

This trend has been the case since 1983. Some have used the figures to argue that Britain is being 'swamped' by immigrants, others employ the same statistics to make exactly the opposite case.

Let's take a closer look at some of the key facts.

Firstly, the 183,000 increase in 2000 represents 0.3% of the total estimated population).

Secondly, Home Office figures show that in 1999 more non-Britons than Britons left the United Kingdom, meaning that some of those who have arrived here at some point are choosing to go again.

As for the settled ethnic minority communities in Britain, only seven people in every 100 are non-white, though perceptions of the size of ethnic minority populations changes from city to down. So by whom exactly are we being ‘swamped’?

The future of Leicester

The changing face of Leicester, where we met the Mattani family, means that it is one of the places to watch for the future shape of Britain's ethnic minorities.

Almost 30% of the midland's city's population were non-white in 1991. One manifestation of this is that the city's Sikhs and Hindus hold the biggest Diwali celebrations outside India.

The local council’s analysis of school pupil figures suggests that white people will be in the minority by 2011.

Total integration of these different groups will take a very long time, if ever, to happen - not least as it's something that is difficult to define and measure.

But there is evidence of movement among third and fourth generation British-Asians, especially among the middle classes.

One Leicester University report in May 2000 looked at migration from the inner city to the suburbs.

It concluded that the movement of Asian-Britons to the suburbs was not without problems. Some elders were left feeling isolated and suffering stress as the shape of their community changed. A consequence of this was that some made little use of available social services designed to prevent people becoming isolated and cut off.

This is not something confined to Asian-Britain as London experienced a similar migration of east-enders to Essex in the post-war years.

The question for Leicester is how will this migration affect its British-Asian communities?


So how else is Asian-Britain perceived? The Asian corner shop has passed into British folklore. There's even a band named after it.

In Leicester, there are more than three thousand small or medium sized Asian-owned businesses in Leicester, including that of Priti and Hemant Mattani.

But in a national survey, the Policy Studies Institute found that more parents than ever are trying to dissuade their children from taking over the family business.

They simply do not want them to work the long hard hours needed to make it successful.

Culture and relationships

The Asian community is visible in many parts of Britain as they have introduced vibrant festivals into the British psyche. In many areas and schools, Diwali, Eid and Vaisakhi are as familiar as Christmas.

But there are also cultural stereotypes. The myth that all Asians have their marriages arranged by their parents persists - despite the fact that tens of thousands of Asian-Britains found happiness in the same way as Priti and Hemant.

Diwali: Celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains. Festival of light, marking new hope
Eid:Celebrated by Muslims marking the end of fasting for Ramadan
Vaisakhi:Celebrated by Sikhs marking the birth of modern Sikhism in 1699

Find out more at BBCi Religon
These days fewer marriages are ‘arranged’. Parents accept that their children are likely to meet their future partner on their own accord.

The Foreign Office is running a scheme to help repatriate young Britons who have been forced by family members into marriages abroad. In 18 months, it has dealt with more than 240 cases. The programme's educational arm spells out the difference between "forced marriages" and successful "arranged marriages" where parents help their offspring choose.

One of the most complicated issues remains the idea of "family and community honour" or "izzat" as it is sometimes known. What does that mean to Asian-Britains in the 21st century?

An extreme example of family honour emerged earlier this year when a Manchester court jailed for life a devout Muslim father who had stabbed his daughter to death after he found her secret boyfriend in her bedroom.

Yet more and more parents, especially those who either grew up or were themselves born here, accept that their children will be influenced by western culture and values.

It is their children who will define the future of race relations in Britain.

Do they give up their cultural heritage and assimilate? Do they hang to past traditions or embrace a compromise of being a British-Asian: British by birth, Asian by cultural roots?

Today, there is no simple answer, but perhaps Shefali Mattani's generation will find it.

Next week Barnie Choudhury looks at the aftermath of last year's riots in northern England and the fears of segregation and racial tension among some of its communities.

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