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Chinese Britain
How a second generation wants the voice of its community heard

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online

Laiyan Man and Sarah Yeh of the Dimsum website

Strength comes in numbers Ė and especially when those numbers are visible on the streets. So when about 1,000 members of the British Chinese community came on to the streets of London in April 2001 to protest, it marked a turning point for a community which is seen but not heard.

Many people don't have a sense of citizenship or a sense of belonging ... I think it's time we had a debate about what it is to be Chinese in Britain too.

Laiyan Man
The protest came amid the foot-and-mouth crisis after media reports that Chinese restaurants had started the outbreak by using diseased meat.

Within weeks, a Chinese community monitoring group reported that trade at restaurants and takeaways had plummeted because an unsubstantiated rumour had become a scare story labelling an entire community as dirty.

Following the march, the then Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown publicly denied that the rumours had begun in his department and described the controversy as a racist attack on the Chinese community.

While the march achieved its goals, the organisers also asked themselves questions about the ability of the Chinese community to find a voice in British society.

For the founders of Dimsum, the Chinese community website that helped organise the protests (see below for internet link), there was a sense that not only do Chinese Britons remain victims of hidden racism, but they have also been silent for too long.

Both foot-and-mouth and the June 2000 discovery of 58 dead Chinese asylum seekers in a lorry at Dover demonstrated the need for a community to make its voice heard.

Emerging voices

Since last year, Dimsum has emerged as one of the leading media voices of the Chinese and south-east Asian communities in the UK.

The two-year-old website is run by a small and young team, headed by Sarah Yeh. Dimsum is media-savvy, brimming with confidence and it receives thousands of hits a month.

Dimsum: Two years old and growing
"We are the second generation and we want things to be different," says Sarah, a new media designer and developer. "The presence of the Chinese communities in Britain has been very small. And it's only been recently that this community has had any media presence."

Sarah and Dimsum colleague Laiyan Man, who works in marketing in the City, represent many of the concerns of second generation Chinese in the UK.

The website is also an outlet for the children of immigrants who find that they straddle two different cultures.

"Dimsum is also helping to bring out the views of the second generation," said Sarah. "Our needs are different to those of our parents. We have different aspirations. We're debating everything from relationships to how you explain to your parents you don't want to stay in the family catering business all your life."

Chinese Britain

The history of Chinese Britain goes back some 200 years. The first Chinese arrivals were sailors who lived in ports but rarely stayed longer than a few years.

April 2001 protest: First march by Chinese community
The largest influxes came in the 1970s onwards when Hong Kong Chinese arrived, followed by refugees from Vietnam.

The general British view of the community is that it is homogenous. But the Chinese population has brought with it the diversity of south-east Asia. Only 12% of British Chinese are thought to have come from mainland China. Many others are from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. At least a quarter are the British-born children of immigrants.

The first generation of the modern community gravitated towards catering. The community numbers between 200,000 and 400,000. A precise figure will emerge when the 2001 Census is published.

Identity and presence

What concerns Dimsum's founders is that the community has been unable to establish an identity and presence that goes beyond that local takeaway.

"The Chinese community is quite dispersed around the UK," says Sarah. "So while there may be a lot of people in total, ours was the only Chinese family at my school.

"I have long thought that we donít have a strong community identity. Geographically, we have places like Chinatown in London but there is not somewhere or something with which we generally identify."

The problem is hard to define until you make a direct comparison with other groups. Areas such as Brixton in south London are synonymous with black Britain. They have helped an ethnic minority establish its place in national life. But with the British Chinese so thinly spread, it's hard to find that voice and identity.

This, says Sarah, means that the community is more susceptible to racism and less likely to be prepared to publicly tackle it. In turn, she says, authorities are less likely to believe that discrimination exists in the first place, or even tackle it when they know it does.

"We have no strong voice in the media," continues Sarah. "We have no spokespeople there to put the case of what the community thinks. Nowhere was that more noticeable than during foot-and-mouth."

This year has also seen the launch of a new anti-racism pressure group, Min Quan. Its survey of Chinese catering workers suggests that racism is widespread but goes unreported. The group is now lobbying the police and other authorities to take the problem seriously.

"The foot-and-mouth protest was a way for the Chinese community into the press," says Laiyan. "We have to keep up the pressure of providing that voice.

"Many people don't have a sense of citizenship or a sense of belonging [in the UK]. I think it's time we had a debate about what it is to be Chinese in Britain too."

You can find by clicking here
Pictures of march copyright

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