BBC Radio 4 last week broadcasted two programs about China and Chinese. Anna Chen tracked the lives of early Chinese migrants in the UK in her 10-part series Chinese in Britain, while Duncan Hewitt read his new book Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China in Book of the Week program. The two programs provide sharp contrast: one is about how the early settlers from China survived and adopted to an alien land, the another is about how the young and old at the present time struggled and prospered when the old rules and value gone out of the window. And yet, both programs give some clues of how Chinese deal with changes, our fondness of “progress” and embrace of the “new”.
In Chinese in Britain Anna Chen says for most British people “the history of the Chinese in Britain begins with The Takeaway Generation”. Indeed even many Chinese can only associate Chinese in Britain with Chinese restaurants, and perhaps a couple of intellectuals or academic elites who had been in the UK for some time. The VIPs aside, I was suprised to learn that early Chinese settlers were mainly seamen, and they opened laundries instead takeaways when moving ashore. Chinese in Britain has thourough research as well as human interests. The stories of the early migrants were told not only by scholars but also the descents.
Although this program mainly focuses on the early settlers, there is at least one episode about education in the UK that connects the past with the present. I can only hope there will be more to come, and more about the young generation of migrants including Chinese students and young professionals who came here in thousands attracted by the high quality educational system and the training and employment opportunities. The only mistake I can find is the claim that “fifty thousand Chinese students come to the UK every year”. The number “fifty thousand” is more likely the total number of Chinese students currently enrolled in higher education institutes. The number given by Chinese Ambassey is one hundred thousand, but that includes current students, graduates and profesionals, visiting scholars and their families.
While Chinese in Britain discovers the untold stories of the early generation, Duncan Hewitt’s new book Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China looks to the rapid social and economic transition at present China. Hewitt is a keen and sharp observers. He can explains complex social phenomenons in a clear and simple way with the level of understanding only an “insider” could reach, and at the same time points out the absurdity and inequality an “outsider”, possibly from a country which has been through all those, is at the best position to pick up. I also like the way Hewitt tell the stories – with sympathy and humour, which make them more enjoyable.
One chapter in Hewitt’s book echos my personal experience. My hometown Suzhou (苏州), a city with rich culture and history, famous for its residence architectures and canals, is known in China as “Heaven on Earth”. In the 90s it underwent a huge makeover, during which many typical South-of-Yangtze River (jiangnan 江南) style houses were demolished, giving way to flashy office buildings and shopping malls. An old house with high wall and courtyard where I lived as a child – a house built (in early 20th century or possibly earlier) for a middle class family but was shared by four families at that time – was completely gone. I could only roughly guess the position of the foundation of the house — which became part of a widened road when I visited it in 1998. The same happened to many old buildings – building new is much cheaper and quicker than keeping the old, and we Chinese seem not to mind too much of losing our heritages. It’s true that some famous large residences and gardens (yuanlin 园林) have survived and are well maintained, but they are all surrounded by nondescriptive new buildings now.
Anna Chen didn’t mention whether there will be a second series of Chinese in Britian. Surely there are lots of stories to tell about the new generations of Chinese? The influx of immigrants from Hong Kong during 80s and Chinese students in the last 10 years must have changed the composition and mentality of the UK Chinese community. What about the second and third generation of British Chinese? And what about those illegal immigrants who are truely at the bottom of the society, whose living conditions are painly depicted in Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (2006)?
As for Hewitt, I’d like to suggest him to go back to China in perhaps five years time and to give us his observation again. I for one would be very interested in hearing what he would say.