In the early 1990s, a wave of Chinese migrants born during and shortly after the Cultural Revolution came to the UK seeking a better life. They came on the back of PhD offers at British universities, and were amongst those who had been destined to become the academic elite of China. Instead, they became ‘British-Chinese’, adopting British citizenship but retaining the values of the China they left in the ’90s. They are one of the most successfully integrated groups in British society, and one of the least visible, representing only 0.72% of the population as of 2015.
They are middle class, with the majority of their children studying at Oxbridge, going on to qualify as doctors, lawyers, and actuaries, speaking English as their first language, and having to bridge the cultural divide between themselves and their parents. The Chinese parents remain, to a large extent, their own social group, with English colleagues but Chinese friends. They don’t have a reputation, or much of a stereotype. They pass through English culture inconspicuously - a group that rarely, if ever, makes the headlines. When they first arrived in the UK, many worked as kitchen hands, dishwashers, library assistants, supermarket workers, to support themselves and their families. They had enough English skills to pass the TOEFL exams to gain entry to the country, but fluency of language and culture remained far off and provide significant but often overlooked barriers to complete settlement in a foreign country.
“When we first came here we insured our car with a Scottish company,” says one Chinese man. “But when the car broke down and we called them, we couldn’t understand the accent. So the next time, we had to go for someone else, even though they were more expensive.” “My first interview was for a care home job,” says a Chinese woman, “They asked me ‘If you were making a meeting agenda, what might you include?’ but I had never heard of an ‘agenda’ before, and didn’t know what it was.”
Over the years, this group has been fortunate and diligent enough to have attained the standard of life they desired. They are entering their pre-retirement years, and - having achieved their dreams of gaining professional employment and stability - now devote themselves to the organising of elaborate social gatherings that play out like a re-enactment of a youth they never had. When asked what they want now, most of them simply say “To live a happy life.”
Table set with Christmas crackers alongside traditional Chinese dishes: roast duck, sweet and sour ribs, and lotus root.
Chinese medicine practitioners Dr. Zhao and Dr. Wang perform a popular song ‘The Red Star lights the way for me to go into battle’ from a film released during the Cultural Revolution. Dr. Wang plays a pipa (琵琶) - a traditional Chinese lute.
Wedding banquet in Chinatown to celebrate the marriage of dentist and a second generation neurosurgeon. The couple were married in the summer in Oxford, but the groom’s parents are active members of the community and have followed the tradition of organising a Birmingham wedding banquet for the Chinese families.
Crowd of Chinese parents watch in fancy dress as their friends perform a procession down the staircase.
Breakfast at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre where Dr. Ding and his wife are staying in order to visit friends in Birmingham over the festive period. They moved back to China in 2012 for work, but still consider Birmingham their home.
Lanhua Dance Group rehearses in the studio built by Mrs Wang’s (centre) husband in their back garden so that she would have somewhere to dance – her childhood dream. In September 2016 the group performed in front of the Birmingham Bull Ring as part of a Multicultural Show.
The audience laughs at party games at a wedding banquet that involve the groom miming a famous Chinese song to his new bride and having her guess the lyrics.
Second generation Chinese migrants sit with the bride and groom on stage while the parents prepare the venue for the next event.
Gentlemen’s photo at the Zhangs’ house - an annual tradition of photo-taking to document those present at a table lit with candles spelling the new year.
Bride and groom play a game where the bride has to swing a gummy snake with her mouth, and the groom has to catch it in his.
Second generation Chinese youth react to their parents’ fancy dress costumes as the procession comes down the stairs.
Upstairs, the women line up in their traditional qi pao while the men wait downstairs to see the procession. As their wives descend, the crowd shouts, “Whose younger sister is this?” and take photographs as the women pose.