China and UK

The Birmingham Chinese Community

China and UK

Walter Fung gives a survey of the Chinese community in Birmingham. He is a 'BBC' – a British Born Chinese who spent 35 years working in the textile industry. He is now conducting his own research on the early Chinese settlers in the UK and has visited many of the locations associated with them.

SACU Council hold meetings once a year at the Birmingham Friends of the Earth (FOE) premises in Allison Street, Digbeth, just east of the city centre. SACU also rents a storage area at the FOE in which books, photographs, SACU magazines etc. are deposited. After the meetings, I usually take a short walk to the Chinese Quarter, about half a mile away.

In contrast to Liverpool and Manchester, there were very few Chinese people living in Birmingham until the 1960s and there were hardly any Chinese laundries. Many of the first Chinese settlers in the UK in the early part of the 20th century ran Chinese laundries and Kelly's Trade Directory show there was only one in Birmingham in 1908, Sing Hing Lee at 5 Stoney Lane, Sparkbrook. There was a Lee Sing at 307 Wheeler Street from at least 1920 to 1935. Was Lee Sing, the same person as Sing Hing Lee? It is quite likely, and since he was in Birmingham for so long, it is probable that he had a family and descendants.

There were two Chinese laundries in Birmingham in 1930, three in 1935, one in 1940, but none in 1945, 1950 or later. I have to say that information from this source is generally very fragmented because most municipal libraries do not have complete sets of Kelly's. Despite Kelly's being issued virtually every year, most libraries have just a few volumes for the entire period 1900 to the mid-1960s.

Birmingham now has a large Chinese population of maybe 20,000 or more and there is a sizeable Chinatown around the Arcadian Centre, just south of the city centre in the Hurst Street and Pershore Street areas. This has grown up within the last forty years or so. In the late 1950's there were probably a few dozen Chinese people living in Birmingham. Some were students and professional people but many worked in the small handful of Chinese restaurants which were just beginning to become popular in the UK. My older brother, David worked as assistant manager of the Lieng Nam Restaurant in Station Street, near the Repertory Theatre, when it opened in October 1958. It was opened by Chinese laundrymen from Liverpool.

The Lieng Nam was not the first Chinese restaurant in Birmingham; there were maybe two or three already operating, but by 1963, there were about a dozen in the city centre, many of them run by new arrivals from Hong Kong. Now there are probably fewer Chinese restaurants in the city centre, but numerous Chinese take-away food shops in virtually every suburb or town in the Birmingham area mostly run by Hong Kong Chinese.

In Birmingham?s Chinatown today there are several up-market Chinese restaurants and also more informal eating places, Chinese grocers, Chinese supermarkets, Chinese estate agents etc. and there is a Chinese Culture Exchange shop on Pershore Street.

Wing Yip and Brothers have donated a Chinese pagoda in the middle of Holloway Circus on the Birmingham inner road. It was built with materials quarries and crafted in Fujian province, China using traditional materials.

The Birmingham Chinese New Year celebrations are held at the Arcadian Arcade and shopping centre. There are Chinese social and community associations, business associations and schools for children in Birmingham. Further information on the Chinese in Birmingham, is available on the internet. Google, Post-war Chinese Settlement, Chinese history in Birmingham etc. and there are archives in Birmingham Central Library.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2012 reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 35, 2012

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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