Mr. Ma and Son in London
Walter Fung describes a novel set in 1920s London. This novel (translated by Julie Jimmerson) records the experiences of a Chinese father and son in London. It was written by Lao She, a Chinese writer who lived in London during 1924 to 1929, whilst teaching Chinese at London University (SOAS). Lao She has clear views on the reforms needed to modernise China at that time, and his message is made clear through the dialogue of his characters in this novel. His views are very strong and sometimes show bitterness. Perhaps they reflect what he himself had to endure and record some of his personal experiences. He makes some points repeatedly which may seem difficult to appreciate today. However, I can see some similarities to events related to me by Chinese in Liverpool, including some relatives, who lived in Britain at this time.
Mr Ma and his son, Ma Wei came to England to look after Mr Ma’s brother’s antique shop in London, and also for the younger Ma to learn English. Mr Ma’s brother has recently died and they hope eventually to take his remains back to China. They encounter problems in finding somewhere to live because ‘large or fancy hotels’, not to mention ‘reputable households’ don’t rent to Chinese’. Only in the area behind the British Museum are there houses and small hotels that will admit Chinese, simply because they have become accustomed to Orientals.
Lao She, makes the analysis that, there are two types of Chinese in London, students, and workers who live in London’s Chinatown, Limehouse. The Chinese in Limehouse are just trying to earn a living and there is nothing spectacular about the place and nor are there any fantastic events happening there, but it is notorious simply because Chinese people live there. China is a weak nation and any happening, actual or fictitious involving Chinese people, is distorted and exaggerated to demonise the Chinese. Visitors to London actually check out Chinatown for material for plays, novels and movies that propagate the myths. Lao She declares, ‘People from strong nations are humans, those from weak nations are dogs’ and China is a weak nation! People and nations are inextricably linked.
At this time, the only people who have been to China are missionaries and businessmen. They are the only people who know anything about China and their opinion about that country is far from favourable. In most English schools, China is not dealt with in history courses. Add the fact that China’s army and navy are a poor excuse for a military force - and Europeans gauge the level of civilisation on military strength - it’s not surprising that they look down with contempt on China. Plus the fact that China has not produced a single earth-shattering scientist, writer, athlete or explorer, how can the Chinese be regarded as the worthy equals of Europeans?
The Mas find lodgings with the help of a clergyman, the Rev Evans. The Reverend loves China and its people, but once prayed that it would be taken over by the British; otherwise Chinese people would never get to heaven. At first, the landlady, Mrs Wendall has serious reservations about accommodating two Chinese men who may cook rats and smoke opium in her home! However the Rev Evans, who knew them in China, is prepared to vouch for two ‘extremely sincere Chinese men’. Eventually she agrees to take them in but insists they are not to use her bathtub or enter the kitchen. When Mrs Wendall actually meets Mr Ma and his son, she wonders why, they don’t look as ghastly as Chinese men in the movies and even doubts if they are really Chinese! However, she stops inviting her friends to her home, believing they would not want to enter a house where Chinese men are living. Even, the Rev Evans reveals his feeling uncomfortable, being seen in public with a Chinese.
Mr Ma is a traditional Confucian Chinese gentleman, believing in doing everything in the precise and proper manner. One his greatest regrets is that he never became a Chinese government official, a mandarin - the goal of many Confucian gentlemen Although, the antique shop which he has inherited, is needed to make a profit for his living expenses, he has a contempt for business and businessmen, but his son, Ma Wei is more pragmatic and cooperates with the shop employee to try to increase business. On seeing the antique shop, Mr Ma disapproves of the shop sign which comprises gold lettering on a black background. He believes this ‘utterly common.’ In addition the chimney stack of the neighbouring building is producing bad ‘feng shui’.
Mr Ma is polite and courteous and always reciprocates, but is baffled by certain British attitudes and customs. In a pub, he is astonished that you have to serve yourself and everyone pays for their own food. The English blow their noses with all their might, but if you make a sound whilst drinking tea or belch you are regarded as a barbarian. There are so many rules of etiquette! An unrelated, but incomprehensible, comment he makes is that London Bobbies appear to have been born of the same mother!
Through the dialogue of his characters, the situations which arise, and how they deal with them, Lao She, continually reveals his interpretation of the attitude of the British at that time towards Chinese people. Generally people look down on the Chinese. One reason, which he repeats several times, appears to be that China, at that time, is a weak nation. The Japanese are held in higher regard and command more respect. If China could build itself into a strong nation, attitudes would change. According to Lao She, ordinary British folk disliked the Chinese, but wealthy Britons saw them as objects of amusement. Chinese ate with chopsticks, they served soup at the end of a meal, they drank tea without milk and ate rice plain, not with potatoes.
At first, the relations between the two Mas and their hosts, Mrs Wendall and her daughter are business-like, but cool. Mr Ma tends to oversleep and misses his breakfast, much to the annoyance of Mrs Wendall, who is determined not to cook breakfast twice. The first time this happens, Mrs Wendall relishes, Mr Ma’s asking for the breakfast he has missed, so she can ‘tell him a thing or two.’ However, to her surprise, Mr Ma remains silent, preferring to go hungry - presumably to avoid a confrontation.
The Rev Evans considers applying for a London University position as a professor of Chinese and believes Mr Ma can help him by writing a book on any subject. The Rev Evans surmises that it will be a best seller irrespective of subject matter or quality simply because it will have been written by a genuine Chinese person. Mr Ma cannot understand why the Revered wants a job, because all of his family are already earning money. To the Rev Evan’s astonishment, Mr Ma says that he would have to be careful that he does not write anything that makes the Chinese lose face! Lao She, comments that the Reverend, never really considers Mr Ma as an equal. For the English who have never been to China, Chinamen are unsightly, yellow-faced creatures, notoriously sinister and cunning. To those who have been, the Chinese are a race of stinking, filthy, empty-headed slobs.
At Christmas time, one of Mrs Wendall’s friends, Miss Dory does not accept an invitation to visit, believing that one ‘simply cannot be safe with Chinese men around’ and ‘what average person does not automatically associate Chinese men with murder! Mr Ma in his attempts to adopt certain British customs buys presents for everyone. They all give presents in return except Paul, the Rev Evan’s son who has such disdain for the Chinese that he intentionally does not reciprocate. ’ Later on Paul, on seeing the younger Ma, Ma Wei in a teashop with his sister, cries out, ‘you cannot run around with our women’, attacks him and they have a fist-fight in which Paul comes off worst. Later Mr Ma apologises to the Rev Evans, but although the clergyman’s view is ‘boys will be boys,’ Paul’s mother complains vigorously to Mr Ma and reveals her disgust, ‘Twenty years ago your people would tremble at the sight of a foreigner - and now you’re nervy enough to fight with us!’ She adds, ‘You cannot go around killing people; this is England, not China. There are rules against barbarism! ‘
Eventually, as time goes on Mr Ma and Mrs Wendall develop a warm friendship and marriage is contemplated. Mr Ma likes flowers, dogs and children and is considered good husband material! They visit a jeweller’s shop to look at rings; the jeweller realising Mr Ma is Chinese, brings out a tray of the cheapest rings. The author Lao She, believes that if Mr Ma were Japanese, the jeweller would have shown them slightly more expensive ones - but still cheaper that those normally shown to Britons. The implications of a marriage between a British woman and a Chinese man are carefully considered by the two parties. If the couple were to live in England, Mr Ma would have to abandon his plan to take his brother’s remains back to China. Also Mrs Wendall would have to forget about having normal contacts with her relatives and friends as most people look upon the Chinese as dogs! Even if Mrs Wendall agreed to go to China with her new husband, the hardships would kill her and, because all the customs over there are so very different, she would go crazy in a couple of days! Mrs Wendall also wonders how she would break the news to her daughter, a proud young woman that she was going to marry a ‘ch...k’! Eventually both parties realise the insurmountable difficulties which would arise and abandon their marriage plans.
Through Ma Wei, Lao She declares that only nationalism can save China. He doesn’t propose that the Chinese, like the Japanese, produce warships, cannons and all sorts of destructive weapons - but these are what define a civilisation. He goes on, ‘Most English laugh at us, because our army and navy are nothing but a pathetic joke. But some day we will have to hold up our heads and fight! It’s not the humane way, but if we don’t, we’ll never have a place in the world. He continues that it’s not easy for an old empire to make its way in the modern world, but (other countries) should sympathise with us and not loot our burning house. If you are weak, people jump at the chance to bully you and jeer at you. The relations between countries have always been a matter of one’s loss is another’s gain.
For a biography of Lao She please see Wikipedia article ➚
Ann Witchard of London City University has written ‘Lao She in London’ (Hong Kong University Press, 2012). I own this book but have not yet had a chance to read it fully. However, Julia Lovell of Birbeck College has written on the back cover, ‘a beautifully written book that combines literary biography with a remarkably succinct account of British modernism and an evocative portrait of interbellum London, as viewed through Chinese eyes.’
Frances Wood (formerly Curator of Chinese Collections at the British Library) on the same back cover writes that Lao She, arrived in a city brimming with prejudice, where tourists visited Limehouse to see opium dens and experience the Yellow Peril at first hand. Frances continues, ‘the novel reflects his experience of missionary condensation and popular panic and how characters such as Dr Fu Manchu are a reminder of how attitudes and prejudices need to change.’
Shortly before this time, Sax Rohmer and Thomas Burke had written their short stories with Chinese as the villains. Sax Rohmer was the creator of Fu Mancu, ‘the yellow peril incarnate in one man.’
In her book, Ann Witchard makes the point that Lao She, in this book, Mr Ma and Son, was aiming mainly at a Chinese readership and this is evident from his continual remarks about China being a ‘weak nation.’
NB. Ann Witchard used the translation of ‘Mr Ma and Son: Two Chinese in London’ by William Dolby, (1987) which is in the British Library, London, but as yet unpublished. In her book, Ann quotes some excerpts from this translation and there are differences in wording, as you might expect, from Julie Jimmerson’s translation, which I read for this article. However, wording can be very important. Translators do a very responsible job and are in a unique position. The general drift of both translations are probably the same, but a close study of both are required to make firm conclusions.
I was born and grew up in Bootle, Liverpool and then worked for 35 years for a large textile company. I have had numerous experiences of racist abuse both at work and in everyday life. Even in retirement I still have the occasional occurrence.
I first arrived in Manchester in 1962 as a student. I lived in lodgings and one of the landladies I stayed with, thought me quite strange (I probably was!). I reassured her that I ate English food. She was not unpleasant but eventually encouraged me to leave, saying, ‘You would be much better off with your own kind. There are plenty of China boys in Victoria Park’ (Manchester).
In the mid-1970s, I organised a Chinese banquet for our department at work in Derby. This followed a very successful Jacobean Banquet. The price was less than the Jacobean Banquet, but some complained that it was too expensive. They could not understand why it cost more than the local Chinese take-away food shop. Some said ‘Chinese food is meant to be cheap’. One lady said she would pay that amount for a French meal - but not a Chinese meal. Also at that time all sorts of rumours were going around that the Chinese were serving cat meat, dog meat etc. in their restaurants and in the 1990s, an unsuccessful attempt was made to blame a Chinese restaurant for the foot and mouth outbreak.
Many Chinese restaurants suffer racist abuse and occasional violence, and complain that the police sometimes ignore them. Is it because they get too many calls - or is there a racist element? I know of one case when an English lady neighbour, called the police on behalf of the Chinese, they responded very quickly. In Chinese restaurants there are numerous incidences of people not paying their bill, but according to one restaurant proprietor, in nine cases out of ten, the police dismiss it as a ‘civil matter’.
I believe ‘Fu Manchu’ attitudes, general suspicion and disrespect for Chinese people probably originated during Victorian times, and they were reinforced and popularised by of Sax Roemer and Thomas Burke. The situation has significantly improved today. On seeing a Chinese person, they might call out, ‘Ni hao’ instead of ‘ch..k.’. Has this something to do with China’s new economic power? But negative attitudes still persist and in addition we have all the misunderstandings and prejudices associated with China, a country using a different system of government and evolving its own form of democracy. These are evident from regular newspaper reports which are negative and sometimes downright hostile. In many cases a balanced view of the facts is lacking and critical items of information omitted. I often wonder if the editors have been given some briefing on the attitude to adopt; if so, who is giving the briefing, and why?
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2013 reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 39, 2013
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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