Sun, Jun 20, 2004 - Page 18 News List

One Englishman's story of Chinese identity

Gregory Lee is an academic whose grandfather was Chinese. His book is a small survey of attitudes

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Chinas Unlimited
By Gregory B Lee
121 pages
Routledge Curzon

Gregory Lee is a British academic who had a Chinese grandfather, and this short book is, along with a few other matters, a survey of attitudes to China and the Chinese in 20th century Britain, together with passages of personal reminiscence.

It makes depressing reading. Attitudes, Lee claims, were for the most part hostile, though matters improved somewhat when Chinese seamen became perceived as necessary for the UK's survival during World War II. For the rest it was a comic parody typified by the representation of Chinese people in the British pantomime Aladdin. In addition, the British are shown as actively promoting opium addiction in the Far East, refusing to believe there had ever been any genuine civilizations east of Suez, and routinely exploiting Chinese workers both at home and abroad as cheap labor that could easily be persuaded to work long hours.

The blend of personal reminiscences and academic reference might appear an unpromising formula, but Lee manages it successfully enough. The point, probably, is that there isn't sufficient material concerning perceptions of Chineseness in Britain to make a long book, and anyway the author's own experiences do add something useful to the picture. Besides, there doesn't appear to have been a major study of this subject before, and Lee's modest foray thus constitutes a useful first attempt at the topic.

Gregory Lee was born in Liverpool in the 1940s. He writes that he never knew much about his Chinese maternal grandfather (who died when Lee was eight). He does know, however, that he left China in 1909 and arrived in the UK two years later, the same year that every Chinese laundry in the Welsh city of Cardiff was ransacked during a seaman's strike. Lee says he's never experienced any discrimination himself, except possibly when teaching in China where his proficiency in Chinese was a source of puzzlement.

During the 1950s, however, his mother suffered from what Lee calls the quadruple disadvantages of being from Liverpool, working-class, half-Chinese and a woman. During World War II, by contrast, she had enlisted in the British Royal Navy and passed the examinations needed to become a commissioned officer, though she never took up the rank because she lacked the money to afford the necessary accouterments. By coincidence, the author's Chinese-sounding name surname Lee comes from his father who had no Chinese ancestry.

He writes: The plain fact is I did not look Chinese, I did not suffer racism for being Chinese, but I had been, still am, an observer of my own family's suffering, of their

being treated differently.

The book is largely put together from previously-published articles (which perhaps explains why there is no index and no bibliography). But the last chapter is new, and it's the one that contains Lee's experiences as a boy in Liverpool's Chinatown. He states that he's tried unsuccessfully to write a longer autobiographical narrative about this period of his life, and short passages of this attempt appear here.

The chapter on opium also makes for chilling reading. The drug had been imported into China by the British, a trade Hong Kong was acquired specifically to facilitate. Apparently it constituted a major source of the state's empire-derived revenue, yet it was hypocritically argued that the Chinese were temperamentally drawn to addiction to it, whereas, in the form of laudanum, it was considered an entirely beneficial item in every British household, at least up to the middle of the 19th century. Campaigns against the promotion of the drug in the Empire were for long resisted by the authorities, even after its use in the UK had become disreputable.

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