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Chinese Lives

Chinese Lives: Chinese Community in Newham

Chinese DragonThe Chinese are a group with a long history of settling in, or at times just passing through, Newham. In 1881 the census recorded 31 men but no women from China living in West Ham.

By 1891 there were 13 men and the 1901 census recorded none. It is difficult to be certain, but the probability is that the majority of those recorded in 1881 were sailors or lascars, who happened to be in West Ham at the time the census was being recorded.

Since the Second World War Chinese people have been more permanent settlers in Newham. In the 1950s and 1960s the Chinese people that came to Britain were mainly from Hong Kong and tended to be ex-farmers from Hong Kong’s ‘New Territories’. They came to Britain looking for work and a livelihood. Many made their home in Newham as accommodation was relativity inexpensive and a close proximately to London’s Chinatown where they earned their living by working in laundries and Chinese restaurants.

From 1980s onwards, the Newham Chinese Association has noticed a very different pattern of settlers from Hong Kong and they now tend to be better-off and come for political reasons, to avoid the political uncertainty due to the return of Hong Kong in 1997 to the People’s Republic of China. Newham Chinese Association and the 2001 census record show that there are now approximately 3000 Chinese living in Newham.

Chinese Lives is the story of Newham Chinese residents, their history, their experiences and their contribution to Newham culture.

Chinese Lives: The Chinese Community in London

Chinese DragonThe Chinese community in London dates back to the mid 1800s. Between 1854 and 1856 many Chinese seamen were housed at the ‘Oriental Quarters’ in Shadwell near the present day Wapping underground station. These ‘Oriental Quarters’ were lodging houses and usually housed approximately 20 seamen. The growth in the Chinese seamen was spurred on by the Chinese tea trade via Canton. Many men found they were stranded in London once the ships’ cargo had been discharged. They were allowed to continue working in the docks.

In 1850s there are a few records of Chinese women arriving in Britain as nurses or ‘Amahs’ to British missionaries who had served in China. Local sources suggest that by 1860 there were some Chinese men married to English women. Many lived at riverside settlements close to the docks such as Deptford and Woolwich.

London’s first Chinatown sprang up in the East End’s Limehouse area in the 1860s and existed until 1950, although at it’s height there was no more than 4,000 Chinese living there. Chinese seamen settled there to escape the cramped lodgings provided by the East India company.

  • The Chinese community based in Limehouse consisted mainly of two distinct communities – Shanghai and Cantonese seamen.
  • The Chinese from Shanghai were settled around Pennyfields, Amoy Place and Ming Street.
  • The Chinese from Canton and Southern China were settled around Gill Street and Limehouse causeway.

The Chinese community remained a vibrant community until 1934. In an attempt to disperse the community, a plan by the Stepney Borough Council to widen Limehouse Causeway and Pennyfields succeeded in clearing many of the shops and houses in the area. The Blitz and postwar decline in the shipping industries in the docks had a devastating effect on the community. Post War development around Pennyfields completed the destruction of Chinatown in Limehouse.

The next major wave of immigration came in the 1960s. Land and agricultural reform brought many workers to Britain, mainly from Hong Kong in search of a new livelihood. Many settled in Soho and Bayswater, drawn to the booming Chinese restaurant trade helped by the returning British soldiers from the war in the Far East. With the success of the trade the area soon came to be known as Chinatown.

Many women worked from home and language still possess a serious problem for the older generation.


Chinese Lives: Art and Calligraphy

Good Luck and HappinessThe Oldest Language in the World

“Words are the voice of the heart, Calligraphy is the painting of the heart”. (Master Yang)

Chinese is the world’s oldest language and has been in continuous use for 3,500 years. Although a variety of dialects are spoken, they all share the same written language. Mandarin is the official language spoken in China and Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong.

The written Chinese script is made up of characters that are based on pictures. The earliest markings that can be identified as Chinese writing were inscriptions based on tortoise shells and animal bones, apparently used for making predictions about the future.

Today, there are perhaps as many as 40,000 Chinese characters. Each character conveys not only the pronunciation but also ideas and objects in the form of picture symbols.

In China, the art of character writing or calligraphy is appreciated as much as Chinese painting. School children are taught to regard calligraphy with reverence, and are encouraged to practice it ‘during moments of calm and tranquillity’.

Every Chinese character has it’s own way of being formed, known as the ‘stroke order’. It is considered crucial to follow this sequence when writing characters, since it represents universal order and the ‘harmonious movement visible in nature’. There are seven kinds of stroke, each has it’s own unique style and action – together they are known as the ‘seven mysteries’. A character whose strokes are made in the wrong sequence is said to look unnatural.


Chinese Lives: Chinese New Year

Chinese New YearNew Year is the most widely celebrated Chinese festival amongst Chinese communities worldwide.

Traditionally celebrations last fifteen days and include music and dancing with teams of lion dancers.

In China, New Year is called the spring festival since it represents the start of a new farming year. Based on the lunar calendar the exact date of the New Year varies, but it is usually sometime between the end of January and early February.

The first activity on New Year’s Day is to pay homage to the ancestors. Male members of the family bow in front of pictures of their ancestors. On the second day it’s off to visit friends and family. The third day is known as ‘Squabble Day’. Absolutely no visiting is done on this day, in order to avoid any quarrels and arguments.

In Hong Kong, preparation for the festival begins a month before (on the 20th). The whole house is swept and cleaned in preparation for a family reunion.

On the 23rd day, offerings are made to the ‘Kitchen-God’, who sets off to report on the conduct of the family to the ruler of Heaven. Traditional offerings include ‘Sticky rice’-sweetened rice – which it is hoped will seal the mouth of the Kitchen God and stop him from saying anything bad about the family.

Other festive foods include melon seeds, preserved fruits, sweets and fried cakes called ‘jiandu’ made from peanuts, sesame and molasses.

The period is marked by national holidays in both China and Hong Kong. After all the eating and festivities, on the 15th day of the New Year, ‘Ling Xui’ begins when lanterns are lit for three days to draw the celebrations to a close.

Chinese Lives: Food, Tea, Drink

Food symbolizes not only good health and long life but certain dishes are thought to bring good luck when eaten at certain festivals.

Food by Region

In the north, dishes contain a lot of ginger and garlic and the food is relatively heavy. As a result of the harsh climate of the area, fresh vegetables are only available at certain time of the year, therefore northerners have learned to preserve foods to see them through the long winter.

In the east (around Yangste), people eat a lot of fish and enjoy sweet dishes. Soy sauce from the area is reputed to be the best in China. The region is also famous for some very special ingredients; notably black vinegar, Shaoxing rice wine and Zhejiang ham, which is rather like raw smoked bacon.

Food from the west of China is likely to seem hot and is spiced with pepper and chillies. Dishes from this area can offer a variety of flavours in one mouthful. They can be hot, sour, sweet and salty all at once.

Cooking in the south, around Canton, contains a great deal of fish and also includes small snacks called ‘dimsum’.

There is a Chinese joke about food, which says that the people in Canton “eat everything with wings except aeroplanes, and everything with legs except the table”.

Food Groups

The Chinese divide foods into two groups; FAN and CAI.

“Fan” consists of grains, starch, rice, millet and wheat.
“Cai” comprises of vegetables and meat.

Each category has it’s own utensils for cooking and serving.

Dairy products and raw foods are rarely eaten.

The Art Of Tea

China is the world’s second largest tea producing nation. The Chinese were the first people to cultivate the tea bush and use it for culinary and medical purposes.

Tea drinking first started in South China during the Han dynasty (206 BC ) when it was made like a soup.

Powdered tea was popular during the 11th century but it was not until the Ming dynasty (1386-1644) that leaf tea was used.

In China, tea drinking has always been associated with poetry and art, and is thought to be a most cultured activity. Many poems have been written about tea, here are just two.

Today, tea is China’s most common beverage. Green tea is preferred which is fermented and drunk hot without milk or sugar. It is made in either a teapot with a built in strainer or directly in mugs with handles and lids. As the tea seeps in the mug the leaves sink to the bottom.

The Way of Tea by Chiao-Jen

A friend from Yeuh presented me
With tender leaves of Yen-His tea,
For which I chose a kettle of ivory-mounted gold.
A mixing bowl of snow-white earth. With its clear bright froth and fragrance,
It was like the nectar of Immortals.
The first bowl washed the cobwebs from my mind -
The whole world seemed to sparkle.
A second cleansed my spirit
Like purifying showers of rain.
A third and I was one with the Immortals -
What need now for austerities
To purge our human sorrow?
Worldly people, by going in for wine,
Sadly deceive themselves.
For now I know the way of Tea is real.
According to ancient texts, tea could be used as a tonic to pep up the mind and body.

Benefits of Tea – Traditional Claims

Tea drinking is reputed to:

  • Increase blood flow to all parts of the body;
  • Stimulated clear thinking and mental alertness;
  • Speed the elimination of alcohol and other harmful substances (fats and nicotine) from the bodily organs;
  • Increase the body’s powers of resistance to a wide range of diseases;
  • Increase the intake of oxygen by the bodily organs;
    Prevent tooth decay;
  • Have a cleansing and invoigorating effect upon the skin which assists in the preservation of a youthfull appearance;
    Prevent or slow down the onset of anaemia;
  • Clear the urine and facilitate its flow;
  • Benefit and brighten the eyes;
  • Combat the effects of summer heat;
  • Assist the digestion;
  • Ease discomfort in the limbs and joints;
  • Decrease harmful secretion of mucus;
  • Banish fatigue or fits of depression, raising the spirits and inducing a general feeling of well-being;
  • Prolong the life span of the individual