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Chinese and British: perspectives on 'Chineseness' among Chinese expatriates

-Callum Veitch and Ella Eagle Davies

As we descended the steps to the exhibition hall in the corner of the magnificent British Library, bilingual program in hand, it was not our eyes that were greeted first, but our ears. It was the sound of a conversation, growing louder with every step we took, until our line of sight happened across the source of the sound positioned centrally within the room. It was a TV screen, displaying snapshots of daily life from preparing food to familial interactions.

As language students, a normal reaction would be to attune our ears and gaze to the dialogue happening before us, in a desperate attempt to engage with and make sense of the nuances of everyday Mandarin colloquialisms. To our surprise, however, what drew us in was instead the tone of voice, the facial expressions, and the emotions they conveyed. Scattered throughout the soundscape of this modest exhibition hall were traces- of emotion, of experience, and of individual and collective identities. This small detail, a simple sound system and screen, transformed the exhibition into an incredibly affecting, corporeal and legible experience which was not only appealing for its troves of fascinating information, but also complicated our relationship with the exhibits as onlookers. Instead of a quest for the ‘authentic experience’ of the Chinese-British community, it presented us with a deconstruction of what cultural exchange truly means. It is not just linguistic, artistic or economic interchange, but an understanding of corresponding emotions and the reinforcement of our common humanity.

Running from 18th November 2022 until 23rd April 2023, the Chinese and British exhibit at the British Library is a free exhibition which explores the significance of ‘Chinese-British’ identity and the trajectories that members of this community have taken since Shen Fu-Tsung, the first recorded Chinese person in the UK, arrived in the country over three hundred years ago in 1687. At the heart of the exhibition is the theme of cultural exchange. Tracing a myriad of personal journeys taken by Chinese-British people, who can trace their heritage back to regions spanning east and southeast Asia, the exhibit touches upon lasting impacts of these communities on areas including literature, academics, military service, popular cuisine, the arts, and religion. Curated by Dr Lucienne Loh of the University of Liverpool and Dr Alex Tickell of the Open University, the project notably consulted [finish]

A continuous theme throughout the exhibition was deconstructing ‘Chineseness’ and ‘Britishness’ in the context of immigrant communities. Beginning with Shen Fu-Tsung’s discussions in Latin with Thomas Hyde, and his contributions in translating and cataloguing Chinese books in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, the exhibit investigates the boundaries conceptualised between ‘Chinese’ and ’British’ within stories of key Chinese figures within elite British circles. Hybrid artefacts combine historical items with audio-visual material such as audio testimonies to breathe life into stories that do not shy away from highlighting the difficulties faced by these communities throughout three hundred years, including the forced repatriation of Chinese sailors following the Second World War, which is acknowledged to have had a strong racial element.

Hand-drawn map of China taken from Shen Fu-Tsung’s manuscripts. Credit: Callum Veitch

Another aspect in which the exhibit excelled was in its visual reproductions of the spatial configurations of everyday Sino-British spaces. The input from Sino-British contributors really shine through in the sections of the exhibit on everyday life. Some highlights included: a map from 1880 of Chinese-British communities around the docks of East-End London, miniatures of an existing shop Ming’s Restaurant, and testimonies of the atmosphere in laundromats, takeaway stores, and other work spaces Chinese immigrants found themselves in the early 20th century. The audio recordings that echo throughout the exhibit hall also notably endowed the displays with a sense of three-dimensionality. We should not forget that, as cultural and historical ‘contact zones’, museums installations are often perceived and organised as the legitimate historical authority, with the potential to invite a frontal orientation between onlooker and artefact. However, in experiencing this exhibit multi-sensually, the curators have invited visitors to engage with lived realities, as narrated by members of the Chinese-British community. It is a small taste of what mixed media exhibitions have to offer in tackling the topic of immigrant and marginalised communities.

Miniature of Ming’s Restaurant. Credit: Callum Veitch

At the heart of this exhibition is the celebration of “the diverse contributions to British society by underrepresented communities through personal stories of survival and success” (1). Nevertheless, the format of exhibition also seemed to suggest that in order to stand out from the story of the many ‘Chinese-British’ masses, one must be exceptional, a narrative that only works to harm these communities by defining their worth against contributions they have made to the betterment of British culture, economy, politics and so forth. Regarding the personal stories of the everyday, one stark observation was the overwhelming attention given to Chinese-British catering spaces, an insight into the experience of these communities easily accessible from the standpoint of the average British person of non-Chinese descent. As we traversed the displays, we were hit with the desire to see a degree of deconstruction of ‘Chinese’ in relation to the diverse backgrounds of the figures featured. The lack of discussion of the ‘Chinese’ label and its repercussions for the identities of people of Singaporean- and Vietnamese-Chinese descent pushed the exhibition towards both a slight essentialism and exceptionalism, especially as early Chinese communities in London and Liverpool’s docklands were notable for their remarkable cultural diversity, drawing in migrants from across east and southeast Asia.

A tendency towards generalisation is, after all, perhaps inevitable in a museum exhibition, and does not stop this one in the slightest from being well worth a visit. Programs in both simplified and traditional Chinese are also provided.

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