Challenging ideas of British Chinese; understandings from research

Alex Tan – Is a human geographer and currently a PhD candidate working on his thesis looking at the experiences of young British Chinese in Newcastle upon Tyne. He has previously conducted work on the meaning of ‘home’ to international students from South East Asia, including China. His observations during this work as well as his background led him to begin the PhD work he is doing. Through his work he aims to understand the varied outlooks of young British Chinese, adding to discussion beyond academia as well as in it.

Challenging ideas of British Chinese; understandings from research and experiences in Newcastle upon Tyne. PhD student Alex Tan talks to the editor of Nee Hao Magazine about his findings.

In this article I am keen to address an imbalance between academic and non-academic understandings of young British Chinese lives. With the intention of asking young British Chinese people aged 16-25 about their experiences of life now. I set out to interview them in Newcastle upon Tyne in 2009. What I found and my reasons for doing the research developed over the next two years, my research had a strong personal dimension due to the fact that I had not had much contact with a Chinese community before and was therefore starting from a clean page.

Academic perspective 

From an academic perspective those working on the Chinese in Britain commonly cite David Parker’s work as a reference; in particular his book ‘Through different eyes’ (1995). Parkers work provided a strong foundation for my own because it was the last major book seriously looking at young British Chinese people. Parker found that there was an emerging identity amongst British Chinese, one based largely on Hong Kong youth culture as well as lots of elements from Britain itself. Parker also found that there was a reserved-ness about the young people; partially this was due to a lack of outlets publically to explore Chineseness in the mainstream.

Avoiding stereotypical conceptions

However how might Parker’s observations apply now? What about in Newcastle or other cities? Partially it was reading Khu’s book ‘cultural curiosity’ (2001), a collection of edited short accounts of ethnic Chinese people who had tried to look into their family backgrounds which made me think that there must be a whole set of experiences and understandings beyond purely academic accounts. In my research I wanted to balance a need to avoid stereotypical conceptions of Chinese people, in looking for this I have had to think more openly about the idea of Chineseness itself, particularly how this relies not just on how we look but how others see us and what goes on between.

Newcastle upon Tyne

On arriving in Newcastle upon Tyne I had already had to extend my idea of what ‘Chinese’ in Britain meant, as for example until arriving in 2007 I did not know there was a Chinatown there and had considered London or Manchester to be the main place to find Chinese people. A new awareness led me to look beyond Chinatowns as the only marker of Chinese experience, something which seems so obvious now. I was also looking at young people’s experiences, which I knew might be different from others’. What I found was that young British Chinese people had a lot to discuss that went beyond the expected priority on education. Yes education was very important, as was the role of their families in supporting them in this, however alongside there were just as many stories of fun with friends and hopes for the future which go beyond the image of the quiet studious student. Working in Newcastle upon Tyne illustrated that there are many more places in the UK where a variety of British Chinese experiences can be found. They sometimes engaged in activities such as karaoke, watching ‘Asian’ dramas, listening to ‘Canto pop’, eating in Chinatown and learning/using Chinese which do make their experiences different to other groups with non-ethnic Chinese backgrounds. In the interviews the young people were also telling me about TVB, readers may be aware that this shows Cantonese language television to the UK, Chinese school, family dimsum meals, the work at the takeaway, school and university life. Beyond these specific activities it was quite clear that young British Chinese people also mixed quite freely with other groups and did not appear isolated in terms of how they socialised.  The research drew me into people’s lives, despite my original aim being just to interview them and illustrated that more work needed to be done around the specifics of young British Chinese people’s lives, how they were similar or different to others and how the ordinary things they did could challenge stereotypes.


My fieldwork would take about ten months to complete, I came to recognise that research is far from a start/stop activity. One example is that, having not grown up in a Chinese community, I had to find a way to engage with young Chinese people for the first time. Despite my own training at Masters and degree level it wasn’t easy to transfer classroom discussions about conducting research into finding participants. I had to draw on previous experiences of working with young people and students, as well as having interviewed people for my degree and masters; I also had to learn to be more actively social. Therefore interpersonal skills, remaining open to offers and listening were important, as was a genuine desire to meet more people. I learned a lot through these months. I had to socialise with young British Chinese people meeting them through university, schools and community organisations, setting up meetings with people whom I thought might be able to help and trying to follow up advice and friendship and contact networks.

 Many different groups within the Chinese community

Eventually it became harder and harder for me to see ‘Chinese’ as a category with just one group of people in it after the research was completed. The individual differences between young British Chinese, many of whom have parents from diverse backgrounds such as Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries in Asia had knock on effects in their lives. One major impact of diverse Chinese backgrounds was a large variation in associations with Chinese language, from Hakka to Cantonese and Mandarin, as well as understandings of what ethnicity could mean. Although some young British Chinese attended ‘Chinese schools’ at the weekends when they were younger, many had learned at home as well. Confidence with language varied quite widely and this made some feel uncomfortable in specifically Chinese spaces such as Hong Kong or within their families when speaking to relatives who did not know English. Young British Chinese then had a quite unique experience which set them apart from older members of the Chinese population whom might speak a form of Chinese fluently and still think of themselves as linked to where they came from before settling in the UK. The fact that these older members were their parents or relatives could make things difficult but it was heartening to hear of how they might manage this relationship.


Overall it was clear that young British Chinese lived quite differently to the ways in which some academic sources painted them. They weren’t reserved or isolated and seemed quite capable of mixing with non-Chinese people as well as enjoying activities which we might class as ‘Chinese’. On the other side there are challenges such as variety in language ability, particularly for second generation young people, which might make contact with certain older family members hard. I certainly learned to open my mind to these differences in experience and would hope that through my work and discussing this idea we can celebrate the ways in which young British Chinese have created their own understandings of ‘Chineseness’ which might sit apart from narrow stereotypes.


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