No place for racism in the Chinese community

There’s no place for racism and negative stereotypes in the Chinese community

By Johnny Luk

UK is awesome.

I like to think the multicultural fabric of our society, driven by its rich story of trade, innovation and a slice of turbulent imperial world domination, enhances it. In modern times, we are blessed as a leader in opportunity, freedom and social liberty.

But that doesn’t mean it is all happy days without challenges from racism and negative stereotypes, there are issues facing all Britain’s ethnic populations and religious groups, and in many ways even the Scottish, Irish and Welsh face it too. The British Chinese most certainly are also a subject to derogatory comments.

Plenty in the Chinese community would probably admit to having been asked if we want “egg fried rice” or to “buy DVDs”, had someone distort their eyes at us or making kung fu moves in a mocking display. I certainly had my fair share of it.

But one term that probably offends us the most is the word “Chink”. Or at least that’s what I assume. Curiously, according to a YouGov poll that was conducted on this issue, 36% of people asked did not find it offensive and felt it was “normal language for some people”. So where does it originate from and why is it not just considered an offensive term?

Quick history of the word ‘’Chink’’. It is said to have several origins according to different sources: some say it comes directly from the word “China”, others from the Chinese courtesy “qing qing” (pronounced “ching”) or from the “Qing dynasty, when the Opium Wars between the British Empire and China took place. During these difficult times, China was invaded, a lot of people died and Hong Kong was taken over by the British Empire. This was a bad defeat for China and the British began using the term to negatively describe Chinese people. One journal from W.J. Barry in 1869 reads: “there was plenty of fun to be had with the Chinkies” – the fun being the merciless slaughter of Chinese people. “Chink” could also be related to the idiom “a chink in one’s armour”, meaning weak or vulnerable. 

Having part of China colonised meant the Chinese were mocked and oppressed, not too out of kilter of the Victorian era manual of imperialism. Alvin Yu, who looked into the background of the word “chink”, likens its use and historical connotation with that of a Black person if they were to be called a “slave” today. 

The term has been regarded by some – both Chinese and non-Chinese people – as one that is as equally offensive and racist as “P*ki” or “nig*er”, however it can be argued that more people would be shocked by those terms than “Chink”. “Chinky” has been used to describe Chinese food, restaurants and takeaways and “ching chong” or “chinky chonky” have also been deemed derogatory.

While the word may simply have come from being a nickname for “China”, its constant negative use in different contexts has aided its further derogatory connotations and associations. During the 19th and early 20th Century, use of the word in literary texts was still common, as can be found on the Oxford English Dictionary website. 

Dave Whelan, owner of Wigan Athletic FC, said he felt that the use of the word “Chink” was not offensive. Although they apologised if they had offended anyone (including Jewish people who Whelan said they love to chase money), Whelan added that it was similar to British and Irish people being called “Brits” and “Paddies”. He also said that when growing up he used to call the Chinese “chingalings” and that nobody was offended by it but added: “if any Englishman said he has never called a Chinaman a “Chink”, he is lying.”

I beg to differ, but Dave is not a young guy, maybe his attitude is reflective of his time, but his comments were still ignorant, as called out by both Jews and Chinese people. Both men have insisted they are not racist and called their exchange “friendly banter”. He paid the price with the loss of the Chairman Ship of Wigan, leaving the day to day running to his 23-year-old grandson (I can’t argue with that – given I run a organisation that promotes young business leaders).

UKIP leader Nigel Farage and former candidate Kerry Smith also came under fire for their use of the word “chinky”. Smith made reference to a “chinky bird” to describe a local constituent among other comments about “poofters” and “peasants”. Farage defended her by saying he was from a council estate and said most people from that background commonly used such words freely. He also said that while he has never used the word himself, he did not condemn those who did, saying it was “normal” and usually said when talking about a Chinese meal. It was good to see Lord Wei go on ITV to condemn the comments, and since then, Smith has been turfed out of mainstream politics from other scandals typical of UKIP.

Alvin Yu believes that using “chinky” to describe Chinese takeaways and people in a lighthearted way and it being inoffensive is nonsense. “Yes, when people describe it so, they most often mean no offense to Chinese people. More often than not, they are not racist people – at least they wouldn’t describe themselves as so,” he says. “However, intent is not the heart of racism. I don’t care about intent,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter if the speaker is a racist person. What matters is that by using racist language, you are participating in a culture of oppression and racism against a minority that you have invaded, mocked and humiliated for the last century.”

Racism or racist remarks against Chinese people does still happen, but perhaps many believe that it doesn’t or not to the same extent as other ethnic minorities. Few hate crimes against the Chinese are reported to the police or resolved and the Chinese are known to be an unassuming community in Britain who do not want or care to speak out for whatever reasons they may have.

Others would argue it doesn’t matter. Heck, I am a pretty chilled out guy, being self-depreciating is not a bad thing. It is important for our community to laugh at ourselves sometimes. I get that, having grown up as the only British Chinese guy in Milton Keynes and studying up north in Durham.  Some Chinese individuals may be unbothered by its use, maybe turning a deaf ear to it after hearing it for years or never being called it directly.

But that doesn’t mean it’s okay for the many others who find it offensive. If and when we hear people, use the words “Chink” or “chinky”, we need to inform them on how it is a deeply offensive, racist slur. Even if people claim they are “joking”, “having banter” or are not racist and insist on not believing that it’s offensive, we must tell them that this is the wrong attitude to have and can cause offence. Our community is raising their voice and standing up to lazy racism, let’s keep up the pressure.

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