Slurs and fading rock stars
by Sathnam Sanghera
Last updated September 8 2010 12:01AM
Why has the British Chinese community been slow to take offence at Morrissey’s comments on the attitude to animal welfare?
Morrissey was interviewed in a newspaper magazine last weekend, pictured with a cat sitting on his head, and remarking that the Chinese — the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet — were “a sub species” because of their “horrific” attitude towards animal welfare. I found myself drawn to the piece for two reasons, one slightly less solipsistic than the other: (i) the comedian Russell Brand has a cat called Morrissey, that, for reasons too complicated to get into here, was once mistaken by the paparazzi for my cat; (ii) the response of the British Chinese community.
Indeed, apart from a spokesman for the Love Music, Hate Racism campaign, which in 2008 had received £28,000 from the former frontman of The Smiths, saying the organisation would not accept Moz’s help in future (“It really is just crude racism”), and an intellectual letter in The Guardian in which Dr Suet Ying Ho, visiting fellow at the Centre for East Asian Studies at the University of Bristol remarked that it was funny to read the Chinese being described as a “sub species” when “way back, when the Han Chinese first encountered white Europeans … they concluded white Europeans must be ‘sub human’”, there was no response.
Can you imagine the fuss if Morrissey had made such comments about Indians, Africans, or Jews?
The other day, in an interview with V. S. Naipaul, I quoted his wife, Lady Naipaul, complaining that her husband got no letter from Downing Street when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, adding “you have to be a Jew” to get such an accolade in this country, and promptly found myself — quite rightly — apologising to The Jewish Chronicle for not having called her up on the anti-Semitic slur.
But the only time that I recall the British Chinese defending themselves in such a forthright manner was in April 2001, when 1,000 members of the community demonstrated in London against media reports that Chinese restaurants had started the foot-and-mouth crisis by using diseased meat. The British Chinese may amount to more than 400,000, be the largest such community in Europe, count famous names such as Gok Wan and Katie Leung, the Harry Potter actor, as members, and be the fastest growing non-European ethnic group in the UK, but they are also anonymous. So anonymous in fact that it doesn’t seem to bother them that we British Indians have hijacked the term “Asian” for ourselves. Why?
A Chinese acquaintance puts it down to three factors: the Chinese community is not integrated into mainstream British society because of language barriers; more recent Chinese arrivals have been illegal immigrants who, as demonstrated by the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockle pickers disaster, are invisible because they work in the black economy; compared to other ethnic minority groups in the UK, Chinese communities are decentralised.
But then, with thriving Chinatowns in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield, Belfast, London and Aberdeen you could argue that the British Chinese are more centralised than most, albeit in a disparate way. And in some respects the British Chinese, who have been in Britain for generations, are highly integrated: the community has one of the highest inter-ethnic marriage rates in the country when compared to other ethnic groups, with 30 per cent of Chinese women marrying men from different races, according to the 2001 Census.
Basically, the low profile of the British Chinese is a mystery. All you can do is proffer hypotheses. Could it be that because about a third of the British Chinese live in London, where racial tension is minimal, they don’t feel the need to make their voice heard as much as other groups?
Or maybe it is because they are not particularly religiously motivated. According to a 2006 publication from the Office for National Statistics, 52 per cent of British Chinese people have no religious affiliation, and we all know that it is religion and faith that often leads to groups making their voices heard.
Or could the explanation lie in the success of the British Chinese? After all, given they have a record of high academic achievement (figures show that British Chinese pupils are more likely to gain five or more A*-C GCSE grades than any other ethnic group), given that they have the lowest school exclusion rate in the country (at 2 per 10,000), and given a British Chinese person is also more likely to possess a university degree, or be a professional, than the average person in Britain, they may not feel the need to defend themselves against the mindless slurs of fading rock stars.
Personally, I think it’s a chicken-egg equation. The British-Chinese community don’t bother complaining much because they know they’d just be ignored – despite being the third largest ethnic minority grouping in the UK, we just don’t seem to matter much to anyone. And conversely, the media don’t pay attention to us because we’re not doing anything worth sensationalising.