The Lack of a ‘Chinese Exclusion Act’ in the United Kingdom?

Liverpool Chinese Seamen

For the last Yale-Edinburgh conference on the theme ‘Migration, Exile, and Pilgrimage’, I gave a paper on a possible new area of research for myself: British Chinese Christianity. In preparation for the presentation, I was struck by much of the reading I encountered which asserted that widespread hostility against Chinese in Britain has rarely been recorded. One commentator even claimed:1

The reason for this apparent lack of interest in Chinese immigrants would seem to be largely that they have not appeared to pose any sort of minority problem. Their numbers are relatively insignificant, and they do not constitute an economic threat to the workers of the host society, since they seldom compete directly with British labour for jobs. Nor has attention been drawn to them, as it has to ‘dark-skinned’ immigrants, by any serious racial disturbances.

In fact, when compared to the United States, Canada, and Australia, the government in the United Kingdom has never created any form of ‘Chinese Exclusion Act’ – racist immigration policies that explicitly forbid Chinese immigrants from entering the country (there were other more general anti-immigration policies in the UK, but none that specifically targeted the Chinese). For these other governments, such exclusion policies were designed to address the influx of Chinese immigrants who were competing for jobs, especially after the various gold rushes.

The sociologist David Parker has noted that this has resulted in a problem – for British Chinese. He explains:2

In the United States… the racist exclusions faced by early settlers serve as a focal point for the symbolic unity constructed out of reflections on oppression. By contrast, in Britain, experiences of racism directed against Chinese people are far more diffuse and dispersed, thus less easy to unify around.

In Parker’s view, the British Chinese identity is still emerging. But he argues that one of the reasons for its slow development is that there is no scapegoat – no common enemy to rally against.

In fact, this point is not entirely true. Whilst there hasn’t been any Chinese exclusion policies, the British government did in fact have a Chinese expulsion policy which required the ‘Compulsory repatriation of undesirable Chinese seamen’.3 In the early-20th century, Chinese men were hired by the British merchant navy during the two world wars. A large number remained in ports such as Liverpool and London, and many married local women and had children. But after the wars, these former Chinese seamen were seen as a nuisance and local authorities also had business interests – they wanted their accommodations (!!). The British Home Office issued this policy to forcefully deport about 2,000 Chinese seamen – many without their families even knowing what had happened.4

This is a story which has been lost from the memories of many (or most) Chinese in Britain today. However, it is one that is slowly being recovered, and should not be forgotten.5 Undoubtedly, it will also add to the imagination of the emerging British Chinese identity.

However, care needs to be taken that this story does not merely result in the construction of a common enemy – a scapegoat. If it does, it simply returns the favour of racist policies with racist reactions going in the other direction. If the events of Charlottesville this past weekend tell us anything, it reminds us that hatred begins which individuals and spreads to societies and governments (or government policies) more broadly.

It is not merely about remembering lost stories, nor utilising those stories to attack others. Rather, it is to keep conscious such stories as reminders of how fragile our societies are and how we all play a part in them – whether we are ‘foreign’ or not.

  1. Ng Kwee Choo, The Chinese in London (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), 2. 
  2. David Parker, ‘Emerging British Chinese Identities: Issues and Problems’, in The Last Half Century of Chinese Overseas, edited by Elizabeth Sinn (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1998), 106. 
  3. Home Office Record 213/926, available through the UK National Archives
  4. See Peng Yining, ‘Chinese in Britain: War Remembrance for Sailors’, The Telegraph, 29 March 2016, available online
  5. See ‘Apology plea for Chinese seamen deported from Liverpool’, The BBC, 19 June 2015, available online