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Birmingham City Council

Chinese History: Pre-War Emigrants

The earliest Chinese emigrants to Britain were recruited from the villages of the New Territories to serve as sailors aboard European freighters. Several hundred Chinese seamen jumped ship and established communities in the East End of London and the docklands of Liverpool and Cardiff. Numbers increased during the Second World War but many were subsequently repatriated. Those remaining formed the nucleus of, and the catalyst for, the much larger second-phase emigration from the New Territories.

Post-war male emigrants

The second-phase emigration began with the 1948 British Nationality Act which accorded New Commonwealth citizens the right to live and work in Great Britain. People who were born in Hong Kong, especially those indigenous citizens of the New Territories, were given a British passport. They could come to work and live in this country freely until more restrictive immigration legislation in 1962 required employment vouchers or work permits.

The main reason for the second-phase emigration was the decline of Hong Kong's rice market as a result of competition from Thailand. As rice farming became unprofitable and the New Territories villagers (being qualified only for the most menial and low-paid industrial jobs) were unwilling to work in urban Hong Kong, they chose to leave Hong Kong and seek employment in Europe. They often had ties with the ex- seamen in the first-phase emigration and were thus able to fully exploit the almost exactly contemporaneous opportunities which were opening up in the UK in the catering business.

The typical pattern of emigration organisation was through chain migration, relying heavily on lineage ties at every stage. Lineage members from the first migration, already established in the UK restaurant trade, supervised immigration requirements, paid passage money and offered employment. Chain migration was also based on shared dialect, common district of origin or extended family.

Emigration from Hong Kong in this phase also included some 10,000 'stateless' China-born Chinese, some of the thousands who had crossed the borders from the People's Republic of China into the New Territories during the 1950s and 1960s and who were issued with Certificates of Identity. Many had lived for 10 to 15 years in New Territories villages mostly working as farmers before emigration. Emigration to the UK was for them a second experience of migration. Culturally they had much in common with New Territories villagers, i.e. with a traditional Chinese lifestyle unadapted to urban living.