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Birmingham City Council

Early Chinese presence in Birmingham

The Searchlight, March 5th 1914

Birmingham is about as far away from the sea as you can get in England. This may explain why, unlike the port cities of Liverpool, London and Cardiff, it did not see large scale Chinese migration until the 1960s. However, there were small numbers of Chinese people in the Birmingham area from at least the 1900s.


Kellys Business Directory lists several Chinese owned hand laundries, for example Sing Hing Lee at 5 Stoney Lane, Sparkbrook in 1908, and Lee Hop in Mary Street, Balsall Heath the following year.


Visual evidence of Chinese settlement can be seen from this 1914 sketch in a local magazine, The Searchlight of Greater Birmingham. As a regular feature, the magazines Spotter depicted faces in the crowd, with those portrayed able to claim the original drawing as a prize. In this case a somewhat dubious honour, as the artist captions the image of a Chinese mother and child in New Street, Birmingham, with the phrase The Yellow Peril, the prevailing anti-Chinese stereotype of the day.


As historian Chris Upton points out, the literary figure initially responsible for the Yellow Peril idea was born in Birmingham. The author Arthur Henry Ward (more widely known as Sax Rohmer) was born in Rann Street, Ladywood in 1883. His most popular fictional creation was Dr Fu Manchu a figure of sinister portent, alluding to the vague sense of unease stirred in Western circles by the prospect of a resurgent modern China (Chris Upton Images of Diversity, Birmingham Post, February 1st 2003).



1917 poster, Chinese workers meeting

There is a documentary evidence that Chinese workers were starting to arrive in Birmingham by 1917. John Beard, one of the activists in the Workers' Union, wrote an article in the Workers' Union Record in December 1917 noting how Chinese people had come to Birmingham during the First World War. Most of these men were sailors on ships from Asia, which had been sunk by German U-boats.


In Birmingham these men were employed in the lowest paid sector of the metal trade and Beard encouraged the unionisation of these men to prevent them being used as blacklegs by employers. He reproduced a poster in Chinese to attract the workers to a meeting in Birmingham on October 21st 1917. (Copyright Malcolm Dick).



Chinese History in Birmingham
Early Links between Birmingham and China
Post-war Chinese settlement
Resources on Chinese history in Birmingham
From Cathay to Pershore Street: Photographs by Terry Lo
Chinese New Year 2000: Photographs by Nichola Gotts