For six weeks until the end of August, the China Design Center in central London has been showing an exhibition of the best creative work of Chinese graduates in the UK in fine arts, architecture, furniture and jewelry.
Set up in 2013 in a prime location in central London, its mission is to show that “China is finding its own voice and identity and becoming a great creative powerhouse”.
At the same time, Chinese companies are setting aside their low profile and moving into sponsorship of the arts and sport and making public donations to charity. Prominent Chinese who live here, like Gok Wan, David Tang and Jung Chang, are becoming household names.
For the first time since Chinese arrived in Britain 200 years ago — seamen who settled in Liverpool – the community has the confidence and self-esteem to come out of the shadows and seek the recognition it believes it deserves.
Over half a million Chinese live in Britain, 0.8 per cent of the population. On a per capita basis, they have a higher education, include more university graduates and earn more than the white British population; Chinese men are twice as likely as white British men to be working in professional jobs. They have the lowest poverty ratio and drink the least alcohol of any minority group.
While the first generation worked in restaurants, retail shops and launderettes, the second and third generations have educated themselves, learnt fluent English and moved into law, medicine, science, engineering, accountancy, entrepreneurship and the creative arts.
The most famous Chinese in Britain is probably Gok Wan, the son of a British father and Hong Kong mother. He presented a three-part television series titled How to Look Good Naked; he tutored English women, many of them overweight, into wearing fashionable clothes in public and, in the climax of the show, showing all of themselves to the audience. He has become a fashion consultant, author and television presenter.
Gay, he has presented programs on social problems among young people, drawing on his own personal experience with homophobia and obesity. Gok has an easy, affable style, especially with women, which has won him thousands of fans among the public. For them, he is a completely new kind of Chinese.
“British people think Chinese firms are ‘economic animals’ solely concerned with their own profit and who do not contribute to society,” said Xiang Xiaowei, cultural attaché at the Chinese embassy, at a recent seminar. “For the sake of company profit, they are willing to give up family and holidays and enjoy welfare benefits without taking any social responsibility.
“This is a negative image. The embassy hopes to help firms realize the importance of public relations in society, which affects both the image of the company and that of the country,” he said.
Britain is home to more than 500 Chinese-invested companies, up from 170 in 2005; they have spread from trade, finance and telecom into high-tech, infrastructure and research and development centers.
Despite this substantial investment, 89 percent of British people can name less than five Chinese brands, according to a recent survey by Chester Public Relations. They see Chinese goods as cheap and low quality. “The image of Chinese companies abroad is not good. In recent years, the BBC, the Times and other media have reported negative news about them,” it said.
Xiang said Chinese firms should follow the example of Japanese and South Korean companies in Britain in sponsoring exhibitions in major museums, doing charity work and other activities that make them better known to the public and present themselves in a positive light.
One negative perception British people have is of illegal Chinese immigration. Last December Martin and Kevin Lai, who ran takeaways in the southwest city of Exmouth, were sentenced for employing illegal immigrants. In 2012, 40,000 Chinese entered the UK, making China the top source of migrants for the first time; many students stay on after graduation, legally or not.
According to official figures, there are about 175,000 illegals in Britain; they do not have the right to be in the country but the government has lost track of them. The real figure is substantially higher.
Among them are thousands of Chinese working in restaurants, takeaways and grocery stores; many have moved to Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic where they have more job opportunities and the chances of detection are lower. They present the face of the traditional Chinese in Britain: secretive, discreet and uncommunicative.
But now, thanks to the success of many individuals like Gok Wan and the inflow of companies from China, this face is gradually changing.
The writer is a Hong Kong-based journalist and author.
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