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28 October 2014

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Chinese People in Birmingham: A Brief History by Dr. David Parker
Birmingham's Chinatown
Birmingham's Chinatown
Birmingham has a vibrant and thriving Chinatown which is now the focal point of the annual Chinese New Year celebrations. Dr David Parker looks at where it all began.
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Birmingham is about as far away from the sea as you can get in Britain. This helps explain why Chinese settlement here is relatively recent compared to coastal cities like London, Liverpool and Cardiff. In those places Chinese seafarers on ships bringing goods from Asia populated the historic Chinatowns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

By contrast, Birmingham's Chinese population is the result of a largely post-war migration. Prior to 1945 there were only a few dozen Chinese people in the city. The population then grew from just under 200 in 1951 to the 3,315 recorded in 1991 (Data from successive Population Censuses).

The main source of this growth was emigration from the former British colony of Hong Kong, in particular the rural New Territories areas. In line with the rest of Britain, in the three decades after the war, Birmingham became home initially to Chinese men, but thereafter their families, working largely in the Chinese catering trade.

The by now familiar Chinese restaurants and suburban takeaways provided migrants who often had little formal education and knowledge of English with a niche from where a viable familial presence could be established. An informal clustering of Chinese businesses, community organisations and social clubs emerged around the Hurst Street area of the city centre in the 1960s. By the 1980s this became officially recognised as Birmingham's "Chinese Quarter".

The Arcadian shopping centre incorporated a "Chinese street" when it opened in the early 1990s and has since become the focal point of annual New Year celebrations.   In the last two decades the Chinese population of Birmingham has become more diverse.

More students and migrants from mainland China have extended their stays, the long-standing presence of Chinese-descended students from Singapore and Malaysia has been consolidated. Restaurants and takeaways remain as visible markers of the Chinese presence, but a British born generation is seeking to make its mark in wider fields.

Dr David Parker is a lecturer in the Department of Cultural Studies and Sociology, University of Birmingham. He is author of "Through Different Eyes: The Cultural Identities of Young Chinese People in Britain".
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