Liverpool and its ‘Chinese’ community

Chinese seamen enjoying refreshments at a Gordon Smith Institute mobile canteen, Photo courtesy of Liverpool records office

The Liverpool Chinese or Eurasian ‘community’ from which we come fits into an established pattern. That is, Chinese men emigrating for financial reasons and, like isolated males of any race, taking local women as partners.

However, the community in Liverpool is unique. Initially, it owed its existence to one main factor – the shipping line of Alfred Holt and Company, which established the first direct steamship link to China in 1868.

It was as a result of this trade that Chinese seamen started coming ashore and settling in Liverpool in the late nineteenth century. They moved into an area already inhabited by numbers of other non-British people including Jews, Russians and Scandinavians.

That area was around Pitt Street . It was here that the pre-World War Two Chinatown was to grow. It was here that, gradually, the Chinese began to open shops and restaurants that catered for other Chinese working on merchant ships docking in Liverpool . In effect, Liverpool’s Chinatown was almost the classic Chinese trading settlement seen throughout the Far East .

The Chinatown that never was

Liverpool’s Chinatown was never a truly Chinese community. This was a ‘Chinatown’ that in reality had a minority of Chinese. Their white wives plus their Eurasian children considerably outnumbered the Chinese men in this community.

Insofar as there was a Chinatown, it consisted of those who had not established a business elsewhere in the city. Often because they still catered for the Chinese seamen whom Alfred Holt continued to employ throughout its existence.

Most of the Chinese-Liverpool couples appear to have spread all over the city. Many opened laundries integrating into Liverpool’s society through the Liverpool Irish wives and children like us – Liverpool’s Eurasians.

And we have been around a long time. We Eurasians began to appear in Liverpool 100 years ago. By 1906 there were small numbers of us all over the city. From this date onwards, Eurasian children begin to enter the schools in increasing numbers. We had arrived.

But aren’t America’s Chinatowns the normal ones?

For many of us, when we think of ‘Chinatown’ we think of a community consisting almost exclusively of Chinese and demonstrating a vibrant Chinese culture. We think of a ‘China in the West’. We think of people wandering around in exotic costumes, temples with strange gods and firecrackers exploding.

Perhaps we are too influenced by what we have read and seen of Hollywood’s version of America’s Chinatowns. But if we consider the evidence on Chinese settlement in Asia and the inter-marriage of Chinese men with local women, perhaps it was these American communities that were not normal.

What happened in America to create Chinese communities so different to the one from which we come?

Over the centuries Chinese emigration was almost exclusively male. And so it was initially in the USA. However, the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco changed that in America. The earthquake destroyed the official records. That meant that it became possible for Chinese wishing to enter America to claim that they were citizens. As citizens, men could bring in their wives. So, from 1910 to 1924, one in four Chinese entering the USA was a woman. The contrast with the UK in this period could not be greater.

Moreover, in America we were almost legally impossible!

California, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, south Dakota, Virginia, Utah and Wyoming all passed laws forbidding intermarriage between Chinese and Caucasians. Whilst there were undoubtedly cohabiting couples, the USA had prevented the rapid assimilation that took place in the UK.

There was also the exclusiveness of the Chinese themselves. Chinatown in the USA was Chinese. Chinese families would not let their sons date an American girl. They preferred to send their sons to China to marry a “proper” girl.

The community and culture appears to have been isolated and self-isolating. Large enough to be self-sustaining and with on-going reinforcement of the culture through the import of brides. And this despite heavy restrictions on immigration. It was the product of circumstances almost unique to the USA .

So, Liverpool is normal. San Francisco is not!