Dr Henry Tam Interview
By: PP Wong
"My heritage and the values I have learnt from my Chinese mum. To be oneself and to be humble at all times. She taught me to always remember where I came from as well as our poor background. And to be proud of my Chinese heritage."
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Northern Lights: it's heretical and challenging, but for children. It has lots of adventure and fantasy elements.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
Some kind of bird, I would love to see everything from up high and experience that freedom.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
I would bring a guitar, because playing music always lifts my spirits. And a pad of paper to record my thoughts...
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Calm, philosophical, Emo.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
It is difficult to point to just one, but I used to read a lot of philosophy books, and then more recently social scientists from the qualitative side. I think an author such as Bourdieu or Karl Marx who can express the way society works and therefore suggest ways to challenge ourselves.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Plain banana - versatile and mobile ^.^
What inspired you to do research on the British Chinese community?
It's always nice to have a story on origins, and the topic actually grew out of my past experiences. During my undergraduate years I met some students from mainland China and I started to become very interested in them and how they were treated and fit into the UK life. I noticed that other students might find what they did odd. But I didn't have this reaction - I just wanted to know more.
In some instances, I felt that overseas students were not treated in a welcoming enough manner. During my time as a Masters student I used my dissertation to explore this theme through questioning what the meaning of a personal space - home - meant to Chinese and SE Asian students. What I found was really interesting - how they met others from their country, brought certain practices over, and also got to know other 'home' students.
I then transferred my interest to British Chinese. I wanted to know if they had these same feelings and experiences that international students had in the UK. As a mixed race British-Chinese, I expected there to be quite different ideas about life in the UK to my own.
Completing the PhD also had the effect of bringing me into contact with the Chinese population, something that I had lacked when growing up. The process of researching and completing it helped me know about myself as much as uncovering my findings.
Did you face any challenges when conducting your research?
There were practical challenges and more theoretical ones.
Practically I had no prior knowledge of contacting Chinese people or finding them, the PhD was also my first major piece of research.
Pre-existing research identified Chinese participants as 'hard to reach'. Not only has not much research been done, but the population tends to be spread out, and outside the two major centres of London and Manchester. There was also the issue of being interested in a specific sub-group, young people, and they had to be British Chinese.
To meet the challenge of finding participants I chose to spend a lot of time searching the local area. I was visiting schools, contacting local groups, trying to find participants and taking part in social groups at university. What we call 'snowballing' was important, that is relying on the goodwill of those you meet, as well as pestering them a little for possible contacts!
The British Chinese community has often be referred to as the most “hidden” ethnic minority group in the UK. Why do you think this is so?
I think in the past this has been because of small numbers, a dispersed distribution, and the nature of the work many Chinese people were doing; in relation to the catering industry which may require long hours and suchlike.
However this has been changing now for some time. My work with young British Chinese demonstrated that not only are there many working outside the catering industry, but many different levels of engagement with British society too. Some naturally remain within their community but for the majority I would say they would be required to engage with other non-Chinese, especially at school and work.
Another issue of interest might be the changing confidence in English and technology, influential bloggers side such as Anna Chen, the previous community website DimSum, and British Chinese Online, moving to Facebook and now creation of a site such as Banana Writers. The recent campaign around the East Asian Actors and Orphan of Zhao casting* demonstrates that there is a voice and growing interest in engaging more vocally amongst some British Chinese.
I also think that the existence of prevalent stereotypes can prevent people talking openly about their cultural heritage. Differences of taste and opinion exist. It takes courage and humility to listen and accept without judging. That said, I don't think it would be unique to the Chinese community for a majority to not voice their opinion in open forums, after all a high percentage of the UK population don't vote!
Why do you think there are not many high profile British Chinese people in the arts or political scene?
This is a difficult one! I think part of the issue here is the age of the British Chinese community. It takes time for members of a migrant community to integrate and find their way. The New York Times featured a really interesting article not so long ago called 'Paper Tigers' on the challenges facing American Asians (which include Chinese there). I think some of these notions of socialisation, attitude and expectation can be found here in the UK.
However, undoubtedly talented British Chinese artists exist. The Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester produced a great book a couple of years ago listing them all. It continues to support work now. As for the political scene there are one or two ethnic Chinese that I know of.
I recently had to shake myself and remember that due to my research I am unusually sensitive to the existence of Chinese people in UK life. There is a website called 'Visible Chinese' which I believe is trying to catalogue everyone.
In your research you mention that the American Chinese collective identity is stronger than the British Chinese identity. Why do you think this is?
Well, though I haven't engaged with American Chinese face-to-face, the writings of academics show that the community has a longer history and has also had to deal with the twin challenges of sustained racism and political prejudice. Think segregation and minority rights or the communist 'threat' of the 20th century. The experience of Chinese school in the United States also seems to be much more organised and on a larger scale than in the UK, that is not to say that the work here is less valuable; it is probably merely proportional in scope.
Seeing American Chinese on TV and in movies displays the differences pretty clearly to me. Yes, issues of stereotyping continue - I know Lucy Liu has complained about this recently - it is valuable to have the make-up of society portrayed in a more realistic fashion when appropriate, such as in a drama.
How has the British Chinese community contributed positively to UK society?
One big question for me is the issue of what community actually means. Can we really say there is one British Chinese community? It is not accurate to say that everyone participates equally or even wants to be part of such a broad grouping.
Certainly there are key positive examples, such as various local associations taking care of Chinese members of the population.
A major contribution is found amongst the ordinary and mundane. Raising socially aware children, taking responsibility for your future and valuing education. I cannot speak for the whole of the Chinese population, but from my research overcoming the challenges of working in a foreign country, settling and making a life. This is a significant contribution.
In your research, did you find any aspects of British Chinese society that surprised you?
I think the British Chinese as a population is quite diverse. We have the established Hong Kong migrants, as well as those from other South East Asian nations such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Newer migrants increasingly hail from mainland China. There is huge disparity in experience, check out the film Ghosts about the Morcambe Bay tragedy or Hsiao-hung Pai's book Chinese Whispers. Go to London and you can see current generations of Chinese migrants working in nail bars or waiting tables, probably for low wages. Then again there are many professionals now working as lawyers, doctors and in academia.
I think what was surprising was the way in which this multiplicity was reflected in the people I met. There were noticeable changes occurring before my eyes - such as the development of a UK Chinese/Asian club scene, continued high grades from ethnically Chinese school leavers as noted in National Statistics, and yet there are real struggles for some around communicating in English and finding work.
What are the next plans for Dr Tan?
I am currently looking for work!
Alongside, I am hoping to make more people aware of what I have been working on for the past years, because it takes a long time to complete the PhD, but only now do I feel ready to talk more confidently about my findings.
It would be great to see a more cohesive research field connecting the experience of Chineseness in Britain, as has been found in Australia and the USA. BW