The trail of three brothers: An intergenerational story of mobility and fixity from Liverpool Chinatown
Kiah Rutz | 14 February 2020 | Long read
Liverpool Chinatown. All pictures by the author.
I am sat with the three Liu brothers as tea is served on a tray. Two of them face me from across the desk, the third one pulls up a chair next to me. There is chatter in Cantonese, interspersed with words in English. Nicholas pulls out a small sheet of paper from somewhere underneath his desk.
‘Now this, this is only one small side of my brother. The calligraphy-side. Ask your mum, she is an artist, right, is it good?’, he says with pride. Yingyan smiles contently, a little embarrassed.
‘We’re three brothers, we have been in Chinatown for a long time. He has been here since 1960’, Nicholas says with a nod to Yingyan. ‘And then we followed and came in 1973.’
Nicholas’ little introduction is the cue for Yingyan. He speaks very softly, at a careful pace. Their story begins, like many tales of migration, in poverty. Two years into his middle school education Yingyan left school and found a job because his family had lost its main source of income. His father was out of work.
The Liu family was not the only Cantonese family who suffered economically from the aftermaths of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. It caused a large number of mainland Chinese refugees to flee towards Hong Kong, which put enormous stress on the region’s economy. While these refugees took over rice plantations as ‘skilled agriculturalists’, competition from cheap Thai rice exports and the encroaching urbanisation of Hong Kong prompted many Cantonese to leave for Britain.
Yingyan’s mother, too, decided to send her eldest son to England. With encouragement from relations abroad and a passport bought with borrowed money, Yingyan left for England. ‘At that time, you didn’t come by plane [but by ship]. I left in 1960, it took me 1 month to come to the UK. Because we were passing a lot of places, like Vietnam, Singapore, Bombay, Alexandria… Then we got to France… then through to Dover.’ He took the train from London Euston to Liverpool and three days after his arrival, he was at work already.
By the time Yingyan immigrated to Liverpool, Chinese faces had become a familiar sight. Liverpool boasts the oldest Chinatown in Europe, and when Yingyan arrived in 1960, it had a relatively well-organised system of support for newly arrived migrants. Liverpool’s Chinatown began with the opening of the Blue Funnel Line in 1865, a shipping line conducting trade between Shanghai and Liverpool. As Shanghainese sailors, who worked for the company began to settle in Merseyside, their presence was perceived as invasive. New arrivals faced segregation, racism and prejudice. Despite the long presence of Chinese in Liverpool, Yingyan was still confronted with ignorance, like in the mockery of the way he spoke English, a language he had taken such care to learn. ‘I had a small English-Chinese dictionary, that I put in my pocket, and for 10 years, I consulted it every day. I remember I used the dictionary six times to find this one word. Do you want to know what the word was? Exit. It was everywhere.’
It did not bother Yingyan that he had to work longer hours for less pay because he was working towards a goal. His family, especially his child brothers, were a source of guilt as well as motivation. ‘I went into the restaurant business in 1970. I saved a lot of money, because I didn’t have any bad habits, I didn't smoke, I never gambled. When I came for the first time, I never thought I could go back to Hong Kong. When you get on that ship… you think, I have no choice... It seemed like I was leaving my family forever.’ Even now, it still upsets him to think about this separation. His calm manner quivers and he blinks away tears. Nicholas offers an appreciative squeeze of the hand.
For many, migration symbolises movement. For a month, Yingyan was on the move, but for the next twelve years, migration meant stasis, immobility and isolation. Far away from his family, he was socially isolated in a place that had little understanding of his situation and little patience for communicating with him. He experienced constant emotional stress from a loss of community and the uncertainty of reunion with his family. He developed a remarkable resilience fuelled by the prospect of economic betterment and the love for his family in his homeland. For twelve years, his love was one that transcended time and space without the possibility of reciprocation. Hong Kong was a place frozen and unchanging in his imagination. It was a place that he associated with both the comfort of his homeland and the discomfort of a painful separation. It became an ideal, his return to which would mean his work in England had been a success.
Twelve years after his departure, Yingyan had made enough money not only to afford a trip to Hong Kong but also to bring his brothers back to Liverpool with him. ‘I wished that my kid brothers could go to university here. In Hong Kong you don’t have a chance.’ A year later, they were reunited to finally continue life as a family. ‘Anyways, I carried on, worked hard, built up my kingdom.’ He laughs. ‘I was quite proud of that, I didn't go to university, I didn't have much education, but I still did well.’ His persistence and grit enabled his brothers to attend university. As an accountant and pharmacist, Nicholas and Ken have become well-connected and well-respected leaders of the Chinatown community. Yingyan’s migratory stasis provided his younger brothers with the tools needed for the family’s upward mobility. A trend that has continued with their children, too.
Born and raised in Liverpool, Nicholas’ son, Kin, identifies as British-born Chinese, referred to as BBC in colloquial terms. Chinatown and the Chinese community played a big part in his life growing up. In the British context, Kin had to find a way to understand himself, his different looks, his habits, and his parents. ‘Anything that I needed to learn that mattered towards being Chinese, I could come [to Chinatown]. It was things like learning Chinese... You know, you go to school every day and all your friends around you are English or white. But when you go to Chinatown on Saturdays or Sundays you kind of get a sense of where you came from. You understand yourself and you understand your parents a bit more.’ Chinatown was a place for him to encounter Chinese culture and heritage, a place where he met people who were navigating the same difficulties and mix of cultures. It helped him manage not only conflicting aspects of his identity, but also balance the two cultural contexts of his upbringing.
Apart from finding inspiration for his restaurant, located in his father’s old accountancy office, understanding his mix of cultures is why Kin visits Hong Kong regularly. Hong Kong has become the homeland for a diaspora generation that seeks family roots in a place now unfamiliar to the generation that left it. For the British-born Chinese, Hong Kong is a place of possibility, where desperate poverty is hard to imagine.
While Hong Kong has transformed massively since the 1960s and is becoming an affluent alternative to life in England, Liverpool Chinatown - a kind of replacement Hong Kong for the first generation – has experienced the reverse, and is now in slow demise. To most, Liverpool Chinatown has become no more than a street with a big arch and a dead end. For the people whose lives have focused around this place, its deterioration is detrimental to their social cohesion and cultural identity. Most of them, including the Liu family, attribute its current situation to a generational gap between immigrants and their British-born offspring.
While the older generation is ageing, there is a lack of continuity with their children, who view Chinatown differently. These differences stem from the elder generation’s hopes of and focus on upward mobility. They pressure the younger generation to study and work in what are viewed as prestigious careers like law, pharmacy or medicine. Kin, too, first trained as lawyer. Parents do not want their children to enter the restaurant trade, which ultimately means that the line of work which sustains Chinatowns is dying out. ‘You’ve got the first migrants, the only thing they knew was cooking, whilst there was a skill in cooking there wasn’t really the management skill of it. The second generation of kids, including myself, have more of an idea of what it should be, but we’re told by our parents not to do this, to stay out of the restaurants. There’s a bit of a problem.’
Even though Chinatown’s subsistence does not solely rely on the restaurant trade, it is its most prominent feature and one that provides atmosphere and opportunities for social occasions. Realising restaurants’ importance, not only for the local Chinese community, but also as a presence in the city’s multicultural landscape, Kin decided to do something different. It bothered him to see restaurants empty during dinner hours, only frequented by people on their way home from a night out. People do not go there to have a nice time. ‘I tried to counter that with my restaurant. To convince people that you can have a good oriental meal here and have a nice time just like you would have it in an Italian restaurant.’ With his restaurant, Kin has managed to return to a traditional line of work, but at the same time has adapted it to the decline of Chinatown. He is hoping his combination of cocktails and dim sum will change people’s perceptions and bring more Liverpudlians into Chinatown for dinner.
Kin’s fusion food and hybrid thinking reflect his bi-cultural upbringing and understanding of issues revolving around Chinatown and its survival. Kin’s restaurant takes the family’s line of trade in a full circle back to its roots, back to Yingyan’s business venture of the 1970s. His generation is navigating new histories and laying new paths for future generations of the diaspora to follow and transform.
Kiah Rutz completed her BA in Classical Archaeology at UCL, and an MPhil in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology from the University of Oxford. There, she studied materials and objects as part of the museum and the museum as part of urban (or even national) cultural infrastructure. The subject of her MPhil thesis, which she approached through a visual and material lens, was Liverpool Chinatown, its global connection to other Chinatowns and Liverpool’s city-wide orientation towards China. She also has experience with international collaborations through her work on archaeological and heritage projects in China, Switzerland and England. In between her two degrees, she supported the Federal Department of Archaeology in Switzerland where she was able to combine her interests in artefacts with cultural policy-making.