226 : Some Chinese people in Victorian Britain

The Chinese in London were mentioned by Charles Dicken’s namesake son in his Dictionary of London, 1879 who noted two opium smoking dens in the docklands area. ‘The best known of these justly-named “dens” is that of one Johnstone, who lives in a garret off Ratcliffe-highway, and for a consideration allows visitors to smoke a pipe which has been used by many crowned heads in common with poor
Chinese sailors who seek their native pleasure in Johnstone’s garret.’ This place was referred to in his late father’s Mystery of Edwin Drood of 1870. ‘A similar establishment of a slightly superior – or it might be more correct to say a shade less nauseating – class is that of Johnny Chang, at the London and St. Katharine Coffee-house, in the Highway itself … At the bottom of this slough of grimy Despond is the little breathless garret where Johnny the Chinaman swelters night and day curled up on his gruesome couch, carefully toasting in the dim flame of a smoky lamp the tiny lumps of delight which shall transport the opium-smoker for a while into his paradise.’ Opium which became associated with Chinese people in Britain in the 1900s was not illegal in nineteenth century Britain [Marek Kohn, Dope Girls. The Birth of the British Drug Underground (London, 1992).]
China’s London legation was at 49 Portland Place. The ambassador (who represented China elsewhere in Europe) and his wife were called the Marquis and Marchioness Tseng by the British. In March 1886 they and their daughters greeted nearly one thousand guests at the legation. The Pall Mall Gazette of 9 March 1886 commented on their fluency in English. Present was the Sultan of Johore (Malaysia), diplomats representing Japan, Siam (now Thailand), numerous British aristocrats and members of parliament and the band of the Grenadier Guards. Some months later Tseng resigned and planned to return to China. With four members of his suite he visited industries in Leeds before moving on to Manchester [Leeds Mercury 22 June 1886]. He and his family had lived in Folkestone, Kent having served at St Petersburg, and returned to China after an absence of eight years. He died from typhoid fever in Peking (Beijing) in 1890. The Graphic, London 19 April 1890 has his portrait. Tseng had allowed his name to appear as the author of an article published in January 1887 in the Asiatic Quarterly Review of London. Entitled ‘China, the Sleep and the Awakening’, soon translated into French, German and Chinese it led critics to suggest political reforms were more important than German- and British-built ships for the Chinese Navy, and railway construction within China was necessary.
Groups in Britain met Chinese delegates, for example in Oxford when the Church Missionary Society’s supporters gathered to hear the Bishop of Mid-China (Dr G. E. Moule). Present was ‘Yei Tajen (member of the Chinese Legation)’ who was a guest of the professor of Chinese, Jackson’s Oxford Journal noted on 19 February 1887. Two members of the Legation (W. H. Yang and Fung Yeen) attended a London meeting of the Bi-Metallic League on 15 June 1887, reported in London’s Morning Post on 16 June 1887 p 2. The Chinese had a greater respect for silver than for gold, and it was noted that if they purchased cotton goods from India instead of Britain (which favoured gold), by paying in silver they would make savings and Lancashire’s cotton mills would suffer.
Marking the fiftieth anniversary of Victoria’s accession the Chinese legation greeting her at Windsor castle on 30 November 1887 included the minister and two of his senior officials. A letter from the Chinese emperor was read out and presented (Birmingham Daily Post 1 December 1887. The Celestial Empire’s modernising economy and its administration led to Britons being employed in China: from the admiral, customs officials, railway managers to traders. Chinese enterprises sent staff to study in Britain. There were nineteen Chinese studying engineering and naval architecture at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, in the summer of 1886 according to London’s Illustrated Police News of 5 June 1886. The growth in trade led to direct sailings and Chinese sailors were in London, Liverpool and other ports.
They can be seen in reports of violence, for example ‘Chinese riot in London’ was a headline in the Leeds Mercury of 20 February 1878 which was reported in London’s Morning Post as involving thirteen ‘Chinese seamen’ as did the Graphic which said it was a ‘Chinese war in East London’. One sailor was stabbed in North Woolwich in October 1879. A section of the East London Cemetery had Chinese graves: a Chinese sailor’s funeral involved ‘about six’ fellow countrymen in November 1880. Another burial noted in early 1890 was ship’s fireman Lung Chung. Two colleagues accompanied the body to the cemetery.
A very important Chinese figure described as a Viceroy, Li Hung Chang, reached London via Russia’s trans-Siberian railway and planned to stay at the legation in 1896. His visit was scheduled to last three weeks. Li arrived in London after meeting the President of France – and was to meet Queen Victoria and several grandees. The Chinese minister in London remained unwell as he had for five months, and his legislation was not used for a reception or for Li’s group – a grand house owned by Lord Lonsdale was made available by the Foreign Office instead. The leading members of the government met Li, who also visited the Bank of England and the headquarters of the Post Office. On 22 August Li and his party left London to take a ship from Southampton to New York. It seems there were forty in the group. [sourced from Daily News (London), 18 June 1896; Pall Mall Gazette (London), 26 June and 29 July 1896; Leeds Mercury 12 August 1896 and Morning Post (London), 24 August 1896 p 5.
Chinese Victorians included laundry operators: Colin Holmes, John Bull’s Island. Immigration and British Society, 1871-1971 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988). p 53 states Merseyside’s first Chinese laundry was established by Chin Yee in 1887; Anthony Shang, ‘The Chinese in London’ in Nick Merriman (ed.), The Peopling of London. Fifteen thousand years of settlement from Overseas (London: Museum of London, 1993), p 90 states the first Chinese laundry in London opened in Poplar in 1901. And there was the Chinese nationalist Sun Yatsen who was kidnapped and imprisoned in the Chinese embassy in London in 1896. The story of Sun, who became the first president of the Republic of China in 1911, has been documented by J. Y. Wong in his The Origins of an Heroic Image: Sun Yatsen in London, 1896-1897 (Oxford University Press, 1986).
For two Chinese doctors in England see this website’s page 218.


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