Chinese Immigration to Britain in the Post-WWII Period

Sinan AKILLI, M.A., Hacettepe University, Turkey.

In 1945 the Second World War, one of the most dreadful experiences of the human race, came to an end with the victory of the Allied Forces. Britain was on the winning side, but the cost of the war did not leave any space for enjoying her victory. During those six years of struggle to maintain the war effort, Britain had generously spent a huge part of its human, financial and natural resources. As Kathleen Paul states, "the desperate state of the economy and the shortage of labor became apparent within a few months of the warís end" (4). What was worse, there was a labour shortage created by a declining birthrate, which had been discussed even during the war time and had been considered as an anthropological problem, rather than an economic one. Paul explains that government officials like "Sir William Beveridge, outlying plans for Britain's future welfare state, advocated an increase in the birthrate as a means of ensuring the survival of the British race" (4). A dangerous effect of the low birthrate was the shortage of labour necessary for the exploitation of essential natural resources, such as coal, which led in turn to a financial crisis. The first economic survey made after the war by the Labour government in January 1946 clearly illustrated the situation. Evaluating the result of the survey "the government forecast a labor shortage estimated variously at between 600.000 and 1.3 million and a balance-of-payments deficit of £ 750 million" (Paul 4).

Britain had to find a practical solution that would help solve its labour shortage and consequent financial crisis, and it hd to do so to preserve the prestige of the country as the centre of an empire, though in rapid decline. As a practical solution, the Labour government proposed to define a clear-cut legal basis to allow people living in the remaining and former colonies to claim British nationality and freely enter and settle in Britain. Hence, British Nationality Act took effect in 1948.

Nevertheless, the reasons behind the 1948 Act included more than difficult conditions in Britain. Political developments in other parts of the British Commonwealth had forced Britain to redefine her role as the "Mother Country." In 1946, for instance, the Canadian government had introduced "a bill defining Canadian citizenship and the vision of a single, universal and equal nationality throughout the empire came under attack" (Paul 14). According to Paul, "the bill reversed the emphasis on imperial nationality by making Canadian citizenship the primary nationality and making British subjecthood a secondary status, almost a fringe benefit" (14). It can be argued that British Nationality Act of 1948 came as a reaction the possible dangerous political effects of its Canadian counterpart.

Apart from its constituting the legal basis for future immigration into Britain by clearly acknowledging the right to settle and work in the "Mother Country" for all British subjects, another significant aspect of the 1948 Act was its retrospective coverage that legally confirmed earlier instances of immigration into Britain. Actually, the 1948 Act was not the first instance of a legal definition of British citizenship, though it was the most comprehensive one until the mid-20th century. At an earlier time "the common status of British subject had been confirmed in the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, which stemmed from a 1911 imperial conference called in attempt to standardize the confusing naturalization procedures throughout the empire" (Paul 11). As Paul states, such legal regulations were needed since the 17th century, when population movements within the Empire began (10).

Nevertheless, the most recent instance of mass immigration into Britain took place mainly during the three decades that followed the end of the Second World War, which also marked the beginning of the collapse of the British Empire that had ruled one-fourth of the world's population. This time, however, the immigrants were not people from continental Europe but British citizens who were natives of former British colonies. Hence, the character of the migratory movement from the ex-colonies or dominions, such as the West Indies, South, East and South-East Asia and West and East Africa, collectively known as the New Commonwealth, was different from that of previous immigrant flows that had been mainly from continental Europe. This was the migration of people who sought to become accepted and to live in their "Mother Country" as equal British citizens after the independence of their countries.

The Chinese or the Hong Kong Cantonese formed a major group of immigrants who arrived in Britain all through the 1950s; according to Hugh D. R. Baker, they now constitute "the third largest ethnic minority in Britain after those of West Indian and Indian subcontinent origin" (298). Baker considers the migratory movements from Hong Kong into Britain in three periods: "The first begins in the eighteenth century and ends just after the Second World War; the second starts in about 1950 and is still continuing; the third has yet to occur" (291). The third period Baker mentioned in his work refers to the period after the Chinese take-over of Hong Kong which had not yet occurred at the time of his writing, but which is already an old event now in 2003. However, only the second period will be analysed here within the time span between the 1950s and the 1970s. Moreover, a brief account of the Chinese migratory movements and the Chinese community in Britain in the 1980s and the early 1990s will be presented.

According to Baker, the chief reason for the migration of the Hong Kong Chinese in the post-war period was economic: the availability of cheap rice from Southeast Asia after the Second World War lead to the declining use of the fields for rice production in Hong Kong declined, thereby leaving the rice farmers unemployed (294). Baker suggests two other factors for the post-war immigration from Hong Kong into Britain. Firstly, there was the demographic problem in Hong Kong caused by the arrivals of "refugees in the years immediately before and after the successful communist revolution in China" (Baker 294). Since many Hong Kong Chinese had already been deprived of jobs, the arrival of new competitors for the limited job opportunities created a push factor for the natives of the land. The second factor was a pull factor generated by the demands in Britain. This time, however, it was not the demand for manpower, but a demand for mere change. Baker explains this demand as follows:

At precisely this time, in Britain (and in other countries of Western Europe shortly afterward) , a desire was appearing for more exotic and interesting food after the years of wartime austerity. Greek, Indian, Italian and other restaurants became popular, and Chinese food, long renowned as a high art, came into high demand both for its cheapness and for its interestingly different ingredients, taste, and presentation. (294)

In his close analysis of the development of Chinese catering business in post-war Britain, David Parker brings another insight and suggests that the demand for foreign food in post-war British society can not be explained simply by a demand for different tastes (65).

The changing pattern of consumer demand in Britain cannot be put down solely to an idiosyncratic taste for foreign food. There were demographic and economic factors at work. The increased labour force participation of women, the growing number of single households, and the dispersion of the population to suburbs and council estates, created a market for ready prepared foods. (65)

Perhaps the reason for the demand was the interaction of these two factors pointed out by Baker and Parker. Whatever the main reason, it became obvious that the only people to meet this demand were the unemployed Chinese farmers in Hong Kong. Thus, "some Hong Kong Cantonese found it advantageous to lease their farmland in the rural part of the Colony to the newcomers, going off themselves to engage in the Chinese restaurant business in London" (Wickberg 17). Ronald Skeldon, who explains the dynamics of immigration from Hong Kong, emphasises the primary importance of another pull factor, the legal basis for this migratory movement, viz. the 1948 British Nationality Act, by stating that "the British Nationality Acts of 1914 and 1948 had guaranteed freedom of access to the United Kingdom for Commonwealth citizens, and this legislation, together with a post-war demand for ready-made Chinese food, laid the basis for a significant population flow from Hong Kong throughout the 1950s and 1960s" (137). For all these various reasons many Hong Kong Chinese immigrated into Britain. Moreover, it can be argued that the general pattern of immigration from the New Territories to Hong Kong first, and from there into Britain during the 1950s was characterised by the migration of male Chinese farmers. The initial aim of these immigrants was either to start their own business or to work as employees in the existing restaurants, make enough money to create better living conditions in their native land, and finally return to their country of origin.

Unlike the other immigrant groups in Britain, who first immigrated and then tried to find jobs, the Chinese had their employment waiting for them when they arrived. The restaurant business, which provided almost the only type of job for Chinese immigrants until the mid-1980s, had its own difficulties and requirements. Among the staff of the thirty-six Chinese restaurants in Britain in 1951 (Baker 295), there were the chefs and the waiters, whose frequency of contact with the members of the host society was predetermined by their positions. To become a chef at a Chinese restaurant was rather easy since the task of preparing the food was not very difficult and the basics could be learned in "half an hour's training" (Baker 295) and their work did not require face-to-face interaction with customers. However, this became a disadvantage for them as they very rarely contacted the host society, whose language also remained as something foreign for the chefs. The result was that those Chinese immigrants who worked extremely long hours in the kitchen remained detached and isolated from the new social and cultural environment. The waiters, on the other hand, had to learn and speak English in order to communicate with the customers. Thus, the waiters had more chances than the chefs to learn about the host society, but their cultural interaction was still limited to a few words and sentences. In this regard, the advantage of the immigrants from Hong Kong from the comparatively higher possibility of finding employment was disturbed by the linguistic barrier, a condition that was not as obstructive in the case of, say, West Indian immigrants.

The settlement patterns of the Chinese in Britain also had their peculiar characteristics, which were generally determined by type of employment. Most of the Chinese immigrants who arrived during the 1950s settled in the Greater London area, though there were also large settlements in other industrial centres like Manchester, and the rest of them were scattered throughout the country in small concentrations. Yet, the formation of "Chinatowns" was not realised during the 1950s. Until the 1962 Immigration Act, after which the arrivals of significant numbers of female Chinese immigrants began, the most commonly seen type of housing was "above the shop" accommodation (Baker 300). This must have been very depressing for the Chinese immigrants who were already spending long hours working at the restaurants so that they could not find any opportunity to go out and mix with the host society. The results of such an isolated life style have been summarised by Baker, who points out that "...the Chinese in Britain led lonely, frustrated lives, deprived for much of the time of the social contact which they would have had in their native environment, ill at ease in the host society which was inaccessible to them for linguistic and work reasons" (301). However, the Hong Kong Chinese immigrants were not the only Asians, who had to face all these difficulties in Britain during the 1950s.

By 1960 the discontent of the native white community and the frequency of the discussions concerning immigration control had increased with the rise of the number of the New Commonwealth immigrants arriving in Britain. It also became obvious in the 1950s that the highly prejudiced host society would not easily accept the legal status of the immigrants as equal British citizens. Toward the end of the 1950s, the discontent of the white majority turned into social unrest, forcing the successive governments to seek for legislative control on immigration from the New Commonwealth countries. The governments, on the other hand, had to take into consideration the political implications of taking strict measures against the immigration of "black" British citizens. Any implication of racism as the official policy of the state would not be politically correct for a country which had always promoted democracy and equality.

During 1961, when "the immigration total was estimated to reach over 100,000" (Paul 166), the Macmillan cabinet had a hard time discussing the form of legislative control and the alternative ways of controlling immigration. However, all of the efforts proved unfruitful, and in that same year the number of immigrants arriving from the New Commonwealth countries tended to increase faster because of the discussions about immigration control.

Nevertheless, the inevitable result came on 1 July 1962, when the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was enacted. The basic purpose of the Act was to reduce the number of Commonwealth workers who could enter and settle in Britain by making them subject to rules which required the possession of a job voucher (Spencer 129). Paul explains the major provisions of the Act as follows:

The act divided would-be British subject migrants into three groups, each eligible for A, B, and C vouchers respectively: those with jobs to come, those with skills or experience deemed advantageous to the United Kingdom, and unskilled laborers in search of work. Only the last category was to be subject to numerical control. The number of vouchers available was not fixed, and this feature was to work against potential migrants, as voucher allocation varied according to political and economic considerations. (166)

At a first glance the Act seemed to be a political success because it was not discriminatory in theory, but effective in operating almost exclusively on coloured immigrants (Paul 166). After all, the Act was designed to reduce and finally stop mass immigration from the New Commonwealth that had begun with the arrival from Jamaica of the ship named Empire Windrush, carrying the first post-WWII "black" British immigrants on board. Ironically, the Act caused a stronger wind of immigration, as immigrants literally "rushed" towards the centre of the former empire.

Ian R. G. Spencer states three main reasons for the counter-effect of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. First is the threat of controls created by the discussion of legislative measures between mid-1960 and 1962. Spencer claims that potential immigrants were very anxious to "take advantage of a last-chance, never to be repeated opportunity and establish a right to come to the United Kingdom" (131). Secondly, the Act made a great number of immigrants change their minds about temporary settlement in the United Kingdom (Spencer 131). The majority of the immigrants, and especially Asians, were men who had come to Britain to work, earn and remit money to home, and finally return there. After the Act they decided to settle permanently in Britain. The third, and perhaps the most significant, reason was that "the Act permitted the unification of families" (Spencer 133). In other words, there were not any restrictions to the entry and settlement of the families of those immigrants who had already been settled in Britain. Thus, during the 2-year-period between 1960 and 1962, when the issue of legislative control was constantly being discussed, and immediately after July 1962, substantial numbers of women and children, especially from Asia, entered and settled in Britain. As an influence of these factors "compared to any other period in the first sixty years of the twentieth century, immigration from the Asian and black Empire/Commonwealth remained, after the 1962 Act, at historically high levels" (Spencer 133). After the 1962 Act thus backfired, successive governments tried to enact other legislative controls on black and Asian immigration during the late 1960s, and the effective solutions began to be introduced in and after 1965. Yet, the period between the 1962 Act and the second Commonwealth Immigrants Act that took effect in March 1968 witnessed the increase of black and Asian immigration to Britain.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the mass immigration in this period was the change in its gender composition with the arrival of women. The typical Asian immigrant was no longer an adult male of working age, and minority families were being formed in Britain. It can be argued that the presence of female immigrants not only changed the gender balance, especially among the Asian immigrant communities, but also ensured the future presence of these communities in Britain. Moreover, with the arrivals of families, the occupational characteristics, the settlement patterns, and the domestic lives of the immigrants began to change gradually. These changes in immigration patterns and in gender composition of immigrant communities of Chinese, West African, West Indian and South Asian origin could be observed all through the 1960s.

Characteristics of immigration from Hong Kong after the 1962 Act was quite different from the earlier pattern of Chinese immigration into Britain. Baker, who points out that the first major change in the pattern of migration came with the 1962 Act, explains the consequences of the Act as follows: "At this time the restaurant business was still expanding, and the restrictions struck hard. The response was to bring in dependants and, from about 1964 onward, there was a steady increase in the number of wives and other family members joining their menfolk in the restaurant labor force" (298). Thus the predominantly male character of the Chinese immigrant community in Britain began to change. Of course, there were also male immigrants, who entered the UK through a process of chain-migration of the kinsmen of the already settled Chinese, from Hong Kong during the one-year-period before the implementation of the 1962 Act, but their numbers were insignificant when compared with the number of female immigrants, who arrived within the frame of family reunification. Consequently, there were changes in the restaurant business and also in the domestic lives of the Chinese in Britain. Due to the co-operation of their wives and sometimes of their children, the owners of the restaurants were able to save substantial amounts of money. The business now began to be transformed into a "family enterprise" (Wickberg 26) and the benefit remained in the hands of the owners.

Naturally, housing patterns were also subject to change. The "above the shop" (Baker 300) accommodation of the pre-1962 period had to change, because it was not suitable for the lodging of families. The solution was to rent houses. Moreover, the arrival of children brought about another change in the lives of the Chinese, who now had to send their children to schools. In other words, the new pattern of immigration from Hong Kong forced them to mix with the white community, and the isolated and introverted character of the Chinese in Britain began to change gradually. However, considering the situation in the 1960s, it is not possible to argue that the transformation of the Chinese immigrant community was completed in that decade. The majority still lived in confined communities, and their opening to the host society and their complete adaptation to that society had to wait until the growing up of the second generation.

After all these developments, the next and a more decisive step in Britain's legislative battle against immigration came with the Immigration Act of 1971. Spencer argues that "...the effect of the new legislation was to bring new permanent primary migration . . . to the United Kingdom finally to a halt" (143). Drawing its main provisions from earlier legislations, the 1971 Act can be said to have stood for a clear-cut point of reversal in the history of post-war immigration into Britain from the New Commonwealth countries. Britain in 1971 was very different from the Britain of 1948 that was trying to keep up appearances as the centre of an empire while suffering from the harsh conditions created by the aftermath of the Second World War. In 1971 Britain declared that it was no longer willing to become the centre of an empire; that it was no longer an imperial economy; and that it would rather become a nation state like the other modern European countries. Spencer explains the implications of the 1971 Act as follows:

The Act was of considerable symbolic significance. The historic categories of 'alien' and 'British subject', that used to divide the world into those from the Empire/Commonwealth who had rights and privileges in the United Kingdom and those foreigners who did not, were replaced by the essentially racially-defined categories of 'patrial' and 'non-patrial'. Patrials were free from restrictions; non-patrials were liable to controls. Patrials were defined as British or Commonwealth citizens who were born or naturalised in the United Kingdom or who had a parent ( or grandparent in the case of British citizens) who had been born or naturalised in the United Kingdom. The category also included British and Commonwealth citizens who had been settled in the United Kingdom for five years and had registered or had applied to register as a British citizen....The Act abolished the last vestiges of the old Empire-embracing concept of British subject or citizen. (143-144)

Actually, the political and social implications of Britain's attempts to control and ban coloured immigration through legislation, and especially those of the 1971 Act were so strong that their influence was felt by the receiving end, namely the potential immigrants, and it was also reflected in the figures. The entry of immigrant workers had already been successfully controlled and decreased by the 1962 Act. Thus, the target of the later legislations was almost always the dependants.

There was a constant and substantial decrease in the number of immigrants from the New Commonwealth in the decade that followed the Immigration Act of 1971. However, the long process of serious and effective control on mass immigration was completed in 1981 with the British Nationality Act, which was in fact the official and legal rejection of the 1948 British Nationality Act. Spencer points out that the Act "...replaced the composite citizenship of the United Kingdom and colonies created by the Nationality Act of 1948 which had been gradually rendered obsolete by decolonisation, the change in Britain's position in the world and the growing political distance between Britain and many of its ex-colonies" (148). In this respect, the 1981 Act may be considered as a demarcation of the ending of a three-decade-long period during which the British immigration policy and also the concept of British citizenship went through a process of metamorphosis.

The 1981 Act appears typical of the Thatcherite period. Coming to power in 1979, the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher began to implement very strict policies concerning almost everything in Britain, including the issues of black immigration. The main purpose of the 1981 Act was to perfect the British immigration policy for the "interest and benefit of the society," a term which became very popular in the Thatcherite era due to her policies that promoted free market rules and competition of the individuals for public betterment, by introducing new and stricter criteria for the acceptance of immigrants.

as introduced in 1980, [the 1981 Act] had the effect of limiting the right of entry for settlement of fiancées or spouses and dependants of resident British citizens. They established the 'Primary Purpose Rule' which forbade the entry of affianced or spouses unless the British citizen partner could show that the primary purpose of marriage was not settlement. For elderly dependants to be allowed in they had to show that they had no relatives in their own country who could support them, that they live abroad at a standard substantially below the average and they had to be mainly or wholly dependent on their children in Britain. New rules made it much more difficult for people entering as students or visitors to obtain permission to settle. (Spencer 147)

In addition to the limitations on immigration, the 1981 Act created two other categories of British citizenship: the citizenship of British Dependent Territories, such as Hong Kong and Falkland Islands; and the British Overseas Citizenship designed for those who did not qualify for the other two categories, like the East African Asians in India (Spencer 148). People who were in either of these two new categories did not have the right of settlement but they had the right of entry only if they were born or naturalised or had parents born or naturalised in the specified countries.

Perhaps, one last bit of legislation that should be mentioned in the context of immigration from the ex-colonies into Britain is the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act which was enacted after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 and the emigration that took place in Hong Kong as a consequence (Spencer 149). Taking into consideration Hong Kong's economic importance for Britain and also the possible social problems that were likely to arise from the approaching Chinese take-over of Hong Kong, the British government granted the right of abode to "a highly selected and highly qualified minority of Hong Kong residents" (Spencer 149). According to the provisions of the Hong Kong Act of 1985, the rest of the residents of the country would lose their British Dependent Territory citizenship after the Chinese take-over in 1997 but would be able to request "consular protection" from British government when necessary.

In sum, the two decades that followed the Immigration Act of 1971 were marked by the efficient continuation of the new phase of British immigration policy which had started as early as 1962. Through the process of legislative control, the waves of mass immigration that had emerged after the 1948 Act had gradually slowed down, and eventually stopped. The legislations described here are generally considered to be milestones in the completion of this process. There were other minor legislations during and after the period studied here, but they were either too specific in coverage or related to the immigration of Europeans.

As has been pointed out earlier, dependants constituted the main body of immigration from Hong Kong into Britain after the 1962 Act, and the same pattern continued throughout the next three decades, although at times there were exceptions to the type of immigrants and to the rate of inflow due to the influences of legislative measures. Baker explains that "in 1962 there were only 135 entry certificates issued to the dependants of Hong Kong men; by 1967, the number had risen to 1,211, and by 1971, it was running at over 2,000 a year, a rate which did not slow down until 1977, after which it decreased to fewer than 1,000 a year" (298). Although, in the late 1980s, the British government designed to give passports to "50,000 carefully selected heads of households, which according to government statements, would grant rights [of abode] to 225,000 individuals", only 65,000 people used this right (Skeldon 147-148). The reasons for such a declining trend were the economic boom in Hong Kong and the existence of other alternatives to Britain, such as North America, for immigration. Thus, the rate of Chinese immigration gradually slowed down after the late 1970s when the majority of the dependants had already arrived and the process of family unification had been almost completed. The approximate number of Hong Kong Chinese living in Britain in 1991 was reported by the Hong Kong Government Office as 143,500 (Baker 298).

The pattern of settlement of the Chinese in Britain is still slightly scattered, thereby ensuring their presence at varying levels almost in every major metropolitan cluster and conurbation. Yet, as has been the case since the very beginning of Chinese immigration into Britain, they are concentrated in Greater London by 39% and in the rest of South East by 23% (Lakey 186). In the early 1990s, house ownership has been at a comparatively high level of 54% for the Chinese minority in Britain, 41% of whom were Council tenants or tenants of private landlords (Lakey 199).

Although there was a declining trend in the restaurant business caused by the entry of other ethnic restaurants such as Indian ones, catering and related service industries have remained to be an important occupational field for the Hong Kong Chinese in Britain. However, the second generation has increasingly entered professional fields during the last three decades. 1991 Census data show that Chinese men are overrepresented in professional and managerial job categories by 46%, -- the highest percentage among all groups including white males, who are represented in the same category by 30% (Modood 100). The same applies to the employment rates and types of the Chinese women. Chinese women in Britain, 76% of whom are employed in non-manual jobs, constitute the highest percentage of female employment in professional and managerial jobs by 30%, which is almost twice that of the white female workers (Modood 104). Hospitals, hotels and catering sectors, and the fields of banking and finance are the major areas where the Chinese female employment is concentrated by percentages of 30%, 19% and 13%, respectively (Modood 110).

To sum up the situation of the Chinese immigrants in Britain in the three decades that followed the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, there has been a significant overall increase in their living standards, and they have been considered to be one of the two communities that are more successful than the average for the country in terms of the rates of house and car ownership, distribution between occupational categories, and levels of educational achievement (Spencer 158).


Baker, Hugh D. R. "Branches All Over: The Hong Kong Chinese in the United Kingdom." Reluctant Exiles?: Migration from Hong Kong and the New Overseas Chinese. Ed. Ronald Skeldon. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1994. 291-307.

Lakey, Jane. "Neighbourhoods and Housing." Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Diversity and Disadvantage. Ed. Tariq Modood, et al. London: Policy Studies Institute, 1997. 184-223.

Modood, Tariq. "Employment." Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Diversity and Disadvantage. Ed. Tariq Modood, et al. London: Policy Studies Institute, 1997. 83-149.

Parker, David. Through Different Eyes: The Cultural Identities of Young Chinese People in Britain. Aldershot: Avebury, 1995.

Paul, Kathleen. Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Skeldon, Ronald. "Hong Kong in an International Migration System." The Hong Kong Reader: Passage to Chinese Sovereignty. Ed. Ming K. Chan and Gerard A. Pastiglione. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1996. 133-168.

Spencer, Ian R.G. British Immigration Policy since 1939: The Making of Multi-Racial Britain. London, New York: Routledge, 1997.

Wickberg, Edgar. "The Chinese as Overseas Migrants." Migration: The Asian Experience. Ed. Judith M. Brown and Rosemary Foot. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994. 13-37.

United Kingdom Overview Mo's Sour Sweet

Last modified 15 May 2003