Posts Tagged ‘Lovejoy’

History Debunked on the Comparative Lack of Interest in British Asian History

December 17, 2021

This is a related video to the one I put up from Simon Webb’s History Debunked this afternoon, which discussed how the Beeb had race-swapped the characters in their adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. Phileas Fogg’s servant, Passepartout, is now Black, but the leading lady, who is Indian in the book, is now White. ‘Cause you can’t have two non-White leads apparently. Or Blacks must be given preference over Asians when it comes to casting non-White roles. In this video Webb discusses the case of Hsien Fan Sun, a Chinese gent who worked as a librarian at the court of James II. If Sun had been Black, then knowledge of him would have been promoted as it has been about Mary Seacole and John Blank, the Black trumpeter at the Tudor court. But he isn’t, because he’s Chinese. It’s another example of how, to Webb, diversity means primarily Black people. Which left me wondering why this should be so.

Racism to and Enslavement of Asian Indentured Workers

Asians have suffered their share of western racism and enslavement. During the infamous ‘coolie trade’, Asian workers from India and China were recruited as indentured labourers to work on plantations in the Caribbean, Fiji and elsewhere to replace the Black slaves, who had been emancipated. They worked in horrendous conditions, which in many cases were worse than those endured by the Black slaves. The system was widely denounced by Indian nationalists and humanitarians, including the Anglican Church and leading politicos, as ‘A New System of Slavery’. Which is the title of an excellent book on it by Hugh Tinker, published by one of the Indian presses. There were riots against the coolie trade in India and China, and the British authorities were also keen to stamp out the enslavement of Asians. The Indian police raided warehouses where Indians were being forcibly confined after they had been kidnapped, or tricked into signing indenture papers. It was such a scandal that the government issued a series of regulations demanding that Asian labourers should have access to an interpreter and understand the terms and conditions of the contract, that there should be a minimum level of acceptable living conditions aboard ships, children should be with women rather than left with the men, and a minimum number of women should emigrate with the male workers. There should also be opportunities for correspondence home and the remittance of money. I think the Britiish government first discussed the recruitment of the Chinese in particular in 1816 or so. They wanted replacements for the Black slaves, and the Chinese were decided upon because they were hardworking and less likely to complain or rebel. The prejudice against Chinese workers continued into the 20th century, when the early Labour party at one meeting denounced the government’s ‘Chinese slavery’ and put up a picture of a Chinese man. There were anti-Chinese riots in 1909, although this was caused by British firms sacking their White employees and replacing them with Chinese during an industrial dispute.

The Asian Presence in British and European History

There isn’t a total lack of interest in the Asian presence in British history. The book Under the Imperial Carpet, whose editors were Asian, also discussed Asian British history. Before the present set of ethnic minority MPs were elected in the ’70s and ’80s, Britain had BAME MPs. Webb put up a video about an Indian rajah, who became a Conservative MP in the 19th century. Other Asians became Liberal and even Communist MPs later in the early 20th. I’m not entirely surprised by the presence of Sun at James II’s court. This was the age when Europe was expanding, not just across the Atlantic, but also into Asia. The Jesuits were establishing missions in China, and scientific and technical knowledge flowed back and forth. I think the Chinese were impressed by European clockmaking, while Europeans were impressed by the Chinese skill at making automatons. By the following century upper class Europeans were consuming tea, Chinese porcelain, decorating their homes with wallpaper and furniture with Chinese art and motifs. Chinese literature was also being translated into European languages. The great religious sceptic, David Hume, read at least one Chinese novel. What impressed him was not how different it was, but how it was comprehensible, given the difference between Chinese and European culture.

Asian Stars on British Television

There are and have been Asian actors and presenters on British TV. I’ve mentioned Anita Rani, Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Adil Ray in my previous post. But before them there was David Yip way back in the ’70s, who starred as The Chinese Detective. Dino Shafeek and Andy Ho appeared as the Indian and Burmese staff in the comedy It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. The classical Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar gained widespread popularity among the Hippy crowd through his friendship with Beatle George Harrison. He’s said since that this wasn’t altogether beneficial, as you should approach classical Indian music with the same attitude you approach western classical music, rather than listen to it like pop. And were any number of western groups taking over oriental instruments, like sitars, and rhythms. This in turn led to the rise of World Music, a genre that encompasses music and its performers from across continents, and which includes both traditional and more modern forms.

And there is an interest in recovering an Asian, as well as Black British past. The Black rights and history organisation with whom I briefly corresponded when I was working at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum was the Black and Asian Studies Association. Researchers on Islam in Britain, when I was studying the religion at College in the 1980s, were particularly interested in the discovery of tombs with inscription in Arabic dating from the 17th century in Yorkshire. A more recent programme on the Barbary Pirates on Radio 4 in the early part of this century suggested instead that they may have been the graves of indigenous White Brits, who had been captured by the north African pirates and forcibly converted to Islam before either escaping or being ransomed. And a year or so ago there was a programme on Radio 3 about the Muslim servant of one of the ministers responsible for carrying through the Reformation over here. There have also been history books written about ‘The Muslim Discovery of Europe’. With the rise of capitalism, the stock exchange and the nascent consumer culture in the 18th century came popular ballads celebrating how people of all races and creeds, Jew, Christian and Turk, were all united in the peaceful work of making money. I don’t think there’s any shortage of material. My great-grandfather was a docker, and I can remember my grandmother telling me about the lascar and Chinese sailors that came into Bristol docks. But in general Webb is right: as a rule diversity means Blacks rather than Asians. Why is this?

Blacks More Determined than Asians to Be A Part of Mainstream British Culture?

I think some of it may be that Blacks have a greater determination to be a conspicuous part of western culture than Asians. Blacks have certainly formed a large part of the British and American entertainment industries since White youth started tuning into Jazz in the 1920s. There were Black screen actors, although quite often the roles they were given were demeaning before Sidney Poitier revolutionised the portrayal of Blacks on screen, paving the way for contemporary Black leading men. But then, so did Bruce Lee and stars of Chinese martial arts cinema like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. And some of us still remember the TV adaptations of the Chinese classics The Water Margin and Monkey, the latter based on Wu Cheng-en’s epic novel.

I wonder if some of it may be that some Asian cultures are more inward looking, and likely to look more toward their homelands and its culture for their roots and identity than Britain. Please note: I am certainly not suggesting that they are somehow less British than the rest of us. But I can remember coming across an academic, ethnographic study British Asians entitled The Myth of Return. This probably took its title from the initial conviction among many Asian immigrants that they were coming here only to make enough money so that they could afford to retire back to their home countries in comfort. This aspiration certainly wasn’t confined to them. Many Black West Indians also shared it, as did the Irish correspondent to the Groan whose letter began, ‘Sir, I am an Irishman, who came to Britain to make enough money to go back to Ireland again.’ In the ’70s there was a difference in integration between Muslim and Christian Pakistanis. Both groups were equally Pakistani in their culture at home, but the Christians were far more integrated into wider British culture. For example, their children mixed at school with the White children. By contrast ethnographers found that the Muslims took their children straight to school and straight back, and really didn’t allow them to share the same afterschool activities as their White classmates. This might explain why there were Islamist segregationists, who wanted there to be self-governing Muslim enclaves in Britain and Belgium, with Arabic as the official language, governed by shariah law. I hasten to add that things are rather different now. There was a Big Iftar around the country, a giant feast marking the end of Ramadan, celebrated by the Muslim community, who also invited their non-Muslim neighbours to partake. And polls have shown that only five percent of British Muslims want shariah law. But I think the Asian community may be more likely to get their entertainment from their ancestral countries through the Internet, satellite TV and video and DVD.

Asians More Culturally Confident?

I also wonder if part of the answer is that Asians, and specifically Indians and Chinese, may be more culturally confident than western Blacks. India and China were highly advanced, literate civilisations with histories going back millennia. A glance through books on the history of inventions and mathematics shows any number of works and innovations by Arab, Persian, Indian and Chinese scholars. The first instance of plastic surgery, for example, comes from 8-9th century India, when one of the leading surgeons repaired the nose of a Indian princes. Muslim mathematicians and scientists studied astronomy, alchemy, medicine. And the Chinese had printing – though not with movable type, that was definitely Gutenberg’s invention – gunpowder, rockets, paper money and toilet paper, to name but a few. Sometimes this cultural confidence has formed the basis for humour. One of the characters on Goodness, Gracious Me – or was it the Kumars at No. 42? was a father, who was excessively proud of his home country’s achievements. He shouted out ‘India!’ every time various inventions were mentioned. I also remember one episode of Lovejoy in which the dodgy antique dealer was in negotiations with a Hong Kong businessman. This man was also conscious of how his country had led the world in science and invention for centuries, to the point where he believed the Chinese had more or less invented everything. At one point this is too much for his interpreter, who says to him, ‘Oh no, Mr -, I don’t think we invented motorcycles’.

Black African Cultures Less Well-Known and Admired

This is in contrast to Africa, whose great civilisations and monuments are less appreciated. Ancient Egypt has been claimed as Black civilisation by the Afro-Centrists, but this is controversial and they could well be wrong. Nubia and Meroe in what is now the Sudan died out centuries ago. Christian Nubia was conquered by the Muslims. It’s predecessors in the Sudan unfortunately spoke languages that are now extinct. The Nubians took over the culture and alphabet of the Ancient Egyptians. Frustratingly, we can read their inscriptions but have no idea what they mean until the appearance of a Rosetta Stone that will give us the key to translating them. Abyssinia was a literate, Christian empire while the Kiswahili were also an advanced Islamic civilisation. As was Mali and other states in northwest Africa. But I think these have been seen as the exceptions rather than the rule. Although many of the civilisations of north and Saharan Africa were capable of building large structures, like house and mosques from mud brick, I suspect the popular image of Africa remains that of mud huts. And until the introduction of Islam and Christianity on the continent, many of these peoples were illiterate. The result has been that the attitude of many western scholars towards African civilisation was wholly negative. The book Colour and Colour Prejudice, by the last British governor of Ghana, has page after page of quotes from various western scholars, almost all of whom declare that African culture is worthless and that the continent’s people have discovered nothing. Obvious this has been and is being challenged by Black activists and scholars.

Blacks and Affirmative Action

Much of the promotion of Blacks as a specific group has come from concern at the poor conditions of the Black community in America and Britain. Other groups have also suffered racism. I can remember one of my uncles telling me with disgust about the horrible ‘jokes’ the other White workers played on an Indian comrade. As a rule, I think Blacks are at the bottom of the racial hierarchy when it comes to academic performance and employment. Above them, but still disadvantaged, are Muslims. Indians are about the same level as Whites, or just below, while Chinese actually outperform us. Black history as a specific subject in schools is being promoted as the solution to the problems of the Black community. If Black people were aware of their achievements and presence in American and British history, then they would develop the self-respect and confidence to perform better at school, and challenge the racism that still sees them as outsiders and foreigners. Unfortunately, this has led to Black activists claiming the credit for Blacks for scientific achievements that came from others. I think the entertainment industry is part of this drive for Black empowerment too. I have a feeling that some of roles created for Black performers are intended to provide positive images of Blacks as just as urbane and middle class as everyone else. Or proper, respectable working class. I’ve no doubt its done to challenge the negative racist stereotypes Whites may hold, while at the same time hold up positive role models to the Black community. To show that Black people also live in families with fathers, where the parents are respectable, upstanding citizens who work to support their children and give them the best life they can. I’m not aware that family breakdown is the same issue in Asian communities as it is amongst Blacks and the White poor, so some of the issues that have led to a specific emphasis on Blacks in diversity may simply not be as pressing. It thus seems to me that, in general, Asians may be so much more confident in their culture that they don’t see the same urgency in establishing and insisting on their historic presence in Europe.

Blacks More Vociferous and Forceful in Attacking Racism

I also think it may also come from Blacks complaining the most forcefully about racism. One of the key events in the introduction of positive discrimination in Britain were the 1980s/81 race riots, where Black communities in Bristol, Brixton in London and Toxteth erupted in rioting. It led to various official reports, which recommended affirmative action programmes to give greater opportunities to Blacks, as was being done at the same time in America. There have been protests in the Asian community, and interethnic violence between Asians and Whites, along with Asian anti-racist activism. But I don’t recall the Asians rioting in the same way Black Brits did. And the protests held by Britain’s Muslims seem to be about specifically Islamic issues, like the publication of the Satanic Verses, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and general Islamophobia, rather than issues like employment or education although those have also been present. As a result, I think it’s probably true that Asians are less represented than Blacks in moves for ethnic diversity, although it should be stressed that they aren’t completely absent.

But these are just my ideas based on my own impressions. I may be wrong, and there may be other factors involved. I’d be interested to know what others think about it.

As an example of a TV series with an Asian leading man, here’s the titles to the Chinese Detective, starring David Yip, which I found on Robert Telfer’s channel on YouTube. Since then we’ve had Luther, starring the awesome Idris Elba as a Black detective. I like Elba – I think he’s a great actor, who could easily play Bond. I haven’t watched Luther, however, as the crimes he investigates all seem too grim and ‘orrible, like the serial killers tracked by Linda La Plante’s heroines. But perhaps it might be time once again for an Asian detective.