Tag Archives: diaspora

On Manchester Chinatown

Elena Barabantseva, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, write about Manchester’s chinatown …

Yet again this year Manchester’s city centre was a stage for Chinese New Year Celebrations, making it a perfect occasion for a family day out to experience a different culture. Manchester Chinatown is one of the major tourist attractions in the city and is considered to be the most vibrant Chinese quarter in the country, but how did it become part of the city’s architectural and cultural fabrics?

With the seedcorn funding from cities@manchester I was able to conduct an archival study on the origins of Chinatown and a series of interviews with the members of Manchester’s Chinese community organisations. What emerged from this pilot research is that the origins of Manchester Chinatown are somewhat paradoxical. From the first wave of migration in the early twentieth century, the Chinese have been the most geographically dispersed migrant group in the UK due to the nature of their occupations, first in laundries and then in take-away restaurants. Yet, the dominant social perception of the Chinese as a closely-knit and inward-looking community has persisted until the present day.

The early Chinese residents in Manchester were far from an insular community. They actively integrated into the city. An article in the Manchester Guardian in February 1912 estimates the total number of Chinese immigrants in Manchester to be around one hundred and comments on their life in the following way:  ‘They are mainly Cantonese, and when they land at Liverpool they can speak little or no English. The Manchester Wesleyan Mission (8 Cable street), under the direction of the Rev. S. F. Collier, has carried on work amongst them. A New Year’s party was held last evening at the Albert Hall’ (Manchester Guardian, ‘Chinese in Manchester’, 20 Feb 1912). In the pre-Second World War period, the local community efforts to interact with the newly arrived immigrants were paralleled by the furnishing links between Manchester and China at the national level. The pre-war textile boom in Manchester prompted strengthening links with China, and for the first time in 1933 the Chinese Kuomintang government appointed a consular representative to Manchester to oversee the day-to-day trade links with China with an office in Spring Gardens in Central Manchester (Manchester Guardian, ‘China comes North’, 11 February 1933). In 1942 The Universities China Committee in London, with the funds from the Boxer rebellion (1898-1901) indemnity, established Manchester China Institute on George street to ‘provide a place where British people could meet Chinese people and learn from them in various ways’ (Manchester Guardian, ‘China Institutes: A new one for Manchester, 11 May 1942). These facts testify to the vibrant official and community-based links which existed between China and Manchester in the early twentieth century.

In the post-World War Two period Chinese migrants keenly settled in the city and its suburban areas to satisfy British tastes for Chinese culinary.  In a parallel development, an increasing number of Chinese businesses started opening in Central Manchester, with the first Chinese restaurant Ping Hong opening its doors on Mosley Street in 1948. Recalling the origins of Manchester Chinatown, senior Chinese residents unequivocally assert that ‘there was no Chinatown in Manchester in the 1970s’. Yet, 8y the mid-1970s the local newspapers were announcing that a Chinatown was emerging in central Manchester bounded by George, Nicholas, Faulkner, and Princess Streets. By the early 1980s, the geographical and socio-cultural place of Chinatown in Manchester was secured when in 1983 Manchester City Library added the entry “Chinatown” to its catalogue of newspaper clippings.

In the 1980s Manchester Chinatown boomed, when in the span of less than ten years key community organisations and societies were set up in the quarter: Chinese Cultural and Education Centre in 1979, the Chinese Arts Centre in 1986, Tong Sing Chinese Housing Association in 1984, Wai Yin Chinese Women’s Society in 1988, and Chinese Health Information Centre in 1987. The symbolic birth of Chinatown culminated in 1987, when the Chinese Imperial Arch, physically marking the area’s association with the Chinese community, was erected on Faulkner street.

The early 1980s also witnessed an active lobbying by Chinese community leaders of the City authorities to clearly mark the boundaries of the Chinatown by translating the names of the streets into Chinese and displaying street signs in Chinese characters: ‘It may not be long now before you can walk up the Street of Capturing Blessings, turn left into the Street of Fairy Happiness and end up in the heart of Manchester’s Chinatown…. Faulkner Street would become Fuk-Ngar Gai (street of capturing Blessing) and Charlotte street Sar-Lok Gai (Street of Fairy Happiness)’ (Manchester Evening News, Comment ‘Turning into the Street of Happiness’, 21 February 1983). The attempts to translate the names of the streets into Chinese were stalled in June 1985, when the City Council designated this area as a ‘George street conservation area’ where ‘signs should be designed and located so as not to compete with the architectural details of buildings’ (Manchester City Council, no date). The value attached to the history of the area took an upper hand over contemporary social trends.

A quick browse through the historical maps of Manchester city centre from the collection of Manchester Museum of Science and Industry confirms that the area of Manchester’s Chinatown developed in the Georgian times, and the layout and names of the streets haven’t changed since the 18th century. Until the early 19th century, this district was a well-to-do residential area, centred on St James’ church built at 7 Charlotte street in 1786 and demolished in 1928. The pattern of streets and street names are the only surviving witnesses to the layers of time which shaped and transformed this area of the city. A cluster of important societies and institutions also operated in the area, including Literary and Philosophical Society at 36 George street. Portico Library was opened in the area at 57 Moseley street in 1806 and still occupies its original site. Royal Manchester Institute was built on Moseley Street between 1824 and 1835 in the Greek neo-classical style and now hosts the City Art Gallery, and the Athenaeum, a club for a society for ‘advancement and diffusions of knowledge’ was founded on Princess street in 1835 and is now linked to the Art Gallery.

By the end of the 1990s, Chinese organisations and initiatives which were founded and started their activities in Manchester Chinatown in the 1980s started relocating to other parts of the city.  Most notably, The Chinese Arts Centre moved to the Northern Quarter and was recently renamed into the The Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Fo Guang Shan Temple moved to Trafford, Manchester Chinese Centre re-established in Ardwick, and the Wai Yin Chinese Women’s Society moved to Ancoats. Chinese supermarkets are not limited to the Chinatown anymore and can be found in many different locations around Manchester. These processes point to the moving and changing character of Chinatown, what Doreen Massey coins as a continuous process of ‘multiple becoming’. The dominant perspective on Chinatowns around the world refers to them as ‘ethnic enclaves’, yet the dynamic history and ongoing transformations of Manchester’s Chinatown show that it embraces multiple histories, contested present, and an open future.  The physical demarcations of Chinatown are less important than social processes and experiences which both define and escape the attempts to pin down Chinatown’s spatial and cultural demarcations.

Migration and city making: An Integrated process

by Nina Glick Schiller, Director of the Research Institute for Cosmopolitan Cultures.

Truthfully, I find the debates around migration unbearable. They all seem so far away from the realities of migration and settlement. Literally nothing I hear and almost nothing I read seems to connect with what I have learned from my migrant grandparents and my family’s subsequent experience in settling in the United States, what I know about the children of migrant background with whom I grew up, the migrants from all over the world among whom I have lived and worked for decades, and my own experience of migration. When trying to understand what happens when people migrate to a new place -whether to seek a new job, a new life, flee from intolerable violence, or some combination of circumstances – neither the common sense of ordinary speech nor the seeming precise terms of academic debate even begin to describe the contingencies within which migrants live their lives. Nor does simply turning to migrants’ ‘voices’ suffice since migrants learn to describe their experiences within the key words that dominate contemporary political rhetoric.

I first learned about the confusion wrought by the key words in migration debates several decades ago when studying Haitian migration to New York City. My co-researchers of Haitian origin stated categorically that that Haitian immigrants settling in New York City followed one of two opposing pathways. Either these newcomers assimilated and ‘forgot about Haiti’ or they did not integrate into a new life because they only focused on return. Yet the lives of my co-researchers as well as our data challenged this dichotomy between integration and maintaining an affinity with one’s homeland and its culture. Instead what actually happened was that most people, including my co-researchers, simultaneously settled into their new life and maintained some of their cultural practices, and home ties and identity. All of my four co-researchers were settling into New York City, where they were busy with their jobs, homes, family networks, and multi-ethnic networks of friends. Yet they also maintained multiple ties to Haiti and to Haitians settled in other countries and continued to identify as Haitian.

The data from that study and numerous research projects in which I have engaged since then also challenges the notion prevalent that migrants adopt or fail to adopt a new national culture. For example, the ways in which my Haitian co-researchers lived this simultaneous settlement and transnational connections was locally specific. That is to say, their way of life was not generically Haitian or American but was shaped by the changing identity politics, types of racism, housing possibilities, urban renewal and employment and educational opportunities they found in New York City in the 1960-80s. Forms of migrant settlement and transnational connection are shaped by the specificities of time and place. These specificities do of course reflect national immigration laws and policies but within economic, political, and social contingencies that are also local and global. Yet these basic contingencies, which affect whether, how, and why migrants are able to settle and transnationally connect, are often ignored in the migration debates. Often politicians and scholars talk as if there is a national if not global understanding of the key words of migration.

My research indicates that there distinct and varying local understandings and policies in relationship to migrants in cities within the same nation-state. Terms such as refugee, immigrant, ethnicity, diversity, multicultural, religious community, melting pot, integration, social cohesion, and race are deployed in various ways in different cities in the same country and by different types of functionaries within the same city. Local understandings may differ dramatically from national debates reflecting differences in local politics, regeneration strategies, opportunity structures and history, as well as the class background, position, neighborhood of residence, gender, and generation of the speaker. Moreover, in each city there may be differences between the ways in which local officials, social service providers, and citizens interact with migrants and people of migrant background. Exploring these variations allows us to understand why migrants experience such mixed messages about inclusion and exclusion as they settle in a place. Using a city as an entry point allows us to begin to move away from the sweeping generalities that politicians bandy when they speak of the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ and the ‘refusal of migrant to integrate’.

Cities and within cities different urban neighbourhoods around the world vary in the degree to which they are ‘migrant friendly’- that is providing possibilities of people to move to them from other places from within a country and internationally and find opportunities to work, begin businesses, acquire an education including the dominant language of the country, and live in safety and without significant discrimination or racialisation. Cities that are open to newcomers and people of migrant background and welcome them as part of the city, rather than casting them as an indigestible lump within the body politic, benefit from migration. These cities are in fact built by the creativity, energy, and transnational connections of migrants in a process that extends across generations. Migrant friendly cites attract flows of capital, businesses, tourists, creative industries and talented individuals.

If those interested in the outcomes of migrant settlement were to set aside their preconceived notions that all migrants of a certain national or religious background stick together and form tightly organized communities, then they would be able to see that migrants develop an array of different settlement strategies. In many of these pathways of settlement, migrants form networks of interaction between themselves and more established residents, including people who identify themselves as ‘natives’ of the city and the nation-state. That is to say research on migrant settlement and personal narratives tell a different story than the national imaginary of migrants huddled everywhere in segregated or self-segregated ‘communities’.

In a situation where a city needs newcomers to contribute to its economy and cultural energy, public discourses and policies tend to differ from the national anti-immigrant polemics by being more open to immigrants. Cities of global renown such as London and New York are such places. Educated young people from all over the globe including Europe have flocked to London, for example, even in cases in which they have to live or work without proper documentation. They go to these ‘global cities’ because they find a sense of freedom and cultural energy there that they don’t think they can find elsewhere.

Cities that aspire to a cosmopolitan reputation on the global stage such as Manchester (UK) may also prove welcoming because they need migrants’ talents, education, and energies to fuel their efforts to rebrand themselves as up and coming and to compete for investors and new industries as well as tourism. Other cities, which are less competitive in terms of economic, political, or cultural power may provide a different array of advantages to some migrants and may in turn welcome migrants that provide hi tech talent, businesses for regenerated urban areas, or transnational connections that assist in regeneration efforts. In these globally less desirable cities, it may be the migrants who connect local residents to opportunities for education, travel, or economic opportunity located elsewhere.

While these processes are readily apparent to those who look and can be found in British, European, and North American cities as well globally from Dubai to Sao Paulo, this fundamental aspect of urbanism is being ignored most politicians and policy makers. My own research in cities in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom as well interviews with city leadership conducted as part of a comparative city research project in diverse European cities reveal that those engaged in urban regeneration may see past generations of migrants as city builders. However, urban policy makers tend to see contemporary migrants as poor and at most lending a bit of exotic culture to efforts to rebrand their city.

Misguided policies emerge when contemporary migrants are seen as organized self-segregated communities that represent a challenge to social cohesion rather than as part of the talent and energy necessary for urban regeneration. Through their calls for social cohesion and integration directed at immigrants and people of migrant background, urban administrators and planners may reinforce false images of migrants as outsiders to urban life rather than part and parcel of the every day vitality of successful cities. Even more disastrously, in the name of integration, rather than addressing general conditions of impoverishment for local populations they may by provide services only in neighbourhoods identified as migrant, bypassing majority poor neighbourhoods. Such policies foster anti-immigrant rhetoric and movements.

To try to lend both specificity and comparability to research on migration and debates about it, I suggest that we need to see the cities, towns, and villages in which we live as places that are constantly being built and rebuilt overtime by all people who live there. If we think of the places and our society as always in process and always constructed by people who live in a place, we have a different and I believe better vantage point into the relationship between the movement of migration and the cohesion of established places and their social life.

Arriving from the United States four years ago, I settled in Manchester, became engaged in life local life and maintained transnational ties to family and friends elsewhere. My way of settling is not generically American but is shaped by what I find in both my city and country of settlement. I become part of my new city as the city becomes part of me. However, these days migrants, including myself, face a strange irony. Whilst our new city may be welcoming, nation-states including the UK have changed immigration laws so as to impose drastic limitations and costs on permanent settlement and family reunion. We find that we are increasingly criticized for not trying to belong to our new home and only concerned about our old, despite the fact that it has become increasingly difficult if not impossible for us to permanently settle.

Friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in Manchester, after noting I am not from the UK, frequently ask me if I am planning to stay. Although British citizens, they know nothing of their own country’s immigration laws nor do they acknowledge the impact of constant anti-immigrant hostility on immigrants’ identities, incorporation, or dreams for the future. Influenced by the immigration debate and its key words, the people I meet who don’t have immigrant backgrounds continue to see immigrants as having a choice to settle permanently and abandon their transnational ties or to return ‘home’. They continue to define immigrants’ retention of home ties, language, culture and beliefs as self-segregation, neither acknowledging the possibility of transnational lives or the fact that both legally and socially the UK increasingly makes it difficult for immigrants to permanently settle. As I said, I find the immigration debates unbearable.

Soundscapes in the City: forthcoming research

Rajinder Dudrah, Drama/Screen Studies. This blog post highlights new research that is currently being completed for a special issue of the journal Midland History. The article in question contends how understandings of cities and their cultural histories might be articulated through the notion of the ‘soundscape’ via a case study of British Bhangra music in the post-war East and West Midland city regions of the UK (1).

A familiar point in contemporary urban and cultural studies is that cosmopolitan cities are not just experienced through sight but through the other senses as well: sound, touch, taste and smell. Nonetheless , there is a need to explore more fully, not only the experience of a city through the senses as they happen in the contemporary moment, but also how we might be able to think about the formation of cities and regions as developing from a historical understanding of the formation of those senses too. A cultural history of the senses in a given time and place might illuminate for us the possible connections between different people and their inhabiting of place and space through sense formation. In my current research I have been particularly drawn to the investigation of how a sense of place and space might be considered through the sounds of popular music that circulate through the city – sound as heard and seen in the cityscapes as people use and move through the city; and as these sounds are created out of particular cultural histories in cosmopolitan settings. The case of the popular music genre of British Bhangra is an interesting one: it is a soundscape in and of multicultural British cities.


The idea of the soundscape is developed as articulating at least two of the senses simultaneously: sound and sight; and is developed inter-disciplinarily from work undertaken in cultural anthropology, popular music studies and cultural geography. Soundscapes allows us to think about the movement of people from different places of origin in new places of settlement, and how they not only produce popular music anew (i.e. music that is inflected through their routes of journeying), but also how they make this music through instances of their arrival and contemplated futures. Popular music is a distinctive type of sound that has socio-cultural meaning and position, and the study of diasporic music such as Bhangra can assist in understanding how social landscapes are formed over time and in places where the music has been produced locally and disseminated internationally. To this end, the forthcoming article offers an analysis of how a Punjabi folk music becomes a genre of popular music, particularly in the post-war British Midlands. It draws attention to key cities and regions namely Birmingham, Walsall and the Black Country, Derby, Nottingham, and Leicester, in terms of how they have sustained the cultural production of this music and its industry. The article offers a cultural historical account of how and why different musical genres are fused together in Bhangra (Punjabi Folk, RnB, Soul, Reggae, Grime, UK Pop, amongst others); provides a historical overview of some of the places, spaces and people key to the evolution of the music; and presents a textual analysis of some song lyrics and album cover artwork to elaborate this soundscape of the British Midlands.

1- Malcolm Dick and Rajinder Dudrah eds. (forthcoming September 2011) ‘Ethnic Community Histories in the Midlands’, Midland History, vol. 36, no.2. Article in this peer reviewed special issue: Rajinder Dudrah, ‘British Bhangra Music as Soundscapes of the Midlands’.

References and further reading: email cities [@] manchester.ac.uk