"How a Chinese language Church in East London helps Chinese immigrants build their identity and community?"
Over half of London’s population is ethnically nonwhite, and over 40% having been born abroad. Whilst such high levels of immigration and multiculturalism represents a unique economic opportunity for the city, the integration process can be a challenge. A significant proportion of immigrants in the UK are from Chinese Origin. Their numbers are growing by the year and, to date, they represent the single largest immigrant community in the UK, largely driven by the large numbers of Chinese international students in the UK. However, despite being well supported by their families, these students often underperform in comparison to their British and European Counterparts. It is thought that this might be partly due to difficulties adapting to the British Society, due to language, social and cultural barriers, which they often find difficult to overcome.
This paper explores the role of Chinese Language Churches in supporting Chinese immigrants with the wider society in the UK. As an international student from China, the author identifies with this group. Through a 6-month ethnographic study in the London Baptist Chinese Church in Bow District, East London’s first Chinese Church, located at the intersection between Tower Hamlets and Newham Boroughs, the author explores the ways in which membership of the Church helps Chinese immigrants in the UK overcome the various challenges they face during the process of adapting to their environment.
Through semi structured and unstructured interviews with 16 members of the Chinese Church, the author draws key insights into the practical ways in which political differences are overcome, as well as learning about the ways in which churchgoers feel they benefit from the Church. Differences amongst first and second generation Chinese are also explored. Through the analysis of these insights, the author debates about the barriers and opportunities for integration represented by the Chinese Language Churches as well as proposing ways in which such organisations could be mobilized to facilitate the process of integration.
part 1: Context of research
Choosing to study abroad is a difficult decision for any student. Settling in the new environment, learning the language, culture, building friendships and creating a life in a new country is even more challenging, especially for Chinese international students. In such circumstances, Chinese Language Churches can provide a source of emotional and social support.
To better understand these issues, the author spent six months immersing herself in the daily life of the London Chinese Baptist Church, a Chinese Language Church located in the Bow District, at the intersection between the London Boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets. Through discussions with ordinary members of the church, she learnt about the Challenges they had faced, and how found a new ‘home’ and ‘shelter’ in this church.
The London Borough of Newham is located East from the City of London, north of the Thames river. Bow is a District in neighbouring Tower Hamlets Borough, historically and developmentally closely linked to Newham, and the Stratford Metropolis in particular. Until the 1850’s, this was a rural area dominated by farming. With the construction of the Royal Docks and the development of the Railways, new industries emerged, fuelling an unprecedented wave of immigration into the area, with over ten-fold increase in the population between 1850 and 1900. This resulted in a diverse community, with people from India, China, Africa and Europe mixing with native Londoners. However, with the introduction of automation and machinery in the industrial sector, as well as heavy bombing during WW2, the population declined again. Large scale post war reconstruction attracted additional migrant workers from Asia and Afro Caribbean, lured by construction jobs, however the borough continued to experience economic decline, especially with the eventual closure of the Docks in 1975. Since then, a number of initiatives were put in place, which re-started economic revival and once again fuelled a new wave of immigration: the construction of City Airport, the Excel Exhibition Centre and the improvement of railway links (Newham.org.uk).
During the 2011 Census, the population of Newham stood at 270 thousand, a 50 thousand increase over the previous decade. It was also the most ethnically diverse Borough in London, with 64.9% of residents being ‘non white’. Of these, 20.5% were Pakistani or Bangladeshi, 18.1% were Black, 11.5% were Indian and 14.4% were multi Ethnic or from another non white group. A small minority of 1.28% were Chinese, slightly below London’s average of 1.5% (2011 Census results quoted by Newham.org.uk), although their share is higher in Tower Hamlets, where they represent 3.2% of the population, one of the highest in the UK (http://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/Documents/Borough_statistics/Ward_profiles/Census-2011/RB-Census2011-Ethnicity-2013-01.pdf). A variety of religious backgrounds are represented, with 40% of residents describing themselves as Christian, 32% Muslim, 8.8% Hindu and 2.1% Sikh (2011). (http://www.met.police.uk/foi/pdfs/who_we_are_and_what_we_do/borough/tower_hamlets_borough_profile_2015.pdf).
As host of the 2012 London Olympic Games, Newham and Bow District underwent unprecedented regeneration in recent years, resulting in the metropolis of ‘Stratford’, which is now referred to as the ‘Capital of East London’. It is the most important retail and leisure centre in East London, and its second most important Business Location. It continues to attract billions of pounds in investment for further property, leisure and infrastructure developments. (http://www.stratfordlondon.info/developments/international-quarter, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-east, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/27/latest-vision-olympic-park-olympicopolis-arts-quarter-east-london).
Introduction part 2: London Chinese Baptist Church (LCBC) & Bow Baptist Church (BBC)
The London Chinese Baptist Church (LCBC) was founded on the 6th June 2004, by the Hong Kong Kowloon City Baptist Church (HKKBC). This was their first Chinese Speaking Church in London and was the first Chinese Language Church to open in East London(http://londonchinesebaptistchurch.org.uk/zh/).
Upon inauguration, their aims were threefold. First of all, they wanted to provide Chinese Christians in East London a spiritual home, as well as to help more Chinese immigrants explore Christianity. Secondly, they believed the Church should play a social role in the preservation of Chinese Culture. For example, they celebrate important festivals, such as Mid Autumn Festival and the Chinese New Year. Thirdly, the Church considered that it was its mission to provide pastoral care for its congregation. This is why they chose to develop a close relationship with Queen Mary University Chinese Student Group, to support Chinese international students throughout their studies. This is a feature of many Chinese Churches in the UK, given that overseas students usually have big emotional needs for care and support (http://londonchinesebaptistchurch.org.uk/zh/).
For the purpose of delivering its mission, the LCBC works in close collaboration with the Bow Baptist Church, from whom it rents its premises. The history of Bow Baptist Church and its premises closely reflects historic events, which shaped the development of Bow district in general.
The Bow Baptist Church was founded in 1785 (http://bowbaptist.org.uk/history/). Between 1866 and 1940, the Church premises consisted on a large Victorian Building, which could fit nearly 1000 people. The foundation stone for the chapel (sadly lost by developers in the latest demolition) was laid by the famous London preacher, Charles Spurgeon. However, during WW2, the church was bombed along with much of East London, only to be rebuilt in 1956 with limited post-war money. Figures 1 and 2 show the new church premises, as it was from 1956 to 2007.
Figure 1: Bow Baptist Church building, between 1956 and 2007. / Figure 2: Inside of Bow Baptist Church, in 1960.
Following the wave of regeneration preceding the 2012 London Olympic Games, Bow Baptist Church premises were, once again, re-developed, in partnership with a property development company. However, to offset the construction costs, the Church had to settle with being located in the ground floor of a brand new apartment complex, as shown in figures 3 and 4. The later finally opened on March 4th 2012.
Figure 3: New Bow Baptist Church under Construction/ Figure 4: New premises of Bow Baptist Church.
Nowadays, the LCBC gathers over 100 young Chinese students and professionals. It offers a variety of services, including Friday evening dinner and Bible Study Group, to which approximately 30 members attend on a regular basis. Its Sunday Service is also very well attended. Additionally, it provides pastoral care and support to its congregation, in which a significant proportion are University Students. (http://londonchinesebaptistchurch.org.uk/zh/)
Introduction part 3: Structure of Dissertation and research questions
This dissertation aims to explore the interplay between immigration, multiculturalism and the development and thriving of ethnic minority churches, with a particular focus on the Chinese Language Church in London. It will be organised into three sections.
Firstly, an overview of urbanisation and multiculturalism in London will be provided. This will be further developed through the exploration of Chinese migration flows to the UK. Following this, the challenges faced by new Chinese immigrants will be explored and their interplay with the process of development and thriving of Chinese Language Church. Finally, a brief overview of the historical relationship between Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan will be provided, to set the context for later exploration of the concept of religious transnationalism and how this helps overcomes internal politics between citizens from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Secondly, the results of ethnographic research undertaken in the London Chinese Baptist Church will be provided. Amongst the concepts explored in this section will be the personal reasons why members chose to join the London Chinese Baptist Church, the impact that the Church has on their identities, self confidence and wellbeing. Particular attention will be paid on how political sensitivities between mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers and Taiwanese are overcome on a practical level.
Finally, a wider debate, exploring how Chinese Church acts as an enabler or inhibitor to immigrant integration. Proposals will be put forward as to how the London Chinese Baptist Church could be mobilised in civic or national initiatives, to seek to promote ‘integration’ identity.
Urbanisation and multiculturalism in London
Urbanization can be defined as an increase in the proportion of people living in urban areas, such as metropolis and downtown, in comparison to rural areas. Multiculturalism describes a space which enables the co-existence, acceptance, and promotion of diverse cultures and ethnical groups. In general, this is associated with immigrant ethnic groups, as opposed different indigenous or native cultures.
London is a renowned international metropolis with a high level of interaction among diverse cultures, religions, knowledge, languages and ethnic groups (Rich,2015). In fact, over three hundred languages are spoken and the proportion of non ethnically British accounts for 55%, while 40% of all residents were born in foreign countries. Approximately 5% of Londoners are suspected to live without legal identification (Jaudah, 2016).
The drivers behind the high levels of urbanization and multiculturalism in London can be explained through the city’s historical development, as well as the current political and economic circumstances. Both micro and macro factors played a role. For example, After WW2, the reconstruction of the UK and the expansion of industries such as textile, metal, and transport created an increase in demand for labour, which attracted high levels of migration, as new workers were recruited by the UK government, notably from other Commonwealth countries (Briggs and Dobre, 2014). This East – West migration of working classes represents the population movements throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to pull factors emerging from the UK, the political and economic tensions in the migrants’ home countries acted as a ‘push’ factor, encouraging workers to leave their homelands. For example, workers in West India could not find a job when at home due to the decline of the once booming sugar industry (Briggs and Dobre, 2014). Subsequently, major historic events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to an increase in the flow of asylum seekers to the UK. Research conducted by Hatton (2005) suggests that net immigration increased dramatically between 1993 and 2000. This was mainly due to economic reasons, such as economic growth in employment in the UK, which were reflected through significant increases in British GDP per capita and the consequent increase in income inequality between Britain and many other countries (Weber, 2016). Finally, the EU enlargement process and the policy of UK government, which gave free access to the labor market encouraged the migration of over 1 million people from lesser developed countries in EU, between 2004 and 2009 (Briggs and Dobre, 2014).
On a micro level, individual decisions by high flying professionals around the world account for high levels of immigration to the UK, especially in London. In fact, as the largest financial and business district in Europe, London attracts thousands of highly skilled professionals from diverse countries and regions, given that work experience in industry centers such as London and New York is considered beneficial to an individual’s career development. With the development of globalisation and the emergence of global centres of excellence for specific industries, the mobility of skilled labour increased significantly, contributing further towards the high levels of multiculturalism and urbanization in London (Rahim, 2014).
In addition, with the globalization of higher education (HE), in the last 20 years we have witnessed accelerated growth in the number of international students in the UK. For example, in 2012-2013, there were 299,970 international students in the UK, a 256% increase since 1998. As a global leader in Higher Education, the UK hosted 13 percent of all international students worldwide in 2011. In 2013-14, almost 67,500 new international students, originating from a variety of countries, chose to study in London universities, accounting for 18 percent of the total university student population in the capital, and 22 percent of total international students across the UK (Wu, 2016). These made a significant contribution towards the economy, education and culture in the UK, in addition to further contributing towards the process of urbanization and multiculturalism in London.
Despite the fact that migrants from multiple countries and regions contributed towards UK’s economic growth, concerns about their integration with British Society have attracted increasing focus over the past two decades. For example, inter-ethnic tensions between white and Asian residents in former industrial towns in the English North West resulted in riots (Cantle, 2001). Additionally, in 2005, fifty-two people were murdered in a suicide bombing in the heart of London by radicalized UK citizens of Pakistani descent (Sturgis et. al, 2014). Furthermore, local residents are becoming increasingly more vocal about their concerns that public services in many communities across the UK are having difficulty coping with the pressure of the increasing demand by asylum seekers and migrants from Eastern Europe (Pollard, Latorre, and Dhananjayan, 2008). These level of concern amongst British society about these issues was reflected in the recent EU referendum and eventual Brexit Vote, largely driven by concerns about the perceived lack of control over immigration, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37177937). The increase in ethnic hate crime following Brexit further emphasizes this point (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/brexit-hate-crime-racism-immigration-eu-referendum-result-what-it-means-eurospectic-areas-a7165056.html, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-racism-uk-post-referendum-racism-hate-crime-eu-referendum-racism-unleashed-poland-racist-a7160786.html) .
Such events have contributed towards an increasingly consensual view amongst academic and policy circles that excessive ethnic diversity may be harmful to social harmony and social capital. This is because a feeling of threat and anxiety is easily induced in a highly diverse social environment, particularly when competing for scarce resources (Bobo 1988). The perceived threats resulting from ethnic diversity in the community can lead to stereotypical and discriminatory beliefs among multiple ethnic groups. Similarly, research suggests that ethnically diverse communities can have a negative impact on the development of normal and healthy community life, characterized by issues such as interpersonal mistrust and low levels of social cohesion. Kymlicka (2010) describes several types of unhealthy multiculturalism: Firstly, immigrants may be socially isolated and forced to live in regionalization. Secondly, there can be an increase in stereotypic perceptions and prejudice amongst the different ethnic groups. Thirdly, the reinforcement and spread of illiberal practices amongst immigrant groups, such as restricting the rights and liberties of female members of society and in extreme cases, political and religious radicalization, which has been witnessed particularly amongst Muslim youth.
A study published in 1986, Hewstone and Brown put forward an alternative argument, suggesting that racial and ethnic diversity can provide more opportunities for individuals to develop relationships with members of ethnic out-groups, thus reducing stereotypical perceptions and prejudice. Moreover, a study by Sturgis et al. (2011), which included measures of social relationships alongside diversity, found a strong positive association between diversity, relationships and trust.
It could be argued that some of the potentially negative consequences of multiculturalism and integration could be mitigated through religious engagement, for which communal places of worship are necessary. However, some studies suggest that immigrant and minority religious groups may encounter significant obstacles, when building places of worship (Ehrkamp and Nagel,2012). In fact, whilst the process of urbanization and multiculturalism facilitated the concentration of diverse ethnic groups in one city, there is often a shortage of available land within inner cities for migrants to establish places of worship. Hence, suburbs areas have increasingly emerged as a distinctive site for ethnic groups to establish religious buildings, as there is more space and fewer restrictions during the planning process (Dwyer et al. 2013).
In the case of Vancouver, this has led to a distinctive landscape and concentration of more than 20 diverse religious buildings in the suburban municipality of Richmond, which is often referred to as the ‘Highway to Heaven’. A comprehensive study by Dwyer, Tse and Leym (2016) suggests that, although this example can be regarded as a successful example of multicultural planning in contrast to the barriers migrant groups often encounter in establishing places of worship, the faith communities that live in this area are not well integrated into the life of the city and there is a risk that communal places of worship may reinforce cultural separation.
Chinese migration to London in recent history
The Chinese community has been established in the UK for a very long time and, until recently, immigrants came primarily from Hong Kong.
In fact, Chinese sailors began settling in the UK as far back as the 17th Century, when they formed a small community around Limehouse Causeway in East London, close to the docks. By 19th century, there were approximately 500 people living in the so called ‘Chinese dock community’, mostly consisting of single men. This is how London’s first ‘Chinatown’ emerged in the 1880’s. These were mostly Cantonese speakers, originating from Canton and South China (British Museum, Chinese Diaspora in Britain).
The next wave of Chinese migration to the UK was in the 1960’s, as a consequence of land reform in Hong Kong, which brought many disillusioned farmers who were seeking new ways to make a living. They settled mostly in the SOHO and Bayswater regions in London, largely attracted by the booming Chinese restaurant business. British soldiers returning from war in the Far East represented a growing customer base for Chinese cuisine. Over time, the area became known as China Town, which over time developed into a major tourist attraction, as well as a focal point for Chinese community.
In 1984, a joint declaration was signed between the government of China and the UK, through which the UK agreed to transfer sovereignty over Hong Kong back to China on 1 July 1997. Only a few years afterwards, in 1989, a student movement demanding political reforms in Mainland China was brutally repressed by the Chinese government, resulting in thousands death and injured (Chan and Chan, 1997). Consequently, Hong Kongers lost confidence in the Chinese government. Their fear of Chinese politics, the uncertainty of Hong Kong’s future and the greater freedom and better living standards in other countries encouraged further migration from Hong Kong, many of whom chose to settle in the UK (Benton and Gomez, 2007). This was, in part, facilitated by the 1990 British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act, which granted British citizenship to 50,000 people from Hong Kong and their dependents. They were selected on the basis of their professional and financial status (Chan and Chan, 1997).
Based on the 1991 Census, there were approximately 157,000 Chinese people living in Britain, mostly represented by Hong Kongers, and accounting for 0.28 percent of the UK population. By the end of the 20th Century, Chinese communities were present in all major British Cities, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Sheffield, Belfast and Aberdeen. In some cities these communities included third and fourth generation British-born Chinese (The British Museum, Chinese Diaspora in Britain).
In the 21st century, a new category of Chinese immigrants began to emerge: international students. Fuelled both by the expansion and globalisation of the higher education sector in the UK, as well as the significant growth of the middle class in mainland China. This led to a significant surge in the number of both Chinese students and local Chinese residents in the UK (Lomer, 2016). The significance of this new migration flow is reflected by a report by the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute, which states that three-quarters of those born in mainland China and registered in the 2011 UK Census were new migrants who had arrived since 2001, and the majority of which had entered the UK as students (Wu, 2016). Furthermore, in 2011, the number of Chinese migrants from the mainland residing in England and Wales reached 152,498, surpassing for the first time the number of those from Hong Kong (102,241) in the same period.
As of 2012, China provided the largest number of immigrants to the UK, overtaking India and the US, both of which were traditionally more connected to the UK for historic reasons. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/10480785/Most-immigrants-to-the-UK-now-come-from-China-figures-show.html).
With statistics suggesting that between 2010 and 2015 there was a 60% increase in the number of Chinese students in the UK, and Chinese students represented a larger proportion of all international students, than all those coming from the European Union, Chinese communities in the UK will continue to grow (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/uk-receives-more-chinese-foreign-students-than-from-the-whole-of-the-eu-statistics-show-9981393.html).
Difficulties faced by Chinese Immigrants in the UK
Chinese migrants in the UK have experienced adjustment distress at different levels, both within the first and second generation. For example, according to a study of Furnham and Li (1993), first generation Chinese migrants experienced high-levels of psychological distress associated with English language difficulties, inadequate social support, value differences and unfulfilled expectations. Even in the next generation, mental illness, language problems and lack of social support were detected, although deficiencies in social support and values were less significant (Furnham and Li, 1993).
The rapidly increasing population of Chinese international students in the UK has also experienced difficulties in the transition to their host country. For example, in addition to all the usual worries that new students may have, Chinese international students also face additional pressures, such as cultural adjustment, language barriers, academic difficulties when adjusting to a foreign education system, loneliness and self-identity issues (Mori, 2000). In fact, it has also been shown that “Chinese students often seemed to experience more problems of adaptation to London and to university life than other national cohorts, and took rather longer to resolve these problems” (Language and the Capital: A Case Study of English ‘Language Shock’ among Chinese Students in London, p240).
Perhaps the most obvious ‘symptom’ of these difficulties is the fact that numerous studies have shown that Chinese international students tend to perform worse in their university studies, than their UK peers or even those coming from other EU and non EU countries (Lannelli and Huang, 2013, Heath and Brinbaum 2007; Richardson 2008, 2012). Furthermore, a study published by Crawford & Wang in 2014 showed that the performance of Chinese international students in the UK drops with each year of studies.
Although there is a lack of studies which would specify why this is the case, the consensus seems to be that Chinese international students have a different approach to education and social life than their British and European Counterparts. In fact, whilst traditionally in China there is an emphasis on written exams and teaching methods which can deliver measurable results, in the UK, critical thinking, creativity, team work and collaboration are considered equally important, all of which favor students who are well integrated with the rest of the student community, such as through attendance at social events. This was highlighted by Sir Paul Judge, founder of Oxford Judge Business School, during a recent speech at the British Museum, on the occasion of a tourism promotional event by the Chinese region of Qindongnan (Sir Paul Judge, Speech in British Museum, delivered on 8/09/2016).
Difficulties integrating with locals and immigrants from other nations encourage Chinese students and immigrants to congregate together. In fact, “we see that compatibility among new immigrants creates a community of trust and reciprocity where considerable bonding social capital is amassed and advice, counselling and practical services are shared to aid in managing the rigors of settlement” (Ley, 2008, p 2058). Within universities, this can be reflected as a preference amongst Chinese students to socialize amongst themselves, rather than with the rest of the student population. A comparison could be drawn with Chinese Language Churches, the origins of which will be explored further in the next section.
Creation and thriving of Chinese Language Churches in the UK
As Olsson (2012) argues, it is not surprising that migrants use religious institutions to help their transnational lives, given that religion is a global societal system. Furthermore, followers can nowadays choose from a variety of Churches, reaching far beyond their communities and cultures, whilst having the power to transform their personal and religious lives (Van Dijk,1997).
Research shows that Chinese Language Church and the Overseas Chinese mission emerged in the UK as early as in the 1950’s. Among its branches was Liverpool’s Chinese mission, founded in 1953 (Benton and Gomez, 2007). Soon, others followed. An example is the True Jesus Church, which originated in Beijing in 1917 and subsequently relocated to Taiwan following the rise to power of Communist regime in 1949. With the migration of students and workers from Malaysia and by fishermen from Ap Chau Island in Hong Kong, the True Jesus Church spread to the United Kingdom in the early 1960s. At the time, most of its members were students, clerks, nurses, or graduates, aged 19–25 and the majority of older members were semi-permanent residents of Britain employed in restaurants (Benton and Gomez, 2007). In 1967, the church set up an International Association to stage world conferences. Some of its main centers were located in the UK, more specifically in Scotland and northeast England. They comprised 1656 members, 44 deacons and deaconesses and three preachers. Over time, for the Chinese Community in the UK, Christianity became a substitute for politics and a number of Chinese Language churches emerged across the UK.
Nowadays there are approximately 70 Chinese Churches scattered across the UK. Nearly a third of these are in London, which has approximately 20 Chinese Chinese Christian congregations.
Up until the end of the 20th Century, reflecting origins of Chinese Immigrants, Churches mostly delivered their services in Cantonese. However, in the new millennium, with the increase in students from mainland China, many Churches have adapted by incorporating mandarin speaking activities. This was also the case for the London Chinese Baptist Church, which is the focus of further study by this researcher.
Although many Chinese Churches in the UK are independent and without affiliation, many are associated to the Chinese Overseas Christian Mission. Common denominations include Baptist, Methodist, Alliance (Christian & Missionary Alliance) and Lutheran. All of these follow the ‘Protestant Church’ theology, rituals and tradition, except for being translated to Chinese (Chen, 2007).
Christianity is widespread worldwide and Churches have a long history of charitable and service work. Before the origins of the welfare state, they played a key role in education, healthcare and charitable relief. With the flourishing of the welfare state, many of these services became part of the public sector and churches found new service roles especially where public intervention was limited (Day, 2001, p. 182; Barnes, 2004) (Ley, 2008, p2058-2059).
“Chinese Christians” are Christians with a Chinese cultural background, sharing two important aspects of identity. These confer unique opportunities and responsibilities towards other Chinese Christians in the UK. Therefore, regardless of the background from which a Chinese Church is established, one of its key concerns will be to support and provide pastoral care for their congregation, and to preach Christianity to the local Chinese Community (Chen, 2007).
In addition, Chinese Language Churches in the UK often play three additional roles. Firstly, they support newcomers to the local Chinese communities, for work, for study or for settlement while little concerns were paid on social issues (Chen, 2007). Secondly, they provide social services for Chinese people in need. Thirdly, a distinguishing feature of most Chinese Language Churches is having a close link with students group as international students generally need more emotional need for care and support. For example, the Cambridge Chinese Christian Church (CCCC) was founded serving mainly students and local Chinese migrants who speak Cantonese, thus its members were mainly from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia (Chen, 2007). Finally, Chinese Churches often also have a social role, through which Chinese Culture is preserved. For example, they often organise celebrations for Mid Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year.
Overall, through their many activities and support structures, Chinese Churches might represent a “home away from home” for many young Chinese Immigrants. In fact, research by Nunlai Cao (2003) on Chinese Church in the Chinatown in New York, suggests that in Chinese Churches, the preacher often plays the role of “father”, especially when immigrants are distanced from their original families, thus having a significant impact on their personal development and identity (Nunlai Cao, 2005).
Christianity in Hong Kong and in China
There is a historic link between Christian Churches in Hong Kong and in the UK. In fact, Christianity was introduced into Hong Kong without any major restrictions when it was still part of the British Empire. There, it was adopted by approximately 4% of Hong Kong’s 7 M strong population, representing most major Christian Denominations. In Hong Kong, Christian influence on society is quite significant. For instance, some of the country’s best schools are run by Christian Churches. Two of eight universities have Christian Background and many government officials are Christian. The lives of Christians in Hong Kong and the UK might not differ that significantly, given that their faith is identical, and that churches tend to have similar styles of worship, meetings and activities. One key difference between Christian Churches in Hong Kong and those in the UK is in their size. As UK churches are smaller, communities develop closer relationships with their pastors, and their care and support tends to be more personalised. Additionally, Chinese Christians in the UK tend to be more involved in the day to day running of the Church, resulting in stronger emotional attachment to their Church. The sense of belonging is stronger and the various contributions one can make to one’s own church are bigger (Chen, 2007).
In the case of mainland China, religious practices tend to be more diversified geographically and development of Christian Communities has followed a different process. From 1949 and until 1976, religious practice was very restricted in the People’s Republic of China, which considers itself an Atheist Country – officially. However, since Chairman Mao’s death, the number of Christians in the Chinese mainland has grown exponentially. Four decades later, China is set to become the country with the most Christians in the world. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html)
Unlike in Hong Kong, Christian Churches in mainland China remain under close observation by the communist party, who fears that they could dramatically change the political landscape. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html)
Understanding the politics between mainland China – HK – Taiwan:
Relationship between Mainland China and Hong Kong
Following the British victory in the First Opium War in 1842, the island of Hong Kong was ceded to the British Empire. In subsequent agreements, Hong Kong, together with Kowloon and other over 200 islands, were leased to Britain until 1997. In 1984, a Join Declaration was signed between China and the UK, in which it was agreed that Hong Kong would return to the People’s Republic of China as a Special Administrative Region, with a high degree of autonomy on social and cultural matters, as well as retaining independence over foreign affairs, under the principle of ‘One Country, Two systems' (Wan Pun, 2013).
However, since handover, an anti-mainland sentiment has emerged in Hong Kong, which is expressed through the pro-democracy and the nativist movement. For example, many in Hong Kong demand the right to elect the island’s chief executive and the entire legislative council through universal suffrage. However, Beijing refuses to make significant concessions in either area, for fear that Hong Kong’s political system would escape the central government’s control. In fact, a Legislative council controlled by pan-democratic parties, might be pushing for universal suffrage, as well as adopting what might be considered too liberal stances on various policy issues (Sonny Lo, 2012: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/11829/hong-kong-china-and-taiwan-prospects-for-a-greater-china).
Relations between Mainland and Hong Kong reached their worst level in 2014, when a decision to limit Hong Kong voters' ability to directly elect representatives in the 2017 elections, made by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress results, triggered large scale protests, also known as the ‘Umbrella Movement’ (Yuen, 2015). This consisted of a large scale student-led occupation of Hong Kong’s financial heart. This Umbrella Revolution lasted over three months and, although it was not successful in forcing the government to change policy, it has highlighted existing and future political problems and sensitivities between Hong Kong youth and the Chinese government (Kelly Vorndan, National Bureau of Asian research: http://nbr.org/research/activity.aspx?id=517).
Relationship between China mainland and Taiwan
China and Taiwan have been politically separated since the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists in the 1940s. Following the war, the Communists took over Mainland China, whilst the Nationalists withdrew to Taiwan, keeping control of the island. In their respective territories, each implemented their own political system – one party politics in the mainland, and democratically elected legislature and president in Taiwan. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, on October 1st 1949, the civil war officially ended. Over the next five decades, the political relations between the mainland and Taiwan have gone through four major stages: Firstly, military confrontation, from 1949- 1978. This was followed by an initial conciliation, between 1979-1987. Next, a deterioration in relations between 1987-1993 due to escalation of political disagreements. Finally, from 1994 onwards, their relationships improved again (Yu et al, 1997). An important landmark was reached in 1992, when the National Unification Councils in Taiwan and in Mainland China issued a joint statement, agreeing that there is only one China, however, they also agreed to disagree on what that meant to each of them. On the one hand, People’s Republic regarded “One China” as the “People’s Republic of China” following reunification, in which Taiwan would become a “Special administrative region” under its jurisdiction. On the other hand, Taiwanese authorities believed that “One China” should refer to the “Republic of China”, as it was founded in 1912, and has continued to exist. Its sovereignty would extend over the whole of China, although at present its governing power only extends to the island of Taiwan, the Penghu Islands, Quemoy and Matsu (Chao, Myers, Zhang 2002, Yu et al, 1997, https://china-journal.org/2016/08/31/the-1992-consensus-and-china-taiwan-relations/).
The level of unease amongst Taiwanese reached a peak in 2014, when Taiwan faced domestic unrest over governance issues and the state of its relations with the People’s Republic of China. The so called ‘Sunflower Student Movement’, demonstrated to show its opposition against the ratification of a trade agreement with the PRC, given that it reinforced the recognition of the ‘One China’ agreement as pre-condition for economic exchanges. These protests had a significant impact on the elections which took place in November the same year, as the existing ruling party lost several districts to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (http://nbr.org/research/activity.aspx?id=517) and the presidential elections in January 2016, where for the first time in 8 years, the Democratic Progressive Party won, thus further distancing Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China.
ANALYSIS OF CASE STUDIES AND INTERVIEWS
The study was conducted with qualitative research methods.
The study followed an ethnographic approach: from January 2016 onwards, the researcher joined the Church as a member and immersed herself in the day to day activities of the Church. These include the Chinese bible study, Sunday service, special celebrations. This allowed her to better understand and experience the role of the church in meeting the multidimensional service needs of its members as newcomers to London. In fact, through the process of complete immersion in the Church, she felt spiritually enlightened, embraced Christianity and chose to Baptise in the Church.
Furthermore, to better understand fellow Church members, the researcher conducted a series of semi-structured and unstructured interviews with 17 members of the London Chinese Baptist Church. In this report, all names were replaced by fictitious ones, to protect the true identity of the study participants and to encourage openness during discussions.
The following themes were discussed: first, their perception of the politics between China/HK/Taiwan were discussed. Secondly, the students’ difficulties in adapting to life in the UK and how these had influenced their choice to join the Church. More specifically, language problems, identity, sense of belonging and self confidence. Finally, the perceived benefits from membership of the Church were discussed with each interviewee.
Although the discussions were held in Chinese, relevant aspects of the Interviewees’ responses have been translated to English and will be discussed in the next section.
Politics between Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan
The first issue explored with interviewees was the political sensitivities between Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers and their perceptions of how these were reflected in the day to day Church activities.
An interesting observation from the researcher was that the LCBC is that it has three priests, Ciara Huang from Taiwan, Wei from Hong Kong, and Mr. Dawei from mainland China. They managed to have long term peace between themselves and create a friendly and inclusive culture within the Church for its members, despite the fact that they each come from one of the ‘territories’ within Greater China, which do not necessarily get on well.
Ciara Huang was invited by Priest Wei, to join him in London from Taiwan about one and half year ago. She had previously studied nursing in Northern Ireland, but latter went back to Taiwan to study religion, because she believed that Europe really needed more people to serve churches, and she felt an internal call from God to fulfil this mission. Her role in the London Chinese Baptist Church is to provide pastoral care for members, including their health condition, especially mental health. Together with Mr. Yi, she helps to organise a pre-study on Wednesday evenings, to prepare for the Friday bible study.
Ciara suggested that she would rather avoid discussing politics, although she was open to sharing her views about politics in general:
“I prefer to not to talk about politics in God’s place (church). Taiwan used to have a lot of Western priests. When hospitals in Taiwan lacked of money, they came back to Europe to raise funding, and they went back to Taiwan and gave us the money. They loved yellow skins like me, then why can’t we love each other? Taiwan used to lack hospitals and the hygiene standards used to be very bad and western priests helped to build hospitals, many of them even died in Taiwan. In church, there is only ‘politics in heaven’, not ‘human’s politics’. It is purer in church, because ‘we love, because God loved us first’”.
Through further discussion, she elaborated on her rationale, whilst emphasising the supremacy of God over politics on Earth:
“We try not to touch things which could tear the church apart. It’s not necessary to talk about it, it will only cause divisions. Listen, but I would skip it if it is not related to religion, because politics can not save you, only God can free your life.
I think when you grow up, you will see the bad things of a totalitarian regime, but you will also see the real face of politicians in democratic countries as well. I saw too many things in Taiwan and I feel very disgusted with politicians, they are all just actors, always acting. For example, they fight in Taiwan's parliament, but they hangout together privately, they just fight as a show to the audiences, for votes!”
Another interviewee, Mr. Yi, has been living in the UK for over 11 years. Now he is working in the financial industry in London. Mr. Yi has been an active member of the LCBC and a volunteer for 4 years. He stated that the biggest change in the church in recent years is that there are more young people than even before. Mr Mr. Yi is often angry with the news of what is happening in mainland China:
“Many people/students from mainland China are actually atheist and they go back to China as atheist. I believe what I have been doing in LCBC is also a contribution to my home country, to help the young generation change their understanding of values. I am not a patriot at all, but I am very angry when I read some of the news about mainland China, and I think the only way I can contribute is to help the younger generation, to have good values and change their lives. Only when more people have principles in this community, I will have hope. I think China seriously lacks religion and a lot of the country’s problems are causing by this. For example, the endless pursuit of material gratification, which lacks moral guidance and faith, is causing moral decline.”
Another interviewee, Mr. Dachu, from Hong Kong, who is married to a Chinese from the Mainland, suggested that the political sensitivities are not as serious as one would have thought, and cited the example of him meeting his wife: “the conflicts between Chinese and Hong Kongners are exaggerated in news. If you know anyone from mainland China and you know what kind of person they are, then all the misunderstandings are solved. People from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan in the church are peaceful, because we all believe in the Lord, we are all God's people, for this reason all these obstacles can be moved away.”
He then highlighted how different he and his wife felt from British, as he explained: “I think Asian students find it more difficult to integrate into British society. Because of our English is not so good. Also, people can racially distinguish you: you are from Asia, a very poor backward origin. Perhaps younger British are more open and do not care so much about what nationality you are. However, even if we are now both working in London, my wife and I barely hang out with our British coworkers, and they do not want us into their lives. Sometimes, the language is not the biggest problem, but the drinking culture.”
Mr. Yang, From Hunan, mainland China cited teaching from the Bible as the reason why the Church was able to unite people from otherwise conflicting nations: “The Bible teaches us to love others, even to love people of other countries. Everyone seems more likely to keep some distance to the political topics; therefore, we do not talk about them. For example, one day we ate together and a Chinese speaking person asked ‘which part of China do you come from?’ He said, ‘I am not Chinese, I am a Taiwanese.’ The atmosphere was very embarrassing, but we didn’t care too much, and we just continued to eat together.”
Mr Shenshu mentioned that one of the reasons he decided to confirm his faith, was because of two books that his mother had offered him: “Yuan Zhiming, (1989 Tiananmen Square protest leader, Chai Lin’s scandal boyfriend), and Zhang Boli (the third leaders of 1989 protest), two of whom became pastors after the protest. My mother listened to Mr. Zhang Boli’s preaching and brought his book back to me.” However, Shenshu didn’t want to talk too much about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. (The protest also called '89 Democracy Movement’ or ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’).
Ms. Qiang, from Xinyang, Henan (mainland China) province decided to distance herself from politics: “Some of people from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are fighting, I think the main reason is because they are narrow minded, and misled by media. In the Bible, the Lord says that we have to love your neighbors, but not just those people belong to your group. In the UK I had the chance to develop critical thinking, and am now no longer misled so easily.
Overall, it was possible to conclude that the various interviewees who were willing to share their views about politics between China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, all shared the view that within the Church, such differences do not exist and they all get along well, regardless of their background. Christianity, Church and the Bible to them represented as uniting factors.
Students’ difficulties in UK:
The next issue explored was the difficulties, which interviewees had faced when adapting to a new country and education system in the UK:
Fanyi, from Shanghai, currently pursuing university studies in London, said “there is an unspoken rule in my university, which is that Chinese students cannot exceed 60 mark.” She then explained some of the challenges she experienced during her overseas study experience in London: “My study in London is very bumpy, two of my language schools were closed in a row. I have tried to seek an explanation, but they sent my friends away, and turn off the CCTV, and then started to push me away. My sister called the police for me, and later I found a Chinese lawyer to help me take the case to court. But in fact he was not a lawyer but a consultant, but he called himself a lawyer. I found out after he asked me to sign a ‘trust agreement’, something usually given to children under 18 years old, when appointing a legal representative. But I am 23 years old, more than 18 years old. I later decided to withdraw my case, loosing tuition fees and consulting fees. Another friend had even worse fortune: she wanted to apply for a master’s degree and paid her tuition fees to an agency in Cash, 8000 pounds in total, with no written evidence or witnesses. She lost all that money. But I have a receipt of payment, and people from church helped me.”
The main pastor in LCBC, Mr. Dawei, also highlighted a similar story: “We have helped one student from mainland China once, who was under immense pressure to learn, however her tutor deliberately created difficulties for her. She went through such a severe personal crisis that she considered suicide. Thankfully, with the help of brothers and sisters at church, not only she was able to overcome her personal crisis, but she successfully graduated and got PhD. She finally accepted Christian faith and become Christian. There are many such examples in our church.”
These stories highlight some of the challenges faced by Chinese immigrants and students in the UK, as well as the important pastoral and social support role that the Church provides for them. Perhaps the case of Fany is an extreme one, however it highlights how vulnerable Chinese students can be, when pursuing education in the UK.
Language barrier/why choose Chinese Language Church instead of an English one?
To this question, Ms. Wan, from Hangzhou, responded: “I need to check the bible all the time when I read Bible in English.”
Lilly, who has been in the UK for 5 years, and works in the financial industry explained how the “Chinese language church helps me to develop my understanding of bible quicker and deeper because Chinese is my native language. However, I have been going to both English and Chinese language churches all the time. I think both churches are the same. But maybe it is because of my personality, I can always quickly integrate into a new environment without too many obstacles.”
However, Lilly’s husband Mr. Dachu emphasized that “even me and my wife are working in London now, we still barely go out with British co-workers, and they do not want us into their lives. Sometimes, the language is not the biggest problem, but the drinking culture. Local people will be greeting you on the street, but only on the surface, they do not want to know you any deeper.”
Identity, self confidence and sense of belonging:
Mr. Lin Fan, who already holds a British passport already, “I think I am still a Chinese, I absolutely do not feel that I am British, in fact, holding a passport just let me travel more conveniently, but I am not yet fully integrated into the local British community. I accept the local culture, but I have not integrated with it. In a British community, I feel a sense of Inferiority, which I do not perceive within the Chinese community. Even if I do not have the sense of superiority in church, I feel we are all equal. When I am with locals, however, my language may not be as good as that of a native speaker, so I feel a sense of inferiority. In the Chinese Church we have no language barriers, so people trust me. I do not feel as confident as in church, when I am with local people.”
Lilly, another church goer, suggested “I can feel the sense of belonging in both Chinese language church and also the English language church. Maybe it is because of my personal character, which helps me not to be afraid of a new environment and different language speakers and I do not always need to be together with people who speak the same language as me.”
When asked about his identity and sense of self confidence, Mr. Yang suggested “Sometimes I like to be inside the community, and sometimes I like to be alone. Before I found LCBC I was a lonely person, I've always felt that people never have to be with a group of people if they are very strong. But now I think belonging to a community is very important.”
Shenshu, said: “With the development of the relationship between faith and friendships in our Church getting closer, I started wondering who cooked the meal every Friday night? Who washed bowls and dishes after dinner? Therefore, I slowly decided to participate in the service and I found it is actually a good opportunity to practice how to put myself to the service of others. The person I respect the most in LCBC Mr. Yi, who invests a lot in the fellowship, for his sisters and brothers in church. Before I came to church, in school, I admired entrepreneurs the most, and bankers or multi-millionaires, but now the person I admire the most is Mr. Yi. He changed a lot of people’s lives, one after another, day after day, year after year. He is just ten years older than me, but he is so willing to serve the church.”
These discussions highlighted the important role that the Chinese Church plays in forging the identities of its members, their sense of belonging to a community and most importantly, feeling equal to others, as opposed to feeling lonely and inferior within the broader community in the UK. It can also have a profound impact on an individual’s values, as was the case with Shenshu.
What do you get from LCBC?
Laura is the only one British member in the LCBC, a graduate from MSc Conflict who is now applying for a PhD. She explained how the Church helped her develop her Chinese skills and make new friends, although she feels partly disadvantaged about the fact that she is not fluent in Chinese: “People are really friendly and I need to learn Chinese. There are many young people and activities in the Chinese church. For example, people have dinner together on Fridays, its more social. I can build friendships with people from China. English speakers are not always very friendly, not as sociable as Chinese. Chinese culture is very different from British, when I travel to China people are much more patient with me. Chinese culture is more similar to South American culture. Being disloyal is perceived as very negative and communities look down on it. Just like with friends and family, being there for someone or when you need something is important, in British culture it’s optional, a lot of people just say no when you need their help.”
Laura also emphasized that LCBC lacks English services “If you speak Chinese, you get more support. You get WeChat chatting group (Chinese version of WhatsApp), they call you more often, more dinners, more supports. Maybe the church needs to do more work with people who do not speak Chinese. Maybe it would be more helpful to build the community between Chinese language speaking and non-Chinese speaking, I will support to make more activities with people who do not speak Chinese. I don’t think it’s the church’s fault, but it is more complicated to do things with different language, they just don’t speak your language.”
Laura is also helping people in LCBC to practice their English skill, “I feel like I am spoilt in the Church, everyone speaks English to me and they include me into the WeChat(Chinese version WhatsApp). I think, if you want to be a part of the church, even people who don’t speak English, you need to start somewhere. And its worth it, you make a lot of friends and join a lot of activities. I am getting a lot of help in the LCBC.”
Mr. Junxiu, a PhD student in Queen Marry University explained how finding religion helped him with his PhD studies: “I found my religion almost helped with all of my subjects in my studies, especially for my PhD degree (physics). I used to think that clever people can solve many problems, but now I feel that human beings are very small in the universe.”
Ms. Shanghai explained how joining the Church helped her better understand and embrace people, who are Christian: “I used to have some misunderstandings about Christians, because I thought that some Christians are too stubborn (dogma). But since I started coming to the LCBC, I found people there are very nice, and the church made me a stronger person.”
Mr. Yang explained how the Bible study group helped to shape his Character: “Bible study group helped me a lot to shape my character. I used to be an angry type of person. I have learned to forgive others and no longer force myself to hate others and myself.”
When asked about how joining the LCBC affected their identity, Lilly explained that: “In the church, we will not evaluate a person by the appearance. For example, we have a lot of senior bankers and managers in LCBC, but they are very low key in the Church. They may stand very high in their industry, but in the church they are very humble. We will wash the dishes together and serve the church together. I think these are differences about people in the church and in the world.”
In terms of English language learning, Mr. Yang suggested: “I do not think coming to the Chinese language church will stop me practicing English with others. Christianity is part of western culture, it actually helped me find something I can talk about with local people.”
Ms. Wong, working in Morgan Stanley, “In fact, many young Chinese students are confused with their life and very lonely in UK, I think church is a good place to come for young Chinese international students, because church can give young students a guideline, and leading them do not go to a wrong way. Many Chinese students in our church drop out of school before, but later they went back to school and graduated.”
Wong also mentioned her job in Morgan Stanley is very critical, “I think I'm the kind of person has no bottom line. What we are doing now is very critical. We do a lot of calculation, once we have counted wrong £1m, and I confessed to my boss that was me, and my boss report it straight away. Fortunately, they have a budget for wrong calculations. I wouldn’t have admitted it if I did not believe in the Lord, I think I would have lie about it and try to cover. And bible study helped me how to deal between colleagues, if there is conflict, the Bible will help me, Bible said, ‘Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord’”.
Even though Wong is already working in a top investment bank in London Canary Wharf, she still feels there is a barrier to integration into British Society “First-generation immigrant is difficult, but now I slowly feel my child should be able to integrate into the local community.”
Mr. Junxiu, a PhD student in Queen Mary University, believes that the church has helped to open his eye and to organize his life, “the church opened up my horizons, which made me think about the direction of my life. LCBC helped me to be calm and full, and make me felt I am needed. I guess this is the sense of belonging, feeling of being needed, and knowing my values in church.”
Mr. Junxiu has very similar feeling with Mr. Lin Fan who works in Credit Suisse Group. This highlights how, regardless of whether you are a students or young professionals, both groups may feel less important or inferior outside of Chinese language Church, and they feel they are more important and valued in the LCBC. The feeling of not being valued sometimes doesn’t change even after graduating from University, and persists in young immigrants longer than one would expect.
Ms. Qiang, founded her own education consulting company in London after completing her postgraduate studies in UK, said the most difficult thing in UK is to fit in the culture, “British culture is so different from Chinese culture, it takes decades to understand and blend in. It needs time, from being unware to understand it. However, sometimes it is just as difficult or impossible to change certain things when you understand it.”
Mr. Aiqi, manager in HSBC in canary wharf, “Church gives me the opportunity to pray, to be a Christian, and I am trying to make a good witness in my work as far as possible. There are a lot of things you might experience in office politics. So I pray.”
Mr. Dawei, the priest of LCBC (from mainland China), “There are more than 20 Chinese language churches In London. However, there was no Mandarin-speaking church in east London at all 12 years ago. So we founded our church here in the hope that to help more Chinese (mainly Mandarin-speaking) in East London, and we also very close to Queen Mary University, which allowed us to get access to more Chinese students (the campus has nearly 1,000 students from Mainland China, most of whom speak Mandarin). We hope to help those students who are studying away from home, in their life and academically. As a priest, I would like to put the Gospel to the local Chinese students and Queen Mary University.”
Mr. Gong is from a very typical Chinese family, “My parents are doing wholesale business in China. They are extremely busy, and I barely saw them when I was a child. There was little family time together, only on holidays.” When asked about what he feels the Church brings to the Chinese community, he said: “Realistically, most members in LCBC have a decent job and their dedication can provide a stable income to support LCBC. Financial contributions to a church are a great help. Meeting young professionals in LCBC has also helped me to consider my own way in the future, such as how to get a job. The church is very suitable for people who just arrived to a new country and students should come to this place more often. I believe that the church really helps new arrivals to settle down in the beginning of overseas life.” Regarding the fighting between Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers, he said, “The violence I have seen on line, I never felt that in our church, completely peaceful in here.”
Overall, it emerges that membership at LCBC provides a number of benefits to its members, from providing a social support structure, to character and identity building and development of Christian values.
Differences between current and previous generations
Mr. Shenshu represents a good example about the extent to which first and second generation Chinese differ in their ability to integrate with local society. His immigrated to the UK under very challenging economic and personal circumstances, “I'm very thankful with what my parents have done for me. Different from many other students here, my roots are not the same, my mother was at one stage an illegal immigrant without full working rights, until she was finally granted status. After washing dishes in a restaurant many years. She then brought me to the UK. I am grateful for my mom, because she has been in the restaurant, earning money there is not easy, but she still very grateful to make money through her own efforts, so I could afford to buy a flat in London, which was unthinkable and unbelievable for me and my family.”
Regarding the first illegal immigrants from China in UK, surprisingly, one of my interviewees, who has done a year’s fulltime service in a Chinese language church after undergraduate, Mr. Dachu Li mentioned, “LCBC has some older people who used to work in restaurants as cooks or washing dishes for a living. Nowadays, a lot of this generation work in investment banks. Their life is very different. The first generations of immigrants came to the UK in order to come out of poverty and live a better life than they did in China. The new generation is very lucky, they either work in banks or return home to find jobs after graduating, and they all have financial support from home.” Mr. Dachu also explained, “Previous generations who came to abroad, missed out on the golden 20 years of development in Mainland China, but they built the foundation of Chinese language Church in Europe.”
Overall, whilst Chinese immigrants from the previous generation were largely economic migrants living in difficult conditions, current generations have benefitted from much higher levels of financial support from home, which was possible thanks to the accelerated economic development in China over the past 2-3 decades.
Criticism of the Chinese Church
Ms. Wong criticizes the Chinese community, “Chinese community sometimes gossips a lot, they like to talk about other people, but this is a character of Chinese community, we have no choice. And also Chinese churches have some political struggle as well, such as individuals who dislike each other, and the church leadership has more or less internal politics as well, but LCBC doesn’t because it is very small. However, there are some good examples of political struggles, who just continue to serve the Church with love even with politics, and I believe that some of these good examples exist in our church.”
She also mentioned that church is different from other societies, “It is difficult to share your weaknesses in other societies and Chinese culture is also easily makes comparisons. Tower Hamlets is the area that has the most Chinese passport holders in London, and Chinese need a lot of help in many different areas. There are a lot of things which need to be done for the Chinese language churches.”
When exploring the possibilities of integrating with the wider society:
Mr. Aiqi also criticized in the Chinese language church on the conservatism, “I hope our church can be more open to the world, even though there is a language barrier. It takes a lot of effort to reach out, to integrate better with the local community. Chinese people do not often drink and communicate with locals, which is a problem. ‘How to go out’ is a question. I think both parties need to put efforts, local also need to open to us, but also takes time.”
Ms. Wan, who works as an accountant in London, suggested: “Language can be resolved in LCBC, because every Sunday morning we have English services, and it is opened to everyone, you can come to participate in the English Church.”
Mr. Lin Fan recalled memory back to his A-level experience when we talk about language and how to integrate into local society, “I do not think church should be a place to practice English. Maybe on other occasions we should be encouraged to talk to locals. I personally think girls have bigger advantages in local society, it is my personal bias. Local people love to drink after work, but Chinese people like to drink in Karaoke, not the same way. Girls are easier to integrate into two communities, but for boys it is harder. When I was in my A-level school where I surrounded by local people, I still found difficult to communicate with locals, except when talking about football. I did not make any local friends, none at all.”
Challenges and opportunities for better integration with the wider society
The literature review and discussions above highlighted a variety of challenges faced by Chinese immigrants when trying to integrate with the broader society in the UK. The various discussions with Church members provided further insights into the ways in which the London Chinese Baptist Church further reinforces segregation from the wider society, as well as opportunities, through which it contributes towards integration.
In this debate, the key challenges will be explored first, following by a discussion about the opportunities they represent. This will be complemented with concrete proposals about ways in which the London Chinese Baptist Church, as well as other Chinese Language Churches in the UK, could be mobilized to support integration of Chinese students in the UK.
First of all, language barrier has been highlighted as an important barrier to integration and is one of the reasons why Chinese International students chose to join a Chinese Language Church and Bible Study group, instead of an English Speaking group. Not having to keep checking the dictionary when reading the bible being cited as a key benefit. Moreover, members are able to develop a better understanding of Christianity and have deeper discussions with each other, and their preacher. However, the opportunity cost of this is significant, as they both miss a unique opportunity to further develop their English, but perhaps more importantly, they miss the chance to develop the skill to express their inner feelings, beliefs and emotions in English, in an environment where they could do so ‘risk free’, as they would have a clear topic to discuss and their counterparts would be unlikely to judge them, even if they were to come across as socially ‘awkward’.
Secondly, various members highlighted concerns about their difficulty integrating with British social circles, especially with regards to the drinking culture, which differs in the fact that the British prefer to drink in a pub whilst Chinese would normally drink in a Karaoke environment. Although the Church might not be able to provide them with an opportunity to ‘drink’ with their friends, it is full of social activities, ranging from Friday evening dinner, to afternoon tea on Sunday and even special events, such as baptisms and weddings of individual members. These types of events can reinforce emotional ties and bonding between members of the Church. Had a significant proportion of members been from British or other international background, this would have provided a unique opportunity for Chinese immigrants to hone their social skills and develop confidence in their ability to make friends and socialize with people from other cultures.
Thirdly, an important issue is that of identity, with various Church goers sharing their insecurities and perception of ‘inferiority’ within the British Society. This seems to persist regardless of the level of educational or professional success, as some interviewees hold important roles in some of London’s best investment banks and degrees from the UK’s most prestigious universities and still feel inferior to their British peers. However, when joining the Church, they all feel ‘equal’ and ‘valued’ in front of God, and perceive a sense of belonging to the church community, through which this sense of inferiority disappears. It is likely that being surrounded by fellow Chinese plays a more important role in supporting their sense of self, than the fact of being surrounded by fellow Christians. However, it is possible that, had they been in an English Church, they might have also felt more valued and accepted, than they do in their day to day lives. By reinforcing a positive identity in a Chinese only environment, the London Baptist Chinese Church introduces an further barrier to overcoming this identity challenge.
However, a number of opportunities, through which the London Chinese Baptist Church supports the integration of its members, have also been identified.
First of all, it represents a powerful unifying force for Chinese immigrants originating from often conflicting territories, i.e. the Chinese Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The extent to which the shared Chinese Christian identity helps them overcome political differences is huge. In fact, when exploring this sensitive topic, all interviewees agree that what keeps them united is the understanding that under God they are all equal, as well as the overwhelming message of love, which is reflected from the Bible. Whilst this may not directly contribute towards integration with the broader British society, it demonstrates the power of religious transnationalism and how it can overcome even the most severe political differences amongst different people.
Secondly, through its role in providing pastoral care and moral support to its members, the London Chinese Baptist Church is helping large numbers of Chinese international students persevere through difficult times, especially as they struggle at university. By helping them to complete their studies and perhaps also achieve better results that they would have otherwise, in an indirect way, it also supports their ability to integrate with society, most importantly by empowering them to pursue successful careers, so that they can purchase their own homes and achieve a stable financial status in their new ‘home’ country.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the Church reinforces universally accepted values of honesty, willingness to help each other and to forgive others, which, each in their own way, can help them develop more fruitful and healthy relationships with their co-workers and neighbors. In an indirect fashion, this also empowers them to better integrate with the wider society.
Finally, it is necessary to explore how the London Chinese Baptist Church, and similar churches, could be mobilized to facilitate better integration. It is the view of the author that this could be achieved twofold.
First of all, supporting and encouraging the development of Chinese Language Churches in UK educational institutions can be an effective way to reduce the gap in achievement between Chinese and other International Students in the UK, whilst also providing them opportunities to share their burdens and difficulties with like minded peers and pastors and to reconcile their differences with Chinese coming form the various conflicting territories.
Secondly and most importantly, through a common “Christian identity”, which transcends all national and ethnical barriers, opportunities should be sought for further collaboration between the various Christian Churches in the UK, both those belonging to minority ethnic groups and to ethnically British people. In the case of the London Chinese Baptist Church, the foundations are already in place, as they hire their venue from the local Baptist Church. Their next challenge would therefore be to create opportunities to connect Chinese Church members and local people who normally attend English Speaking Bow Baptist Church Services. Perhaps shared social events and joint multi-lingual services on a monthly basis could be a starting point.
The author of this study belongs to an ever increasing group of Chinese migrants choosing to move to the UK to pursue higher education and subsequently build a new life away from home.
The London Borough of Newham and the Bow District in Tower Hamlets are examples of the multicultural society that London has become. Through multiple waves of migration, a variety of ethnic groups and religious denominations are now represented amongst their population. However, they are not isolated cases. London developed in a similar away and nowadays represents the most cosmopolitan and culturally diverse capital city in the world, with over 50% of the population being of a non white ethnic background and 40% of its population having been born abroad.
Whilst immigrants have brought multiple economic benefits to the UK, the challenges in integrating such a diverse society became increasingly apparent over time. Perhaps the most important reflection of this was the Brexit vote, which was to a large extent driven by concerns about lack of control over immigration and which was associated to an increase in racism and hate crime against minority groups.
Amongst other people, Chinese have been migrating to the UK for over two centuries. However, in the past two decades, with the growth of the international education market and a substantial increase in international students from Mainland China, they became to represent the largest immigrant group in the UK. However, there is growing evidence that they struggle to integrate with the wider society, which has a negative impact on their educational performance.
A large number of Chinese Churches have emerged in the UK over the past 6 decades, which, besides preaching the message of God, provide pastoral and social care to the many Chinese immigrants in the UK. The London Chinese Baptist Church is an example, having been the first Chinese Language Church in East London.
Through their multiple activities, Chinese language churches are highly beneficial to Chinese immigrants in the UK. However, the extent to which they contribute towards, or add further barrier to integration with the wider British society, is debatable. Leveraging their positive impact, whilst looking for ways to mitigate the risk of further segregation from other segments of society should be a key priority, in order to maximise their impact on the ongoing integration of new Chinese immigrants in the UK.
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