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Faith community and young immigrants


"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 (

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, although their share is higher in Tower Hamlets, where they represent 3.2% of the population, one of the highest in the UK ( 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). (

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. (,,

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(

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 (

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 ( 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. (

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, ( The increase in ethnic hate crime following Brexit further emphasizes this point (, .

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. (

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 (

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