A grassroots organisation is making history by launching the UK’s very first heritage month to recognise and celebrate East and South East Asian (ESEA) communities living in the UK. September will mark the heritage month, created by Besea.n (Britain’s East and South East Asian Network), a volunteer-led group that aims to fuel positive representation for ESEA people, with the goal of getting it recognised by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Putting a spotlight on particular ethnic communities is not a new thing – after all, the UK currently observes Black History Month (October) and South Asian Heritage Month (August). But the birth of an ESEA Heritage Month now is timely, especially after the racial challenges faced by the community during the coronavirus pandemic.
It also brings to the fore stories such as the one belonging to Hoh Min Leong, who joined a wave of migrants who came to the UK from all over Asia in the 1970s to be trained in the NHS, as the UK government embarked on a massive expansion of the health service. In the nearly 50 years since, he has made Britain his forever home, raising his family and multiple generations here.
I always felt [my mother’s] story and the stories of similar people are not recognised or told in this country
The story of how Hoh came to live in the UK is strikingly similar to that of Kui Eng Lau and my own aunt, Sofi Taylor, who moved to Glasgow for the same reason and hasn’t looked back. They arrived on British shores in their tender 20s, with little money and big hopes, seeking to create entirely new lives in unfamiliar – and sometimes hostile – territory.
But you will likely have never heard of these stories, or known that a large number of South East Asians (SEA) moved here to work towards helping make the NHS to what it is today. In fact, beyond making huge waves in diversifying the country’s food scene, the other contributions of people from this community goes largely unnoticed, with many describing themselves as “invisible” in wider British society.
Official government data on the SEA diaspora is scant. No one knows exactly how many East and South East Asian (ESEA) people live in the UK – Dr Lu Gram of the University College London Institute for Global Health told the BBC podcast Disorienting that the estimates range anywhere between 400,000 to 1.2 million. There are no firm figures documenting how many people migrated here from Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the 1970s to work for the NHS, leaving only the anecdotes of new generations to show that they do in fact exist.
This heritage month is also very pertinent to the kind of year we’ve just had
This is because when the UK collects census data, the only option provided for Asians who fall outside of the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Chinese backgrounds is “Any other Asian group”. The vague categorisation of such a large group of people, who come from the largest continent on Earth, often leads to ESEA communities being overlooked and feeling othered.
Mai-Anh Peterson, a British-Vietnamese co-founder of Besea.n, told The Independent that the existence of an ESEA Heritage Month is “particularly meaningful” after everything the community has gone through since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, referring to the exponential rise in racism and hate crimes towards people who are “Chinese-presenting”.
The idea that China was to blame for the spread of Covid-19 spurred a shocking number of racist incidents – according to Besea.n, Britain’s ESEA communities saw a 179 per cent increase in hate crimes since the first lockdown was imposed.
Peterson, 32, said: “We have always needed a heritage month like this, but it wasn’t really possible because our communities have been quite fragmented for a number of reasons – be they geographical, political, systemic.
“But one of the positive sides of the pandemic was that people were really forced into virtual meeting and sharing, so that, coupled with the explosion of interest in social justice causes, means that community organising was able to happen in a way it could never happen before.
“For us, this heritage month is also very pertinent to the kind of year we’ve just had. It’s a way to consolidate this virtual community building that’s been happening over the last year and a half, and is also particularly meaningful for us after everything the communities have gone through.”
The programme for the heritage month features an eclectic range of events, from art exhibitions and panel discussions to virtual hangouts and food crawls. The events are taking place all across the UK - and not just by Besea.n, but also by other organisations and individuals, such as Every Asian Voice, Being Brasian, the Centre for Contemporary East Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham, and Moongate Productions, to name a few.
Rebecca Hoh-Hale is one of those collaborating with Besea.n to organise the Ingat-Ingat exhibition, which will celebrate the stories and legacy of people like her father, Hoh, Lau’s mother, my aunt, and many more. She told The Independent that having the space to celebrate her father’s story alongside others feels “poignant”.
“I feel really proud of my dad’s story,” she continued. “And I wanted the exhibition to be very visual because all of the stories have these great photos from the 60s and the 70s of our mums and dads when they were young and looking cool in their flairs, and excited to be in a different country.
“It’s something people can physically come to and share in the experience. I don’t think [the community] ever felt the big importance of what they did, so to be able to see, visually, that they did all do this and all made a contribution to the NHS, will be such a nice and emotional thing, I think.”
Jenny Lau, the daughter of Kui, collated her mother’s story and pictures to be featured in the exhibition. Having a platform to showcase Kui’s journey – and therefore, a part of Lau’s own history – brought her family together in an unexpected way. She told The Independent that the heritage month is important because “a lot of these people and communities have contributed immensely to British society”.
Lau is the founder of Celestial Peach, a platform that explores Chinese diaspora identity through the lens of food, and she is an active volunteer with the Hackney Chinese Community. “I always felt [my mother’s] story and the stories of similar people are not recognised or told in this country. It goes back to a homogenous narrative of who British Chinese people are,” she said.
“Everyone hears about Chinese takeaways, the waves of Cantonese economic migrants in the 1970s, but that doesn’t represent me because I don’t come from that story. I think this will give a lot of heart and hopefully engender empathy and curiosity in our stories.
“I can’t wait to bring [my mother] to the exhibition,” added Lau. “I think she deserves to feel proud of herself. I’d love to see the heritage embraced and celebrated, firstly by the community to get it engaged and proud of it, and to give people the chance to explore their own heritage. Beyond that, if people from outside communities are interested, that is a bonus – but this month is really for us.”
Find the programme for ESEA Heritage Month here