On the 31 January, the UK government started a new visa programme specifically for Hong Kong residents with a British National Overseas passport or their dependents. The Home Office expect up to 300,000 people to move to Britain over the next five years and seek citizenship in what some are calling the ‘Hong Kong Windrush’. Unlike the Black and Asian immigrants who came to Britain after 1948, however, the new Hong Kong British will be able to see at least some positive representations of people that look like them in British children’s books.
It was not always the case that East Asian people were represented positively—if they were represented at all. The best that one 1907 geography, Thomas Nelson’s The World and its People, could say was that the people of Hong Kong were ‘fairly contented under their British rulers’ (197). East Asian people were rarely represented as existing in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century, and indeed, most British children would have received ideas about East Asian people from pantomimes such as Aladdin, versions of which included characters such as Chin Chop (1903 Theatre Royal Nottingham) or Wishee Washee, who first appeared in versions in the 1960s and is still part of some versions of the pantomime today. When a book had a character from Hong Kong or Singapore, as in Bessie Marchant’s boarding school story Two New Girls (1927), that character was usually white and British, the daughter of a merchant or soldier in the Empire. This is one reason why Robin Stevens’ character in her Murder Most Unladylike series (2014-present), Hazel Wong, drew such attention; for many who had been brought up on the all-white world of boarding school stories, a Hong Kong Chinese character was a revelation. The success of the series perhaps opened the way for other re-visions of the boarding school story written by Black and Asian writers, such as the 2019 New Class at Malory Towers, which includes stories by Patrice Lawrence and Narinder Dhami.
Some pre-21st century representations of East Asian characters written by people from East Asian background are linked to the Windrush generation. Meiling Jin, a British Guyanese author who grew up in London and suffered racist abuse in school, published her only children’s book, The Thieving Summer, in 1993; the main characters are from Trinidad but their ethnic origins are left vague. Poppie, the main child character, is friends with other people of colour in London; they band together to find a white thief after they are accused of his crimes. The idea of different groups of people of colour being depicted as one community accords with the notion of political blackness, wherein racially minoritised people in Britain were often all labelled ‘black’ by white Britons, and in response banded together as one community to fight such racism. Another text, Grace Nichols’ poetry collection Poetry Jump-Up: A Collection of Black Poetry (1988), includes many Asian poets as well as Afro-Caribbean, Indo-Caribbean and African American poets. The collection includes a Vietnamese poet as well – albeit one from the early 16th century, Nguyen Binh Khiem.
However, beginning in the 21st century, British children’s books were increasingly likely to depict East Asian characters whose own or whose family’s origins were more directly linked to East Asian countries. Authors and illustrators/photographers were also more likely to have East Asian origins. Hyechong Chung, author of K is for Korea (2008) was born in South Korea. Perhaps as an immigrant looking back to her country of origin, it is unsurprising that her alphabet focuses on mostly traditional aspects of Korean culture rather than the ‘dynamic and vibrant’ modern country that she mentions in her introduction. Anna McQuinn’s My Friend Amy has photographic illustration by Irvin Cheung; although set in Britain, the contrast is subtly made between modern, urban Britain and a rural version of Hong Kong. Amy’s grandmother comes from Hong Kong where a farmer’s life is ‘very hard’ but they come to England and ‘started a restaurant and had to work really, really hard’. Both lives are hard, but the prospect of achieving success is only available in Britain.
The interest in books about East Asia goes beyond representation for East Asian British communities, however. Several books on the Kate Greenaway nomination list for 2021 were written by people of East Asian origin, including author of Starbird Sharon King-Chai (born in Australia of Chinese-Malaysian parents and now living in London); Soojin Kwak, author of A Hat for Mr Mountain who describes herself as ‘based in Seoul and London’; Chinese illustrator Zhu Cheng-Liang who illustrated Mary Murphy’s What I Like Most; and Japanese-born author-illustrator of Dandelion’s Dream, Yoko Tanaka. These picture books cover a wide range of genres and moods, but are all searches of one kind or another. From the Starbird’s search for home and safety and the dreamlike search of a lion finding where he belongs to the humorous search for a hat big enough to cover a mountain to the search of a Chinese-British girl for what she likes most, these books do not pin the East Asian (or British East Asian) experience down to a single story. Similarly, but for older readers, Katie and Kevin Tsang’s Dragon Mountain depicts two very different Chinese characters – the quiet peacemaker, Ling-Fei, and the brash surfer, Billy Chan. Ling-Fei is from China and Billy, whose father is from Hong Kong, is American. The two must work together with a white Irish boy and a white American girl (who is a jiu-jitsu champion and a pageant queen) to defeat the Dragon of Death. The Tsangs use Western stereotypes of East Asian people (such as the wise old sage) to provide plot twists, as Billy, Ling-Fei and their friends find out that stereotypes cannot be relied upon when trying to defeat evil; individuals must be appreciated (or avoided) for their own characteristics.
Sue Cheung’s Chinglish (2019) and Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths (forthcoming) are deserving of closer examination. There are obvious similarities. Both books depict extended British Chinese families who run Chinese takeaways in the Midlands. Both are illustrated – Cheung’s by herself, Chan’s by Anh Cao – and about characters who themselves have artistic ambitions. Both feature South Asian best friends. Both are first person narratives, where the narrator struggles with not having a common language to speak with some family members, and where resulting questions of identity are explored through the narrative.
But the books are also very different. Chinglish is written as the diary of Jo Kwan, beginning in 1984 when Jo is 13 years old and ending in 1987. Kwan’s tone is often sardonic – on discovering the name of their new take-away ‘Happy Gathering’, she writes, ‘I will look up the Trade Descriptions Act. I think we may be breaching it’ (p16). Kwan’s attitude to her parents is in contrast with common Chinese ideas of showing respect to one’s elders. But this is contextualized in the story; it emerges that she and her old brother have both been subjected to violence at the hands of their father. Cheung offers a raw, honest account of domestic violence and whilst a number of relevant charities are listed at the end of the book, it may surprise some readers that a content warning is not offered at the start of the book, particularly as the illustrative style is one that we might associate with more light-hearted material. It is important to add that it is stated that Chinglish is based on Cheung’s life material. It is a story she has every right to tell, and one that might, as she hopes, help other young people living through similar ordeals. Chinglish does not conform to model minority myths of British Chinese people. Equally, it is not the positive portrayal of British Chinese family life that is so needed in Britain. However, this is an issue for British children’s publishing. Neither Cheung nor any individual writer should have to shoulder the burden of representation of a whole community.
The depictions of racism in the 1980s feel accurate. Currently, interesting questions are being asked amongst YA readers and scholars about how to depict racism without reinforcing it. Does the use of racial slurs in a narrative have a negative impact on readers, irrespective of who is expressing them and how they are responded to? Certainly, it is becoming less common to see racist language used in books where the author takes an antiracist perspective.
At times Jo Kwan appears supremely confident, such as when she writes a letter to the BBC complaining that they have rejected all of her submissions for the Take Hart gallery. At other moments she expresses anxieties about friendships, her future and her appearance. It is the last of these that will likely cause the most concern for some readers. Whilst worries about how one looks are common teenage experience, they can take on an extra dimension for racially minoritised people in racist societies if their features are perceived to be connected to their ancestry. Towards the end of the story, Kwan notes that her eyes ‘look pretty too these days’(p341). Two pages later, she expresses concerns that ‘Nobody gets me, cos nobody is like me’ (p343) but the story ends with her fulfilling her dream by leaving home for fashion college in London. We have a sense that things will work out for Jo Kwan and that her resilience to brutality inside and outside the home has helped her through a tough period in her life.
Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung is a younger character and the book reads as if primarily intended for pre-teen readers. As the story begins, we learn that Danny loves art. He loves drawing and creating comics and it is these drawings that illustrate the book throughout. Early in the narrative Danny’s father delivers one of his ‘Chinese Way’ lectures, ‘The Chinese Way is hard work. It is about listening and respecting our elders. It is about family and helping each other gain success. We have to work doubly hard in this country.’ Shortly after Danny learns that he must share his bedroom with his newly arrived grandmother. His relationship with his Nai Nai forms a core part of story and his perspective shifts; she begins as a ‘little old lady from China who looked like my dad’. As Danny becomes more frustrated and embarrassed by her behaviour and the expectation that he helps her to settle in, she becomes ‘Ant Gran, Supervillain’ in his comic book work.
This eventually changes when Maths becomes their common language. Danny’s entry into the school maths competition involves the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio, combining maths, art, and nature in the form of the Romanesco cauliflowers his grandmother buys at the local grocer. This resolution offers a way of integrating Danny’s own desires with external expectations. Chan is clearly interested in the stereotype of Chinese students concerning maths. A class-mate tells Danny ‘My mum said all Chinese people are good at maths’. But such stereotypes, can also be internalized; his father also informs him that ‘Maths is in our blood remember’. At the close of the book we learn that this is not the whole story; Danny’s grandfather had been an artist but had not made enough money from it to send his son to university. Significantly, it is Nai Nai, who supports Danny’s artistic ambitions.
As in Chinglish, there are references to racism in the book, but they are more subtle; ‘Typical foreigners, coming here taking our bingo seats’ says one person when Danny takes Nai Nai to bingo. What are readers to make of these differences in approach? They may be explained by the near forty-year gap in when these two stories take place. Or in the age of the target audience. Or possibly Chan is reluctant to repeat racial slurs used against Chinese people in her story out of concern for the impact on readers. It is our hope that readers encounter both these books at an appropriate age, along with a far broader range of books focusing on British East Asian characters than is currently available.
Karen Sands-O’Connor is the British Academy Global Professor for Children’s Literature at Newcastle University. Her books include Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).
Darren Chetty is a teacher, doctoral researcher and writer with research interests in education, philosophy, racism, children’s literature and hip hop culture. He is a contributor to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and the author, with Jeffrey Boakye, of What Is Masculinity? Why Does It Matter? And Other Big Questions. He tweets at @rapclassroom.
Chinglish, Sue Cheung, Andersen Press, 978-1783448395, £7.99 pbk
Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, Maisie Chan, Piccadilly Press, 978-1800780019, £6.99 pbk
K is for Korea, Hyechong Chung, illus Prodeepta Das, Frances Lincoln Books, 978-1847801333, £6.99 pbk
Starbird, Sharon King-Chai, Two Hoots, 978-1509899562, £12.99 hbk
A Hat for Mr Mountain, Soojin Kwak, Two Hoots, 978-1529012873, £6.99 pbk
What I Like Most, Mary Murphy, illus Zhu Cheng-Liang, Walker Books, 978-1406369045, £12.99 hbk
Dandelion’s Dream, Yoko Tanaka, Walker Books, 978-1406388770, £12.99 hbk