Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2017, 11:43 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - United Kingdom : Chinese

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - United Kingdom : Chinese, 2008, available at: [accessed 23 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


There were 247,403 Chinese people (0.4% of the total UK population) recorded in the 2001 Census. There is an increasing number of undocumented Chinese immigrants, which some estimates put at 70,000.

There are three main linguistic groups. The largest is Cantonese, followed by, Hakka and Mandarin. Many versions of Cantonese are spoken. Hokien, Teow Cheow and Hainannese are also spoken. The community comes from Hong Kong, mainland China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.

The Chinese community is widely dispersed throughout the UK, but the main concentration, around half, is in London. There are established Chinatowns in large cities, such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne. There are significant Chinese communities in other major cities and towns, such as Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff, Bristol, Sheffield, Cambridge and Milton Keynes. There are also Chinese families living in suburban areas and small towns around the UK.

In 2004, according to national statistics, just under a half of Chinese men were employed in the distribution, hotel and restaurant industry, while 32 to 38 per cent of Chinese workers were in managerial positions or the professions, and 16 per cent were self-employed.

Illegal Chinese immigrants work mostly in food processing, catering, agriculture and construction. Some are failed asylum seekers.

Historical context

Chinese seamen were employed on British ships from the 1800s onwards. There were settled Chinese communities in London and Liverpool from the early nineteenth century. The demand for seamen in the Second World War increased the Chinese population, but most were subsequently repatriated. The first permanent large-scale settlement of Chinese occurred in the 1950s, when Britain's economic boom and labour shortages led to a relaxation of immigration laws to encourage immigrants from overseas British and Commonwealth countries.

Poor rural Chinese migrants came from Hong Kong's New Territories and set up restaurants. Educated wealthy Chinese came from Malaysia and Singapore to take up professional jobs and set up businesses. In the 1970s Chinese boat people from Vietnam were granted asylum. In the 1990s a second wave of immigrants from Hong Kong came to Britain following the British handover of Hong Kong to China. These migrants were well educated and went into business or professions. They were followed by immigrants from mainland China, many of whom paid 'snakehead' traffickers for illegal travel from China and entry to Britain, and who took up low-paid, exploitative jobs through Chinese networks. The problems of illegal Chinese immigrants were tragically highlighted when 23 Chinese cockle pickers were cut off and drowned by the tide in Morecambe Bay in 2004.

Current issues

Chinese children learn in English at school and tend to have above-average achievements. A higher proportion than the national average attend university. There are some Chinese schools teaching in Cantonese and Mandarin. However, there is little provision at British state schools for those who do not speak English.

For the less educated, the self-contained Chinese society has resulted in a lack of knowledge of English and isolation from the mainstream Britain. Many Chinese, particularly the elderly and women who live and work at home, are not aware of their rights to social services, housing, health and welfare from local authorities and the wider community.

Restaurant work often involves tied accommodation, so that workers who retire also lose their homes. Gambling has become a problem among men working long hours in restaurants and other catering establishments. Depression is also a problem among those who are isolated.

Illegal Chinese migrants often live in cramped substandard housing, in debt to and under the control of the 'snakeheads' whom they have paid to bring them to Britain. Because they are in the UK illegally and many do not speak English, they are afraid or unable to seek help from the wider community. A recent example of exploitation of illegal Chinese immigrants by other Chinese was the death in 2004 of 23 cockle pickers when the night tide swept into Morecambe Bay. Although the Gangmaster Licensing Act came into effect in 2006 to try and prevent such an event happening again, exploitative practices continue. The Chinese gangmaster of this incident was convicted of manslaughter and jailed, but the English buyers of the cockles were acquitted.

There are incidents of racism against, and bullying and abuse of Chinese people.

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