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Early Chinese Footprints in Bristol

By Chungwen Li, Dean, Ming-Ai (London) Institute

Investigating the history of the British Chinese Workforce

Back in 2009, the Evolution and History of British Chinese Workforce was my first project to investigate the history of British Chinese. This project allowed me to bring a team to visit a few cities in the UK, starting from Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Morecambe Bay, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sheffield, to London Limehouse and Soho China Town, for the research of the early Chinese settlement in the UK.

Pencil sketches of the 8 members of the Chinese footprints project team:
Chungwen
Ryszard
Aubrey
Ricky
Haiping
Martin
Lucia
Kahfei
Members of the Chinese footprints project team, sketched by Ryszard © Ming-Ai (London) Institute

Bristol research trip

We set off from London to Bristol on 12 Dec 2009, weather forecast for the following days would be cold with risks of icy patches and snow but it did not cool down our excitement.  In this field trip, Aubrey picked up a new role as videographer while I was imitating as photographer. The two assistant project managers, Haiping and Martin acted like they are joining a tour. Ricky had his camera equipment as chief photographer was made to sit next to Kahfei, our volunteer driver. Ryszard bought his portable drawing kit to produce sketches for the interviewees and the team; Lucia the interviewer hanging an iPod on her had picked the best seat.

Site of the Bristol Merchant Venturers Society.
Site of the Bristol Merchant Venturers Society, which was a group of Bristol based investors who were pushing for the recruitment of Chinese indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations in British Guiana, from 1853. The Chinese people who moved to British Guiana would have never come to Bristol, but Bristol Merchants were heavily involved in their recruitment and shipping. © Ming-Ai (London) Institute

Bristol merchants recruited Chinese

The traffic was smooth so we reached Bristol by mid-day to meet up with Ben, our local researcher, who had done his research very well. We followed him to the Theatre (now a nightclub) where a female Chinese performer with magic act was reported to have appeared during 1892-1912. Then we came to the site of Bristol Merchant Venturers Society, which from 1853 was a group of Bristol based investors pushing for the recruitment of Chinese indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations in British Guiana. Guinea Street, which was named after the connection between Bristol and the trade in the West Indies, housed some slave traders and also a sugar refinery.

Guinea Street, Bristol
Guinea Street, which was named after the connection between Bristol and the trade in the West Indies. It housed some Slave traders and was also a sugar refinery. This is a site which would have dealt with sugar importations from the West Indies which in the later years of the trade would have involved Chinese labourers. © Ming-Ai (London) Institute

Pero's Bridge and Horfield

We continued to Pero’s Bridge, which stands a monument to an African Slave, but is also seen as a monument to Africans and Asians involved in the people trade. After the walking tour, we returned to the mini-bus and drove to the Horfield area where Hong Pang, one of the first prominent Chinese people in Bristol, owned and operated a laundry there, which is now a furniture shop.

Pero Bridge, Bristol
Pero's Bridge, which stands as a monument to an African Slave, but is seen as a monument to Africans and Asians who were involved in the people trade © Ming-Ai (London) Institute

Last stop the Downs

Before we bid farewell to Bristol for our journey to Cardiff, Ben took us to the top of the hill – the Downs – to look out across the river and down to the Avonmouth docks. The sun was setting and the scene was so beautiful. On the bus I had suggested that Haiping and Martin should be made responsible for their own researches by taking turns to be the city-guide during the whole trip. Today we started as individuals; from tomorrow we would work as a team.

A street in Horfield, Bristol
Visit to Horfield area which was the location of the laundry setup by Hong Pang who was one of the first prominent Chinese people in Bristol, now a furniture shop © Ming-Ai (London) Institute

The experience of this trip is influential as I have later developed further projects on the British Chinese - their lives, their works and their contributions in the UK, and the collection continues to grow. To find out their stories, please visit the British Chinese Heritage Centre.

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