top of page

The Drummer in the Background Keeping Cadence: Micro- and macro-histories of "Chinese" migrants in Britain by Professor Gregory B. Lee, University of St Andrews


ESEA Lecture Series - December 2023

The Drummer in the Background Keeping Cadence: Micro- and macro-histories of "Chinese" migrants in Britain

By Gregory B. Lee, Founding Professor of Chinese Studies, University of St Andrews

This lecture will address the experience of Chinese migrants in Britain from the early twentieth-century to today. Until very recently that experience was left largely untold, the migrants themselves condemned to voicelessness by an enforced and often self-imposed omertà. The long history of white representations of Chinese and Chineseness still dominates and feeds Anti-Asian racial prejudice and hatred today. But who is qualified to tell this story? Who may legitimately tell the story of untold pasts, the history of ghosts. The descendants of those ghosts are the inheritors of such stories. And as inheritors seeing "ourselves as the watcher or the listener", we reinvent and relive these stories like a "drummer in the background keeping cadence" (Michael Ondaatje,Divisadero, 164).


The lecture will seek to convey the lived realities behind the "Chinese-looking" faces that have been exoticized, yellow-faced, vilified, and romanticized, for behind the pantomime caricatures, the cartooned faces, the clichéd popular musical allusions, lie the real lives of the British Chinese: the laundry-workers, the takeaway-owners, the seafarers, but also the doctors, the writers, the artists, and the footballers and the ball-room dancers.


The desired EDI outcome of this lecture is to impart a deeper understanding of the lived experience of "the Chinese" in Britain, and of the stereotypes that we must seek to avoid and ultimately eliminate.


Keywords: Chinese, British Chinese, migrants, representation, stereotypes, twentieth century, twenty-first century

If you used these resources, we would love to hear your thoughts and feedback! This will help us improve content, and more importantly, allow us to continue funding ESEA Hub. 

bottom of page