Bath’s Chinese history uncovered

The Fung You Lee family pictured before boarding the plane at Kong Kong in 1966.

We may all take our Chinese restaurants and take-aways for granted – as having been part of our street-scene for years – but to date no one has actually researched the subject of Chinese immigration to Bath and what history and heritage these newcomers from the East have.

Now, to strengthen its role in promoting cultural understanding, the Museum of East Asian Art has undertaken its first oral history project to trace and record that unexplored social ground.

Mrs Fung You Lee is a retired takeaway owner who has lived in Bath since 1978. She is pictured with some of her treasured family photos.
Mrs Fung You Lee is a retired takeaway owner who has lived in Bath since 1978. She is pictured with some of her treasured family photos.

Although it is possible that some Chinese or South East Asian people had already lived and worked in Bath, documentation for the Kingsmead Street Chinese laundry – around 1916 – is the oldest public example of a city presence that could be traced. That’s after searching local archives all the way back to the Georgian period. It is a solid proof that the Chinese have been members of the community for nearly a century.

Mr and Mrs Yuk Ching Chan. He was Bath's first Chinese bus driver and arrived in 1981. The couple are pictured with the tradition steamer they brought with them as it was thought to be a useful tool for making a living. Mr Chan's mother used them to make street food to help raise ten children back in Hong Kong.
Mr and Mrs Yuk Ching Chan. He was Bath’s first Chinese bus driver and arrived in 1981. The couple are pictured with the tradition steamer they brought with them as it was thought to be a useful tool for making a living. Mr Chan’s mother used them to make street food to help raise ten children back in Hong Kong.

Ten interviewees who have made Bath their homes took part in the project. They shared their stories and experiences from being a stranger to a member of the local community. The interviewees came from different parts of Asia and arrived in the Uk at different times.

Each of their stories is unique and represents different demographic examples over the past fifty years. Portraits of these people with some of their treasured possessions forms part of a new exhibition called Eastern Voices in the West Country which opens tomorrow (January 18th) at the Museum in Bennet Street – near The Circus.

Ling Roper is a bed and breakfast owner who has lived in Bath since 2000. A Jade pendant and Pu'er tea are two of her treasures and a constant reminder of her roots.
Ling Roper is a bed and breakfast owner who has lived in Bath since 2000. A Jade pendant and Pu’er tea are two of her treasures and a constant reminder of her roots.

It also includes a 20-minute video and stories from the public that relate to Chinese history in Bath. There is also archive material from newspapers relating to Chinese people who lived in Bath during the early 20th century.

The video was shot by Bath on TV and can be accessed on their web-siteĀ http://www.bathontv.co.uk/tracing-the-chinese-history-of-bath/

The project has been supported by a Bath and North East Somerset Performance Reward Grant and is complimented by a separate exhibition called Treasures which draws from the Museum’s collection to explore the idea of ‘treasures’ according to different circumstances. It showcases objects that were highly regarded by ancient Chinese states and Chinese collectors – as well as people outside China.

Some of these objects were valued for their symbolic and religious properties and others for their technical virtuosity or historical references.

The distinctive front door at The Museum of East Asian Art
The distinctive front door at The Museum of East Asian Art

Their monetary value was not always high and could change through time and different geographical areas. While rusty bronzes might not have been the most popular collectible outside China, they were highly treasured by ancient Chinese states and Confucian scholars. Ceramics, which were sought after within and outside China, could be very different in style and often reflected each region’s own aesthetics.

The exhibitions close on June 29th this year. Check out the Museum’s website on http://www.mea.org.uk