“You can kill these Chinese”: hostility to Chinese immigrants in the early twentieth century

Much was made of Frank Soo’s Chinese parentage when he started out as a professional footballer, although only one of his parents was Chinese. According to his nephew, John Soo, “Frank’s father came from Canton in China when he was very young. Over the years he was looked after by the Chinese community in Manchester. That’s where he met his wife, an English girl.” His parents’ marriage certificate states that Frank’s father, Quan Soo (Our Quong Soo on the document) was 24 years old in 1908 and Frank’s grandfather was recorded as Cooi Quong, a farmer, presumably back in China.

CoM church
St Luke’s, Chorlton on Medlock

So into what kind of atmosphere did the young laundry workers, Quan Soo and Beatrice Whittam, find themselves following their marriage at St Luke’s church, Chorlton on Medlock in Manchester? Many Chinese men had immigrated to the north west of England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often arriving as merchant seamen at the ports of Manchester and Liverpool having quite literally worked their passage over from China. Some of them settled down in those cities as work was available in the docks and running small businesses, particularly laundries. At that time, Manchester had a lot of Chinese laundries – a total of 351 in 1911. This was despite there being a very small number of Chinese-born people resident in England and Wales at that time. The census records only 1,319 in total, all but 87 of them male.

Racial stereotyping was common from the beginning, as were the same contradictory attitudes that seem to follow foreign immigrants everywhere they go and fuel hostility towards them. The newly-arrived Chinese were regarded as “dirty foreigners” but were the go-to people for cleaning and pressing your clothes to the highest standards, they were “lazy” but at the same time they were after your job, by their cunning and willingness to work harder for less pay.

In Liverpool, among other cities, the resentment turned to threats of violence, and probably actual violence. Chinese labour became a major issue in the 1906 election in the area. It was a shameful episode in the history of British trade unionism, which was mostly protectionist and aggressively hostile to immigrant workers, causing socialist writer, Graham Wallas, to comment that ”anyone who saw much of politics in the winter of 1905/6 must have noticed that the pictures of Chinamen on the hoardings aroused among many of the voters, an immediate hatred of the Mongolian racial type.” On 4 December 1906, the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser published the following item, entitled LIVERPOOL’S CHINESE INVASION, which demonstrates the attitude of some people in the region towards Chinese immigrants at around the time of Quan and Beatrice’s marriage:

The Central Council of the Liverpool Working Men’s Conservative Association, last evening, indignantly denounced the influx of Chinese into the city. Mr. Thomas Atkinson, vice-chairman, and a Labour magistrate, said these foreigners were sweaters, and deprived Englishmen of employment and livelihood. Mr. T. Garrett, member of the Liverpool Select Vestry [i.e. who ran the workhouses], said the Guardians had to maintain many indigent foreigners and therefore to increase the rates. Mr. J. Scott said the Chinese, by working for low wages, often really drove our own people into the workhouse. Men working at the docks knew they were coming in daily by twos and threes. Mr. Joseph Ashcroft… urged the boycotting of Chinese laundries, declaring: ‘If you can kill the soap combine, you can kill these Chinese.’

Such intemperate language must have been a cause of real worry to young families hoping to earn a decent living in the area. Local newspapers, too, did not help matters. In addition to the stereotypical portrayal of the Chinese labourer who was out to steal jobs, there were accusations of criminality, dishonesty, and in some cases, involvement in opium dealing. Stories such as the one reported in the Manchester Courier on 8 April 1913 were common. Reporting the trial of a number of Chinese men following a police raid on a laundry in Chorlton-upon-Medlock, alleged to have been used as a front for illegal gambling, its headline told readers of a ”motley crowd of Orientals figures in the dock.” The reporter managed to also find time to have some fun mocking the defendants’ names. A Sheffield newspaper reported of the same case that the men were very well dressed, “despite the fact that they were all laundrymen.” The fact that being a laundry worker probably meant that you knew how to scrub up fairly well had not occurred to that particular writer.

A further cause of hostility was the apparent attraction these young Chinese workers held for local women. Many Lancashire women married into the Chinese community, only to be ostracised by their own families. White women who married Chinese men in this period were widely regarded as ”low,” promiscuous and involved with drugs. British nationals who became the wives of immigrants automatically became aliens upon marriage, losing their British nationality, under legislation such as the Aliens Act of 1905, which cut them off from the mainstream of society even further. These tensions rose to the surface in 1906 and 1907 – the year before Quan and Beatrice married – when a commission was appointed to inquire into the Liverpool Chinese settlement and their relationships with white women which, according to Gregor Benton and Edmund Terence Gomez’s book, The Chinese in Britain, 1800 to the present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) “the press described as scandalous.” Benton and Gomez go on to say that this commission “concluded that women married to Chinese were ‘happy and contented and extremely well treated’ but that the Chinese had ‘frequent illicit intercourse with white women’ and seduced under-age girls. [Hmmm, this is beginning to sound familiar.] Liverpool’s Head Constable told the Home Office of the ‘strong feeling of objection to the idea of a half caste population which is resulting from the marriage of Englishwomen to Chinese.’ However he himself blamed the ill will on commercial rivalry: ‘The Chinamen have no difficulty in getting English women to marry them, and in all these relations they treat women well, they are sober, they do not beat their wives, and they pay liberally for prostitution. Unfortunately there are many women whose home surroundings are bettered by marriage or cohabitation with them.… I cannot help feeling that was really at the bottom of most of the resentment is a competition of the Chinese with the laundry and boarding housekeepers.’”

Even after the First World War, during which over 140,000 Chinese men worked for the British and French in the Chinese Labour Corps – estimates of deaths range from ten to twenty thousand and the survivors were repatriated – the early twentieth century equivalent of the Sidebar of Shame publicised prurient tales about “the lure of the Yellow man” who was busy “hypnotising” British women.

it must have been a bizarre environment for a young couple like Beatrice and Quan to start a family in. They certainly had a long, and apparently happy, marriage, which produced six sons and a daughter, and only ended with Quan’s death in 1962. Whatever the reasons for moving their young family to the beautiful but remote Derbyshire moorlands where Frank was born in 1914, it would not be surprising if one motive had been to escape from the growing resentment of their neighbours in Manchester.

Chorlton on Medlock High Street
Chorlton on Medlock High Street


If you can help fund my project to publish the biography of Frank Soo, please visit my Crowdfunder page.




Anthem for a lost cause: the claim for Wartime & Victory Internationals to be made official

Soo 1942One of the reasons I wanted to write about Frank Soo – and there are many – is that, although he played nine times for England, he never received an official England cap. This is an oversight which ought to be put right. It seems unfair that players whose international careers were affected by the outbreak of war should not have their achievements recognised. In Frank’s case, all of the nine games he played for England were categorised as Wartime or Victory Internationals and were classified as “unofficial” by the Football Association. It was generally acknowledged at the time that Frank would have played for his country more often, but he was often unavailable because of his RAF duties. It’s still difficult to understand why he was never picked for England after 1945 however.

Many footballers who played in these matches were aggrieved that they did not count as England caps, even stars like Billy Wright who went on to play for England 105 times in total, but still missed out on the five more caps which should have been awarded for his Victory Internationals. Among the many other brilliant players who lost out were Raich Carter (17 appearances in wartime or victory internationals), Stan Matthews (29), Tommy Lawton (23) and Joe Mercer (27), but for those whose only appearances in an England shirt were in this series of “unofficial” matches, the unfairness seems much greater.

The first wartime international was played at Ninian Park, Cardiff on 11 November 1939. The gate receipts were donated to the Red Cross and St John’s War Organisations appeal and it was advertised as a charity game. This fundraising aspect of the international series continued although there’s no doubt that the spectators who packed stadia like Hampden Park and Wembley felt every bit of the passion and rivalry that characterised internationals before and after the war.


In the match played at Hampden Park on 17 April 1943, brothers Leslie and Denis Compton were the star attraction. They were the first siblings to play for England since the 1880s and Denis, who played for Arsenal as well as being one of the best England cricketers, was a star almost on a par with David Beckham in our era, with lucrative advertising contracts and press photographers following his every move, on or off the pitch. He had even been photographed signing his call-up papers when he joined the army. The Comptons earned many honours between them, but none of Denis’ England appearances were regarded as “official.” An injured knee curtailed his football career.

This clip of a match at Hampden in April 1945 when England beat their hosts, Scotland 6-1 in front of 133,00 people gives an idea of the atmosphere of these wartime matches. As the war drew to a close the atmosphere became even more celebratory and Victory internationals were played against France, Belgium and Switzerland. Many players were still serving in the forces, although most of the stars had been deployed as PT instructors, a few had seen active combat. Thousands of the spectators had also served their countries too, of course. Before the matches the players lined up to shake hands with King George VI, King Haakon of Norway, Charles de Gaulle and other representatives of the Allied nations.

Among those players who only played in the unofficial matches were Joe Bacuzzi of Fulham, who was from Islington, the son of Italian parents. During the 1960s, his son David Bacuzzi would play for Arsenal, Manchester City and Reading. John Balmer was a Liverpool player who had played in the same scholboy teams as Frank Soo in West Derby and had a great career with Liverpool, but played in only one wartime international. Very few of the best players, however, were denied a “full” England cap, even players of lesser talent than Frank Soo. Not long before the war, in April 1938, a sports journalist had written about Frank not being selected for England: “Soo stood out so high above the others on Saturday that one wonders what he really has to do to be officially acknowledged the best wing-half in England today – he is already officially acknowledged to be that, on those grounds that have seen him in the last two or three months. His right to international honours has been overlooked in the past in such a way that we are tired of hoping for the best for him.… Soo is playing better now, since taking steps captaincy, than ever he has done in his career.” It was not an uncommon view.

ronald soo
Flight Sergeant Ronald Soo, of 166 Squadron (1920-1944)

The last unofficial international match was played in Paris on 19 May 1946 and as subsequent internationals were regarded as official, players were awarded their caps. Despite still being praised by journalists, fans and fellow players alike, as being one of the greatest players, Frank Soo was never picked for England again. He believed that his “Chinese blood” was a factor in this, and although a great deal of the contemporary press coverage was very favourable to him, I believe there was an element of open racism in some newspapers which raised the question of his eligibility to play for England, regardless of the fact that his mother was Lancashire-born. She would have lost her English nationality upon her marriage to Frank’s father anyway, under the Aliens Act of 1905.  All five Soo brothers served in the RAF during the Second World War. One, Ronald, was killed when his bomber crashed in Germany in 1942. Still the atmosphere in Britain post-war was not well-disposed – or even grateful – to the Chinese, many of them merchant seamen who had risked their lives for Britain. Many were deported in 1946-7, despite having settled in the UK and having children there. Heartbreakingly, some families were forcibly split up forever.

So the prospects for Frank Soo at such a time, when English football was dominated by Stanley Rous, then secretary of the FA, a man who would later become a notorious supporter of the apartheid system in South Africa, were probably not good. Given that the war had robbed Frank of the best years of his club career – he was 32 when he was “demobbed” in April 1946 – it seems wrong that his double service to his country, in uniform and on the football field, has never been properly acknowledged.


Please help raise funds for my book and campaign, if you can: the Frank Soo project.








Frank Soo Update

The project is only a few days old and there has been a huge response, both in terms of pledges and interest. I think that I can safely say the Frank Soo biography is going to be published.

Yesterday, this article about him was published on the Football Pink website provoked a great deal of interest. It also provoked me to make another attempt to change the incorrect name on his Wikipedia Page. Although it always seems to accept the correction, it keeps reverting back. Watch this space. I’m determined to make them get it right.

You can help the Frank Soo Project at crowdfunder.co.uk/frank-soo-footballs-forgotten-genius