“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


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