Falling Leaves

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Falling Leaves


Admittedly it was frightening to explore the British Chinese diaspora, a community I care so strongly about; it feels like there is a stubborn weight to get it right, to be so careful as to not misrepresent a group of people whose stories and feelings are often muffled and met on the surface. Together with that idea, I look into how they identify themselves when settling in a different country with vastly distinctive traditions on both sides. I found that it brought comfort to realise identity (specifically cultural identity) can be an everexpanding journey, through the continual transformation and reinvention of yourself amongst your everyday practices (Hall, 1996). And without having a strict perspective of identity, we can also understand their selves through their traditions, interests and shared similarities. It is also important to learn that their differences are also a significant part of the makeup of the British Chinese community. This publication will aim to show four different perspectives on being a Chinese first generation immigrant in the UK. Each person will be interviewed on their first experiences living in the UK, their current feelings and where they feel at home most. However, the publication will also include some of their interest, what they like to do in either China or the UK, and bring insight into their character and how they’ve lived here. It tells their story through archival images, kept objects, music, and also through photography. The constant question throughout this process was how I can accurately portray these lives. Personally, this meant keeping close to the interviews I conduct and carefully curating the photographs and objects I display in the publication. It means showing them the publication before it’s made, letting them know that they have control over how their story is shown. Unfortunately, the way we look matters more than how we feel inside. The physical surface of how we appear is the first thing other people will see and so rarely do we have the chance to show the countless layers underneath. I felt supported by solace in the idea that I had an opportunity to relay this array of voices, to display these individual layers through image-making whilst also learning about my community. Preface

Thank you so much to my parents, Dandan and John, and also to Jenny and James - all of who were so generous in opening up about their history and current life and letting me photograph their home.

6 Dandan


8 My home is in North London. Even now, I’m not good at differentiating where my home is. Sometimes I feel like it’s still with my parents, at their flat back in Anhui.

But now, I also have my own home so it’s very confusing. I think of two places when being asked about home. One is the present, the other is the past, where the rest of my family are.



3RD MARCH 1994, When I first came, I felt there were a lot of differences, like a lot of flowers in Spring and nature was a big part of the UK. It felt like a different world.

I came here to visit my great auntie, my Mum and I arrived here together. I worked in China for two years after graduating in a manager department in the fashion business even though I initially did a fashion degree. Then my great auntie invited my Mum and me to go to the UK for a holiday in Unfortunately,Cambridge. my English wasn’t very good so I went to a language school in Cambridge. It was every weekday afternoon and I would travel there by bike for half an hour into Cambridge city, I would go back to my Great Auntie’s take away shop which was also my part-time job. This was also the first time where I had to study coins and notes in the UK currency, I had to be a cashier because I had no kitchen skills. English people were very nice, and sometimes when I was slow to count, they would be patient and sometimes chuckle in a nice way. It was a good memory for me remembering how silly I was.

I remember that time we would often go to my Great Auntie’s garden and plant flowers. They also had a dog but I really didn’t like him. We would go to the restaurants, but it was mainly Hong Kong dim sum. We would go shopping in Oxford street; even though it was shopping with my Great Auntie and not for myself, I always thought about how big they were and how tired we would be after walking for ages because of the number of shops. On the weekend, we would go to London Chinatown and it was a very happy time - we often went to the supermarkets and buy lots of Chinese groceries like tofu, dumplings, and sauces; this was because English supermarkets didn’t have any of those yet.



15 We would go back to Chinatown, with large and small shopping bigs to eat dinner. Afterwards, we would go back to a nearby casino and play around for a little bit before finally driving back to Cambridge.





21 Aubrieta.

Last year, our garden got a new fence, so I opened a new flower bed which was 12 metres long. It meant I bought over £1000 of flowers and plants, all of the different sizes. I also bought many flower foods and soils. During the summer, when I found that all my flowers had bloomed, I was so happy, It was the most looked forward moment of the day when I wake up in the morning and see which flowers have bloomed. I would go around the garden many times.









One night, the weather had become frosty overnight, and I remember being distraught that all my plants had wilted under the sudden change in weather. It felt very helpless, but I felt quite happy since it meant more empty spaces for more new flowers! Since spring is coming up, I’m looking forwards to small buds growing into large blooming flowers, and stems developing baby buds throughout the next few months.




My Great Auntie found me a job at a fashion factory in London, so I moved there and her friend picked me up to take me there. Despite learning fashion, I didn’t know how to use any of the facilities, or even cut patterns! So my only job was to pick up the loose threads and clean up the fabric scraps. It was around £70 a week. But, at the time, calling back home was very expensive. One time, I went to a phone booth and took a bag of one pound coins and would insert them consistently even though we only talked for a few moments. Letters took weeks, and calls were expensive, so I felt really lost and wasn’t sure how it would turn out but I felt hopeful since I was in a new place.

My August,returnedmuminsoIwasleft here to live the rest of my life.


36 Here I only have my children who have grown up with me. They are my only family here. Of course, I have a lot of friends here. I talk with London Zoo Home AnhuiHome Wuhu HomeMcdonald’s my parents every day, and that has been the same for 20 years.

37 Rarely, there are times when it is too busy to call, so I tell them the day before and we catch up the next day.


Aside from gardening, I like to cook as well. Right now, you can look up many recipes, and I love to change them up because of my long experience and create new dishes for my children to eat. When I was in China I didn’t need to learn since dishes were cheap to buy, and also very tasty. I went to food halls all the time, but it’s not the same in the UK. I liked to create very well known dishes, and even when it was difficult, I loved the challenge.

I’ve never made English dishes, I just don’t have the taste for it. I also don’t want to learn it so my children have only eaten Chinese dishes at home. My favourite dish is Hong Shao Rou ever since I was young. Whenever my Dad made it, I was super happy. We weren’t very wealthy so we could only eat it during New Year celebrations.


This isn’t because I wanted to eat it, but because it felt like I was back in China.


XIAO42 CHI 小 吃

In the UK, I don’t have many things I like to do specifically for fun. But I’ve realised my favourite thing to do is go to supermarkets. I also love gardening a lot. I plant flowers and have been preparing to grow Chinese vegetables too. I’m not perfect at it though, sometimes the ones I water every day and look after die very quickly, but some of them stay alive even though I don’t take much care of them. I also go to shopping centres sometimes too, but I usually end up buying things for my children, I think that automatically comes with being a Mother. They don’t always like the clothes I buy but I can’t seem to change my habits.



I’ve been in the UK for 28 years. I’ve only been in China for 25 and a half years. When I go back to China, it’s for a few weeks, and we go around to eat and meet friends, but never to settle down. So the feeling is different. Back in the UK, I feel safest in my home, since that’s my most comfortable

45 place. I’m also not used to the Chinese culture anymore, the past and the current mindsets are something I’m alien to. I feel like I’ve resonated with the British lifestyle most, even though I keep thinking China is home to me. But the place changes every time I go back, so it’s hard for me to distinguish where safety is.


My wish is to go to Central London for a day. I’ll take a bus and sightsee. When I see something fun I’ll get off and take another bus once I’m finished. Then I’ll walk by the buildings at the Thames, and go to the parks to take some rest. Eat at the nearby cafes. I want to experience that free feeling as if there are no responsibilities, and no one is waiting for me to cook dinner back home.


48 Jenny


51 Ancient Chinese Magic Teapot This is an imitation of the bottom filling teapot from the Northern Song Dynasty, around 618-960 AD.

If you look closely, there is only an opening at the bottom of the teapot and not at the top like there usually would be. The cup with the dragon head also has an opening at the bottom, and can only hold a specific amount of water. If too much is poured, the water is automatically drained through the bottom opening. They say that the Tang emperor would use this opportunity to present the cup to the newlywed prince and princesses as a metaphor for greed! If you look closely, there is only an opening at the bottom of the teapot and not at the top like there usually would be. The cup with the dragon head also has an opening at the bottom, and can only hold a specific amount of water. If too much is poured, the water is automatically drained through the bottom opening. They say that the Tang emperor would use this opportunity to present the cup to the newlywed prince and princesses as a metaphor for greed!



54 A brass censer with three legs. This container has a Foo Dog Lion lid with dragon handles.

55 It’s engraved with dragon balls around the main body.

56 We collected all our Chinese artefacts during lockdown.




I remember thinking London was so small compared to Beijing and the weather was so cold with no summer. Winter is too long, around half the year felt like Winter! However,` the people were so kind, even now. We appreciate everything they have done for our generation of immigrants. They were always willing to Wehelp.had free English lessons. I wasn’t able to get a proper job, so I managed to find a local church for free English lessons. Maybe it was free because there weren’t many foreigners here at the time, but we were very grateful. They really helped us back then.


62 Everything we did, we had to think of saving one penny.

I had a good job, and I met my husband. That time was a good lifestyle, every year was a holiday. Back then it wasn’t usual, so we were lucky to have enough to go. We just thought west was great, so we felt that we had to leave. At the start, it was definitely not. No family. No job, and didn’t understand culture or language so there was little experience. However, we believed we could be successful. As long as we were hardworking, we can have a good life. We had to persevere a lot. Thankfully, we don’t have any pressures anymore. We would go to restaurants to work, never to eat. I didn’t know how to cook, and I even cut your uncle’s hair. I couldn’t even call my parents, maybe only once a year. I think everyone could relate, we could only during the Chinese new year.

63 I think I’m happier here but it’s difficult to answer. In Beijing, everything felt good in terms because of Aftertradition.university,


66 I came in April 1990.


My husband came two years earlier- he didn’t want to go back to China because of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He stayed here with a work permit and trained at a law firm, which was the main reason to come here. Back then, every Chinese person wanted to go to a Western country, like the USA. Our mindset felt that any country is better than China.

68 photo of Jenny with Li Peng, former Premier of the People’s Republic of China 1987-1998

69 I studied law in China. After I graduated, I worked in a top government law firm in Beijing.



I like golfing and bridge.playingBeforethis,Iwasjusttakingcareofmychild.



There’s little chance we could live in China again, it’s too different. We don’t have pensions or health, there’s not much point since we have those things in the UK. The culture is way too different, and our perspectives are too opposite. My home is in London, I’ve lived 32 years here.

76 James


I came because my telecoms company wanted to transfer my team and me to another location but I wanted to see something I never tried. My girlfriend was also in the UK so I moved over here. Everything was just new. My language wasn’t very good, but my girlfriend at the time was there for support. I was a little scared, to avoid other people. But gradually it was nicer, the people were friendly but also not friendy, it just depended on the person.




Then it changed to Wasabi, I did deliveries on the first day but I had an accident on my motorbike. I was too slow because I didn’t know the maps, or the currency. It was too dangerous. In the morning I did wasabi, and in the evening I delivered yo sushi. It was a very popular job but I only did it once since accidents were too frequent.

Then I attended Southbank University, to study information systems management for an MA.

I attended language classes provided by the visa and then got a job. It was a Chinese medicine shop, but it sold everything - medicine, bags shoes everything in Walthamstow, East London.


During my master’s, I worked in MH Star UK. it was an online retail shop, and I was within Inmanagement.2013,Iquit another job because my son was born in China. So we lived there and joined the Bank of Tianjin. I returned the next year so my son had English Education. My second son, Min, was born in 2017 so I started EngLong Education.




There89 was a culture of saying many please and thank yous that surprised me when I first came here; they don’t have these traditions in China (this was in 2007 so it’s definitely changed since then). Booking appointments or in restaurants was different since I had a Chinese way communicating.of




I miss either country where I am. I make sure I meet old friends, I don’t mind going anywhere as long as I catch up. I have family here, but I video call, so it’s easy to talk to them.

I would say China is my home. If someone from the UK asked me, I would say London because that's where I am, but its not because of feeling. If my friend asked me, I would say China. But where I would retire? Probably China.


96 John




101 I came to the UK in 1968 when I was 17. My Father came first about one year prior. Since I was under 18, that meant I could join my Dad and live here.It’snot because I wanted to, but rather my Father did. Then my Mum came in 1971. My second brother came to the UK a couple of years after, and then the rest of my siblings came afterwards by 1973.


When I started working in Fashion, I realised there weren’t many Chinese people in that industry. I met your Auntie Sue and she didn’t like restaurants, so I also wanted to go into that. I had to learn cutting and pattern making and studied at London College of Fashion part-time at night. I learnt three courses, grading, textiles and pattern sewing - it also included English. Every Monday to Friday I finish work at the takeaway shop and go to the campus. It was a twoyear course so I was working very hard and then I learnt how to grade and study textiles, such as the type of fabrics so I could work in clothing. I worked with a Japanese designer and I think a few months later that company wanted to sell their factory so I bought it. It specialised in evening wear, such as Frank Usher. It was very exciting as there weren’t many Chinese people working in the clothing industry as most of them were in restaurants or takeaways, like how I started.It only had three machines but it meant I could start my own factorybusiness.fashion

My home is the UK. But I am always Chinese. I’ve been here for over 50 years so my home is here.

When I go back to China though, I talk with my friends- go back to memories and remember that joy but here I don’t talk about it here. The age gap between my siblings is very large, so even when they came here, I didn’t play with them much. But I was still happy that they came over here because they are family.



111 Ilovedtoplay Gameboy, especiallyTetris


30 yearsago,

114 30 years ago, we would go to Chinatown and scramble for TV recordings. It was our only entertainment on Sundays, which was our day off. We would have dim sum and dumplings and spend the week watching the TV recordings we managed to get.


117 I feel luckier because I get to see so many different things. I have different perspectives. Even if they are richer, I still feel like I have an advantage because I have been to other places and experienced new things. Despite there being cultural differences, I get to learn and be there first hand instead of watching it behind a TV. When I see people the same age as me back in Hong Kong or China,




One joking moment was when a customer came in and he was asking me something and I thought something was wrong. I told my uncle’s wife and told her that the customer didn’t feel well, then when she asked them it turned out he had just asked for water! But I got the words mixed up. My uncle made fun of me and proceeded to ask why I didn’t know English even though I was a waiter back in Hong Kong.Ionly had one day off from working and decided to use that day to study English at a college in St Albans, they had a course specifically for older people who wanted to learn English. It was a really good time and I would work so hard every night to review my work. Also, the restaurant is open all day long so I would take other people’s shifts and in return, they give me English lessons. Sometimes, I would listen to English lessons using the old recordings. I would rent these tapes from Foyles.

WHEN I CAME, MY ENGLISH WAS NOT SO GOOD. I worked in Hatfield because my uncle had a restaurant there, so when I came I just helped with washing up and as a waiter.




There’s this saying “falling leaves return to their roots”.

Because you are born here, you don’t have those memories or feelings about China. However, I grew up in China, so I always look forward to going back home, and even more as I get older, I feel more nationalist with age. When my Father passed away, the solicitor helping us with the will asked us why he went back to China- we all answered because he’s old. If he stays here, he’ll feel bored, but back in China, he feels the same culture and the same language and food.

Dad, do you want to go back to China when you’re older? Oh, I don’t think so. All my brothers and sisters are here, so it is different. But really because of my children and if I go back to China, I would be lonely.

Christina Poon

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