When we asked the British Chinese community what they could recall from children’s storybooks, the answer was never themselves. If children’s fiction instil from such a young age this lack of representation, when will British Chinese children be accepted? When will others realise they are not different? Will their stories eventually be told and accepted openly by their peers?
People from the community share their struggles with establishing identities, being classed as model minorities and wanting to experience an inclusive reality.
Nicola Lau, 21, always felt like she was a little bit different. Nikki went to an English school. When she looked around her classroom, she saw a sea of white faces. Faces that did not resemble hers. It was the same in storybooks. She remembered picking up The Tiger who Came to Tea. Nikki saw a little blonde girl have cream cakes with cherries on top for tea.
“I wondered why there were so many cakes on the table,” says Nikki. “My mum hated when we ate sweet stuff because it wasn’t good for us. We would have fruit instead.”
Nicola Lau as a child
Nikki read books about Christmas and watched her friends’ faces light up when they talked about presents.
“Everyone would ask what I got as a present. I got money, a red envelope. I remember making up that I got presents, which is a bit sad,” says Nikki.
Something changed when Nikki discovered Elmer the Patchwork Elephant. Elmer was colourful. It made other elephants stare at him from under their simple grey skin.
“I really liked Elmer because it talked about an elephant being a little bit different from everyone else and I did feel a bit like that at school. They all celebrated their differences at the end,” says Nikki. “I would like to see storybooks with backgrounds similar to mine, because I did feel a lot of it was unrelatable.”
Michelle Chai, 31, writer.
Michelle Chai, 31, a British-Chinese writer, often sought to see herself in books she read as a child. She was lucky to find New Year Race, a tale of a race held for the twelve animals of the lunar calendar. Michelle turned to her friend to share her excitement, but she stopped herself. She realised she could not.
“I always felt like an outsider,” says Michelle. “You quickly learn as a kid when you say something and others can’t relate to it, you start to close off about it. I felt like I didn’t have a root somewhere because my experiences weren’t shown anywhere.
“That representation would have been invaluable in cementing my identity. I remember feeling like there must have been two halves of me. One side that was more British and one side that was more Chinese. So you start to think, whereabouts do I fit in?”
The British-Chinese population is not a newly established one. The first recorded Chinese visitor in Britain was in 1687, from which the population has now grown to nearly 400,000 people that make up 0.7 per cent of the UK. Despite the prominent history of the community, stereotypes persist.
Last year, David Walliams’ book Brian Wong Who Was Never Ever Wrong received significant backlash for its racist connotations and stereotypical illustrations. David’s first mistake was in the title itself by comparing the Chinese name ‘Wong’ to the word ‘wrong’. The book plays on the model minority trope about a nerdy and smart Chinese boy. The illustrations gave Brian straight lines for eyes, thick-framed glasses and fine black hair. The story was eventually withdrawn, but its effects remain.
“It impacts a person’s self-esteem,” says Eva Wong Nava, British Chinese children’s storybook author. “Even if you come from a loving family, you go into a predominantly white environment where you are being made fun of because your name sounds like ‘wrong’.”
Eva grew up on a diet of books such as Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew.
“In these books, I have never seen myself represented,” says Eva. “I never even questioned it. These things did not become important to me until I became a mum.”
Eva Wong Nava, children’s storybook author.
Eva bought her children books like the Gruffalo and The Hungry Caterpillar like all English parents did.
“And again I didn’t think, why isn’t there a Chinese person in these books?”
So Eva would make up stories from her own childhood.
“I would tell my daughters stories about The Monkey King, and pepper these with characters like them or like me so they wouldn’t feel left out.”
In 2020, nearly 6,000 children’s books were published in the UK. Yet, only 15 per cent featured characters of colour. Seven per cent of children’s fiction books had an ethnic minority main character. Less than one per cent of these characters were Chinese. The issue persists despite vast Chinese communities prevalent across the globe. This creates what Eva calls ‘hyphenated identities’.
“British Chinese are made up of a diaspora,” says Eva. “My children identify as Singaporean, Chinese and British. They have hyphenated identities. I’m beginning to see more people with hyphenated identities who really want to see themselves represented in books. It became important for me to write books that have these representations.”
Left & above: Eva Wong Nava’s storybooks
Telling such a story does not come without its obstacles. A predominantly white publishing industry being just one of them.
“The problem lies in the publishing industry itself, and its willingness and unwillingness to overlook people like me,” says Eva. “It’s not a monoculture we live in, whereas England pretends it is.”
So what does representation mean to a child?
“If we only ever see the Chinese boy represented as the character of ridicule, what else is that child going to think?” says Dr Audrey Tang, 46, a British-Chinese chartered psychologist. “Characters had dark hair if they were evil and other coloured hair if they were good. It can’t help but affect you.
“What you are getting now for Chinese is an appearance. It has nothing to do with their culture. We have got to understand why we use books at all. It’s a form of escapism and learning, but also building empathy and compassion. The child no longer needs to make excuses or explain themselves because everyone has read the story, everyone gets it, it’s normal.”
Dr Audrey Tang, 46, chartered psychologist.
Team of sisters who run De Ziremi. Delicia Ong on the far left, Michal Ong on the far right.
De Ziremi book collection.
Chinese children’s books were almost impossible to find for mum of two, Michal Ong, 35.
“During lockdown my husband was reading English books to my daughter. She was so engaged with it but I found no Chinese books that I could buy,” says Michal. “Then I decided, let’s start a bookshop.”
De Ziremi is an online bookstore selling bilingual storybooks by authors in Chinese communities across the world. Michal runs the business alongside her sisters Delicia Ong, 22, Zipporah Ong, 34 and Rebecca Ong, 29.
Delicia highlighted a book called Lele Goes Out to Play, the story of a boy and his monkey who walk through the streets of Hong Kong to visit a playground. There he finds an elderly lady using a tai chi wheel, a Chinese exercise tool. He addresses her as po po, meaning grandma. This remains narrated po po in the English version.
“In the English translation, it’s like why are you calling this stranger your grandma? For us, that’s a sign of respect. You call everyone ‘aunty’ or ‘grandma’,” says Delicia. “Being able to hear and see yourself in a book is really important because that’s something that will stick with you.”
Representation means something. It means Nikki would never have had to walk into school and stand there in panic thinking of a million reasons why she did not receive a Christmas present. It means we start including an integral part of the United Kingdom: the British Born Chinese.