China’s religious heritage stems from three great religio-philosophical
traditions: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The latter incursions
of Islam and Christianity have added to the wealth of Chinese
religious beliefs and practices and behind all these great movements
and pre-dating them lies a complex of folk-beliefs and customs
rooted in the dawn of Chinese civilization.
In view of this rich religious heritage it is, at first sight,
difficult to understand why the Chinese in Britain, despite being
here a long time, have never founded any religious institutions,
or even established a temple. The object of this article is to
explain why they have not done so.
The Chinese first came to Britain in East India Company ships
during the Napoleonic wars when Asian seamen were employed to
alleviate the dearth of British seamen impressed into the Navy.
The first settlements of Chinese in this country therefore tended
to be in the dockland areas of London, Liverpool and Cardiff (1).
London’s Chinatown began to build up in the 1880s, and this settlement,
like those in Liverpool and Cardiff, comprised both permanent
residents who served the needs of Chinese seamen and the Chinese
seamen themselves, residing only short-term while they awaited
berths in ships. The permanent residents, mostly from Kwangtung
Province in South China, and the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, constituted
the first wave. The typical Chinese immigrant before 1939 signed
on as a crew member on a Blue Funnel Line steamer in Hong Kong
and then jumped ship in London.
These early communities certainly kept Chinese religious festivals
alive (2). The most important of these were the celebration of
the Chinese New Year when the kitchen god returns to heaven to
report on the activities during the past year of each family,
and Ch’ing Ming, a spring festival. At the latter, graves of the
deceased were visited with offerings, graves were tidied up and
a communal feast ensued. One or two altars were also maintained
in Chinese lodging houses and in the headquarters of mutual-aid
societies. They were usually dedicated to Kuan-Yu, God of War
and Righteousness, a deity often associated with Triads (Chinese
secret societies). This is about as far as religious activity
went. In 1888, a Chinese Evangelical Mission was founded in London’s
Chinatown, having its own premises, Chinese warden and literature
in Chinese for distribution. It functioned until 1939 but had
little effect in converting the Chinese to Christianity.
There are three reasons why religious activity never developed
or became institutionalised in the early Chinatowns. First, there
was a dearth of Chinese women (there were only three living in
London’s Chinatown between the wars), and women are great supporters
of temple worship and religion generally. Second, because of this
dearth, the first generation of Chinese children tended to be
Anglo-Chinese, brought up in a British urban environment. Regarding
themselves as British they lacked interest in Chinese culture
and those who were religiously inclined went to Christian churches.
Third, there was considerable dispersal into towns all over England
and Wales out of these original settlements as the Chinese laundry
trade developed. The typical Chinese hand-laundry no longer survives
but between the wars there were about five hundred of them. Families
engaged in such work lived very isolated lives with little chance
of social contact with friends and relatives. In our day, the
Chinese restaurant and ‘Take-away’ trade has followed the same
pattern. The scattering of an ethnic group in this way effectively
prohibits the development of institutions which need collective
The most important reason, however, for the apparent religious
neutrality of the U.K. Chinese and the non-appearance of a single
Chinese Temple in Britain, has yet to be discussed. Of all the
various immigrant groups who have come to this country, the Chinese
alone have — until very recently — regarded themselves as sojourners
rather than settlers. Unless the ‘sojourner’ attitudes of U.K.
Chinese is grasped, it is almost impossible to understand anything
about their behaviour.
Until recently, no Chinese who came to this country intended
to die here. The intention was always to work very hard over a
number of years amassing wealth, some of which would be sent home
on a regular basis to support members of the immigrant’s family.
The bulk of the money earned over many years by a successful Chinese
entrepreneur would go back with him when he returned to his native
village a venerated and influential elder. Chinese therefore who
were interested in religion and wished to donate money to the
advancement of religious institutions, have always chosen to do
so when returning to the Clan village, rather than support the
construction of a temple, say, in Liverpool’s Chinatown which
they would eventually leave behind.
The sojourner then looks to his home village, rather than to
the British town of his adoption, as his real home, and looks
forward to returning there. From the Chinese point of view, it
makes good sense on return to the Clan village to donate money
to the construction or repair of the local temple or Clan Ancestral
Hall (often used for educational and religious purposes). Such
generosity earns respect, pleases the family, the Clan and the
local gods who are likely to reward the donor accordingly. Also,
and importantly, anyone constructing or repairing a temple (or
even the local bridge for that matter) out of private funds is
remembered into the future by having an appropriate plaque put
up in his honour often together with his picture or photograph.
Thus one’s name lives on.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that not all the Chinese who have
come to this country over the years have succeeded in amassing
enough wealth to return in old age to the ancestral village. The
large Chinese burial ground in the East London Cemetery commemorates
those who failed. These are the graves mentioned above which were,
until fairly recently, tended at Ch’ing Ming. The practice has
now died out. (3)
Since the end of World Ward II, a second wave of Chinese immigrants
has arrived. The enormous increase in the population of Hong Kong
(including the New Territories), partly occasioned by the Communist
revolution in mainland China, has resulted in an overspill into
the United Kingdom; a marked increase in immigration which had
quite stopped by 1939. Chinese in large numbers have also been
attracted to Britain (and Western Europe) since the war because
of the long and successful boom in the Chinese restaurant and
Whilst the old Chinatowns of London and Liverpool have long disappeared
under urban re-development schemes, there are now considerable
populations of these more recent arrivals in London, Liverpool,
Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. Because of the ease of modern
air travel they are now able to bring in their families. The first
generation children of these immigrants are fast becoming Anglicised
and many of the younger children who have been born here cannot
even speak a Chinese dialect. Given that Hong Kong itself must
return to Communist China in 1997 with all the uncertainties that
such a change entails, there is no doubt that large scale permanent
settlement can be expected. Thus the old ‘sojourner’ attitudes
Is there any evidence of religious activity among this large
and more recently arrived Chinese population? Apart from a number
of Chinese Christians who run their own church in London, there
is very little. For example, among the new Chinese institutions
which have sprung up, there are about thirty Chinese (part-time)
schools spread around the country (4). These schools are intent
on keeping the Chinese written language alive among young U.K.-born
Chinese but no attempts are made to teach Chinese culture or religion.
There are also a number of recently formed Chinese Associations
who do good work but have no interest at all in establishing any
centres for religious worship or discussion. Apart from perpetuating
the Chinese New Year celebration which has now become a purely
secular event, they never organise any activities of a religious
How can this lack of interest be explained? As one Chinese observer
has pointed out, many of the younger immigrants to Britain regard
any form of religion as pure superstition. ‘Only superstitious
women worship gods; all this worshipping is “mai sun” i.e. superstition’
(5). Again, many of the more recent arrivals come from locations
in the New Territories which, over the last ten or twenty years
have been transformed, through population growth, from villages
into urban centres. Such urbanisation is destructive of the old
Chinese folk religion, commonly practised in traditional village
life. Formerly, a village house would exhibit pictures of the
two door-gods on its door-posts for protection of the household
against evil spirits. On the floor near the door would be an altar
to the earth-god who protected the family and watched over their
behaviour. There might well also be an altar somewhere in the
house dedicated to the goddess of mercy, and the aforementioned
kitchen-god would reside in his appropriate place above the stove
in the kitchen. It is difficult to keep these traditions going
in a two-roomed flat on the fifteenth floor of a tower block.
Though old customs die hard as evidenced by the occasional round
mirrors over the doorways of ‘take-aways’, calculated to scare
off evil spirits, the Chinese these days exhibit little interest
in traditional beliefs. Most are still engaged in various aspects
of the catering trade which engrosses most of their time. They
tend to re-invest any wealth thus accumulated in more restaurants
rather than temples.
1. The Chinese in Britain: Origins and Development of a Community
Douglas Jones. New Community. Vol. VII No.3 Winter 1979.
2. Chinese Festivals and the Overseas Chinese Douglas Jones.
Shap Mailing I 1979.
3. The Chinese in London (p.67) Ng Kwee Choo, O.U.P. 1968.
4. Chinese Schools in Britain Douglas Jones. Trends in Education.
5. Op Cit Ng Kwee Choo (p.66).