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'It has been a really difficult time': An interview with Sarah Ng of Sheffield Chinese Community Centre

The Chair of Sheffield Chinese Community Centre tells us about the history of the Chinese community in Sheffield – and the incidents of race hate it has experienced since the Covid-19 outbreak.

Sarah Ng Sheffield Chinese Community Centre

Sarah Ng from Sheffield Chinese Community Centre.

Sheffield has a long and proud history of being a multicultural city, with people from all over the world coming to live and work in the area and becoming part of the fabric of the community.

Sheffield’s Chinese community dates back to the 1940s, originally focussing on the hospitality sector. More recently, both Sheffield universities have worked hard to attract a significant number of undergraduate students from China and the connection has been further strengthened by the funding of the New Era development at St Mary’s Gate.

Given the contribution that the Chinese community has made to the city, it’s all the more abhorrent that there have been a number of race hate incidents in Sheffield linked to Covid-19 and the anti-Chinese rhetoric espoused by some politicians. In one recent incident, on 25 April, a female Chinese student was physically assaulted and abused on Fargate. (You can read more about this incident and sign a petition against race hate crimes here.)

I spoke to Sarah Ng, Chair of the Sheffield Chinese Community Centre, to learn more about the Chinese community in Sheffield, to find out how the community was coping with both the pandemic and the recent race hate incidents, and to discuss what more needs to be done to support the community as we come out of lockdown.

Can we start by talking about the development of the Chinese community in Sheffield? When does this date from?

The first significant wave of immigration, primarily from Hong Kong, was in the 1940s, when people arrived to establish the first Chinese restaurants in the city.

The Chinese community remained fairly small until the 60s, when there was a growing interest in food from other cultures and many more Chinese people came. At the same time students began to arrive from Singapore and Malaysia, and there was a subsequent immigration from Vietnam after the end of the war in that country.

Most Chinese people from the first wave of immigration spoke little English, as they were working long hours and often late at night, so they did not have the opportunity to attend night school. However the younger generations have attended school in the city, so they have had a very different experience and have grown up bilingual.

Over the last ten years, both Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam Universities have also been very proactive recruiting students from China, and the total Chinese population in the city, including students, is now approximately 10,000.

Sheffield Chinese Community Centre

Sheffield Chinese Community Centre, London Road.

Unlike many other English cities with a significant Chinese community, Sheffield doesn’t have a distinct 'Chinatown' area. Is there a reason for this?

Yes – it relates to the pattern of immigration into the city during the last century.

Chinese people who arrived in the city to set up a restaurant or takeaway were not wanting to set up in competition with previous immigrants, and so they chose locations where there was not an existing Chinese takeaway. As a result the Chinese community in Sheffield is spread across the city, rather than located in one area.

When was the Sheffield Chinese Community Centre established?

As the Chinese community in the city grew, there was recognition that there needed to be a focal point for the community, where people could come together, both to socialise and to also access advice and support.

Fundraising started in the late 80s and the Centre was formally opened in 1995. Since then, the Centre has provided a gathering place for the Chinese community, offering services including health and mental health support, welfare advice, language and education and working across all age groups.

The Centre also plays an important role as an advocate for the Chinese community and a bridge between the community and the city as a whole.

Clearly the last 18 months have been a difficult time for the community, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also the subsequent increase in race hate incidents.

It has been a really difficult time. To begin with, as the pandemic developed, the Chinese community were in the same position as everyone else, trying to deal with all the worry about health issues and also trying to cope with businesses having to lockdown.

However we then found that we had to deal with not only the pandemic, but the misinformed race hate incidents related to this.

Early in 2020, a Chinese student was abused for wearing a face mask. Since then, there have been a number of incidents where Chinese people has been abused, either on the streets or in their place of business.

Are you able to give some idea of the scale of the race hate incidents? What action has been taken?

It’s difficult to give a really accurate picture in terms of numbers. Anecdotally we have heard of a lot of stories, but many Chinese people do not want to escalate the situation by formally reporting what has happened.

At the Centre we do encourage anyone who has been the subject of a race hate incident to report this, and I would have to say that our experience with South Yorkshire Police and the Community Safety Team has been very positive. Both agencies have taken this issue of hate crimes seriously and have done what they can to support the individuals concerned.

Politicians like Donald Trump have tried to scapegoat the Chinese community in relation to Covid-19. Does what is said on a global stage have much impact locally?

Unfortunately it really does. We have had incidents where children have been bullied or abused by other children using phrases that have been directly copied from what they have seen in the news or on social media.

The BBC had a report which showed Chinese children being scared to go back to school after lockdown as they were worried they were going to be blamed for Covid-19. Listening to young children saying these things was really heartbreaking.

There is still a lot of work to be done in schools in terms of safeguarding children against bullying and racism. This needs urgent attention from all levels of the city.

What have you been able to do to support the Chinese community in Sheffield?

We have been active on a number of fronts. As well as our general advice service, we provide support to school children through the two Chinese language schools in the city.

We also have contacts with the Chinese student groups in both universities and we liaise with the Council and other agencies, ensuring that an effective reporting and supportive system is in place for the community.

We have also linked up with Voluntary Action Sheffield and other voluntary and community groups to raise awareness of the issues faced by the Chinese community.

What has the response been like from other agencies?

Where we have been able to talk directly with other organisations we have had a really positive response. It is really important for us to raise awareness of these race hate incidents so that we can all take action to stop this now.

For decades the Chinese community has played an important role in our multicultural city. As we start to come out of lockdown, we need to make sure that we all stand together, and that Sheffield remains a cohesive community. It is so important that everyone takes a strong stance against racism and hate crime.

Learn more

Sheffield Chinese Community Centre, 157-159 London Road, S2 4LH.
0114 258 8863.

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