10 great films about Chinese people in the UK

With the festivities under way for Chinese New Year, we tell the story of cinema’s changing depiction of Chinese Britain in these 10 essential films.

Dylan Cave
Updated:

She, a Chinese (2009)

She, a Chinese (2009)

To celebrate Chinese New Year – the Year of the Sheep – we present a list of 10 features exploring the lives and stories of Chinese people in the UK. There are records of Chinese settlement in Britain that date back to the late 1600s, when small Chinese communities emerged in the UK. The 1851 census recorded notable populations of British people with Chinese heritage living in Liverpool, London and areas of Wales. Although the actual numbers of Chinese migrants has always been modest, Britain’s first significant Chinatown emerged in London’s Limehouse during the 1880s. Journalistic reports of the community’s size, as well as the danger it posed to British society were wildly inflated, yet their alarmist reportage was persuasive and fed into the way Chinese people were portrayed in British newspapers, books and film.

It is from this populist but inaccurate perspective that we begin our top 10. Many early fiction films about China have deeply offensive images of Chinese people. The worst offenders have not made our list – they’re often lousy movies too – but a few of the earlier films included here do contain problematic depictions. The way the British Chinese diaspora was presented in UK film slowly developed and, eventually, films began to celebrate the cultural enhancements that the Chinese community brought to British culture. 

For consistency, the list has fairly rigid parameters – these are feature films, currently available in the UK about the Chinese community in Britain. It means we’ve had to leave off some fascinating British titles such as Richard Quine’s The World of Suzie Wong (1960). About a love triangle between a Hong Kong prostitute (a brilliant Nancy Kwan), an American artist (William Holden) and an entitled bank manager’s daughter (Sylvia Syms), the film was mostly shot at Borehamwood. But the action takes place entirely in Hong Kong and says nothing about the UK Chinese diaspora. We’ve left off titles like the Hammer studios/Shaw Brothers co-production The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) for similar reasons.

Many of the films deal with the experiences of Chinese economic migrants, and there’s a common theme that carries over the movies across the decades, with many of the characters in search of some human connection, bonding and companionship. This shared theme is perhaps a product of the vast distances that Chinese migrants have travelled between China and the UK, the gulf between east and west, the space between spiritual and adopted home.

Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Director D.W. Griffith

Broken Blossoms (1919)

Broken Blossoms (1919)

D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms was not filmed in the gritty Limehouse location it so vividly depicts, but in the sunshine of California. Richard Barthelmess plays Cheng Huan, an idealistic Chinese émigré who falls for Lucy (Lillian Gish), the girl who lives near his shop in London’s East End. Griffith made the film after the grandiose ambition of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) and it seems a modest tale by comparison. But actually Broken Blossoms reminds us of Griffith’s cinematic mastery of high emotion. In one famous moment Gish is frantic, trapped in a cupboard under attack from her sadistic adopted father – the brutal ‘Battling’ Burrows, played by Donald Crisp. Her terrified reaction against the axe-wielding Crisp shocked all on set, apparently prompting Griffith to exclaim: “My God, why didn’t you warn me you were going to do that?”

Limehouse is expertly recreated in the film, a feat of claustrophobic production design, contained framing and exquisite lighting, but what of the Chinese community? Amid a torrent of broad, stereotyped images of Chinese people, Richard Barthelmess is beautifully subtle and dignified as Cheng Huan. His Chinese shopkeeper, and the tender relationship he forms with fellow lost soul Lucy, is a rare sympathetic portrayal for 1919. Griffith is more even handed in Broken Blossoms than in the racially troubling The Birth of a Nation but the film is still problematic. To modern audiences it is jarring that Cheng Huan isn’t played by a Chinese actor. In 1936 Griffith planned to remake the film for the British Twickenham Film Studios, but it was ultimately handled by German director John Brahm. Alas, yet again, the Chinese role went to a non-Chinese actor, Welshman Emlyn Williams.

Piccadilly (1929)

Director E.A. Dupont

Piccadilly (1929)

Piccadilly (1929)

Often set in drug dens, nightclubs and East End hideaways, silent-era films generally depict the Chinese community in unflattering terms, defined by vice and illicit pleasure. Most of the films from this period are directed by white British filmmakers and many of the Chinese characters are played by white actors in heavy makeup. A notable exception is Piccadilly, one of the great surviving British silents.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of 1920s multicultural London and offers one of the few early cinematic portrayals of a rounded, compelling Chinese British character in Shosho (Anna May Wong), a nightclub dishwasher whose exotic dancing leads to fame, fortune and notoriety.  Set in Soho, the film seems to predict the Chinatown that grew up around Gerrard Street in the 1960s. It’s been suggested that this is probably because German director E.A. Dupont knew little about the precise location of London’s 1920s Limehouse, rather than excellent foresight. Nevertheless, the film offers a more nuanced representation of London’s Chinese community than many other films from the period, and even countenances an interracial love affair.

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)

Director Don Sharp

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)

Perhaps the most troubling portrayal of the Chinese diaspora in the UK is the figure of Dr Fu Manchu. Created by Sax Rohmer in 1912, he embodies almost every anxiety about East Asian people that the British held through exaggerated journalistic reports about Britain’s debauched Chinatown. A ruthless criminal, the evil doctor holds humanity in contempt, planning world domination from his Limehouse lair but actually spending most of his time pursuing his arch-rival, Scotland Yard’s Denis Nayland Smith. Unlike other films on this list, the Fu Manchu cycle has little concern with connectivity and relationships. The megalomaniac doctor wants precisely the opposite. He is a figure of absurd extremity, and his depiction has caused controversy over the years, with the Boris Karloff starring The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) repeatedly denounced as offensive and demeaning. 

Of the British movies, an elaborate silent serial was a huge success around the country in 1923, with film magazine The Bioscope relating how “Harry Agar-Lyons, in the guise of the Chinaman (Fu Manchu), created great excitement among the genuine Chinese, who cheered whenever he triumphed in the story”. However, probably the best British feature outing is The Face of Fu Manchu, the first of five films with Christopher Lee in the eponymous role. It rattles along at a thrilling pace, and takes relish in poking fun at the stuffy British establishment forever outwitted by the determined Chinese doctor.

Ping Pong (1986)

Director Po Chih Leong

Ping Pong (1986)

Ping Pong (1986)

It’s an embarrassing blot on British cinema’s record that the first feature film by a British-Chinese filmmaking team wasn’t made until 1986. Unfairly overlooked at the time, Ping Pong tells the story of Elaine Choi, a newly qualified British Chinese lawyer tasked with executing the written will of a Chinese businessman who has mysteriously died in a Soho phonebox. Choi visits each member of the deceased businessman’s family, informing them that their inheritance is subject to certain conditions. 

It’s a great narrative conceit for a film concerned with investigating the balance of eastern and western culture on the lives of its 1980s British Chinese characters. Director Po Chih Leong and writer Jerry Liu have great fun exposing the multicultural contradictions of first and second generation Chinese. Lucy Sheen plays Choi as a smart but naive investigator, her cockney accent stronger than her understanding of written Chinese, which forces her to execute a will whose contents she cannot comprehend. Combining comedy and mystery, film noir and wuxia pian martial arts, Ping Pong is an inspired look at the cultural influences on British Chinese people.

Soursweet (1988)

Director Mike Newell

Sour Sweet (1988)

Sour Sweet (1988)

Ian McEwan updated Timothy Mo’s 1960s-set novel to the early 1980s for this perceptive tale about a newlywed Hong Kong couple who come to London to find a better life. Mo’s Booker-shortlisted novel captures the joys and pains that come with starting a new life in a distant country and offers a uniquely Chinese take on life in the UK. 

McEwan and director Mike Newell successfully translate the book’s awareness of the eccentricities of British and Chinese cultures and has great fun contrasting both ways of life. The film has come under criticism for failing to depict the major subplot – about criminal activity among Soho’s triad gangs – with the same authenticity, but compelling central performances from Chinese star Sylvia Chang and newcomer Danny Dun outweigh the gripes. Showing the exhilaration, adventure and sheer hard work of the Chinese migrant experience, Soursweet offers a darkly humorous perspective on the trials of living so far from home.

Foreign Moon (1996)

Director Zhang Zeming

Foreign Moon (1996)

Foreign Moon (1996)

In the mid-1980s, the People’s Republic of China began to relax its restrictions on emigration.  Foreign Moon (also known as Yueman Yinglun) attempts to trace this with a story about three Chinese migrants who make their way to London. It was written and directed by Zhang Zeming, one of the leading directors of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers, and tells the story of Lan Lan (Chen Hsiao-Hsuan), a 20-year-old who comes to London under the sponsorship of a rich benefactor. When Lan Lan realises she is expected to enter an arranged marriage she flees, finding solace in the company of two illegal immigrants running a clandestine Chinese takeaway business.

Director Zhang wrote the script while in London in 1991 and aimed to capture the various hopes and dreams of his three characters and the gap between their aspirations and the difficult reality. It’s a beautifully understated film, with rich performances that show the precariousness of life on the outskirts of British society and the strong relationships that can form between those thrown together in difficult circumstances. Rarely screened after its 1996 London Film Festival premiere, Foreign Moon is now available on BFI Player.

Ghosts (2006)

Director Nick Broomfield

Ghosts (2006)

Ghosts (2006)

Ghosts could be considered the dark flipside to Foreign Moon. In 2004, 23 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives when they were cut off and drowned by a deadly incoming tide at Morecambe Bay. The disaster shocked the UK, exposing the extent of the country’s illegal labour market.

Veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield made a rare turn to drama to tell an imagined story of about the plight of the vulnerable workers who lost their lives in the tragedy. The incident at Morecambe frames the film, but Broomfield is keen to show the day-to-day struggles of the untrained and inexperienced workers, focusing on the harrowing journey taken by Ai Qin (Ai Qin Lin), a mother who leaves her young son in China for the promise of riches in London.  When she reaches the UK she is faced with exploitation, racism and violence, which ultimately leads her and her companions to the fatal Lancashire sand flats. The Chinese characters in the film use the Cantonese slang term ‘ghosts’ (gweilo or gwai lo) to describe the Brits but, of course, the title has a double meaning. Trapped between unsympathetic gangmasters and illegal status in the UK, it is Ai Qin and her fellow migrants who are forced to behave like ghosts, an anonymous presence in British society. 

Grow Your Own (2007)

Director Richard Laxton

Grow Your Own (2007)

Grow Your Own (2007)

Writers Frank Cottrell Boyce and Carl Hunter created Grow Your Own as a fictionalised account of the Family Refugee Support Project, an initiative in which migrant families, traumatised by war and torture, were given allotments in the north of England. At the centre of Grow Your Own is the story of Kung Sang (Benedict Wong) who, with his children, is given a plot to tend to help him integrate into society. When a mobile phone company attempt to bribe their way to constructing a mast on Kung Sang’s plot, the allotment community have to decide how they will respond.

Grow Your Own is a comedy drama that re-imagines an Ealing-esque sense of community in modern multicultural Liverpool, but it doesn’t flinch from the harsh realities of migration. Wong gives a powerful performance as a man tortured by the horror of his experiences and all the film’s refugees are initially resented and rejected by their hosts. But what Boyce and Hunter ultimately offer is an alternative view of the British Chinese story, one in which difference is welcomed but togetherness is celebrated.

She, a Chinese (2009)

Director Xiaolu Guo

She, a Chinese (2009)

She, a Chinese (2009)

With She, a Chinese, filmmaker and novelist Xiaolu Guo injects some punk grit to the China-UK migration tale. Her heroine Li Mei (Huang Lu) is attracted to the promise of the west in a similar way to her counterparts in Soursweet or Foreign Moon, but she is less of an innocent. Disaffected with expectations that she should marry a local civil servant, Mei absconds with a series of men who take her further away from her rural upbringing. After falling for a gangster she eventually finds herself on the way to the UK, vanishing from a guided tour of London to settle for a new life.

Despite the film’s alternative chic (helped, in part, by a score from John Parish), Guo is mostly interested in the similarities between east and west, especially when seen from the viewpoint of a disfranchised individual like Li Mei. With each man she meets, Mei is offered a means of escape from the banality and tawdriness of her present situation. But as she moves between each man (and nearer to London) her situation descends further into violence, exploitation and despair.

Lilting (2013)

Director Hong Khaou

Lilting (2013)

Lilting (2013)

In Lilting, Ben Whishaw plays Richard, a young man grieving his recently deceased lover Kai, desperately trying to do whatever he can to still feel connected to him. Through a translator, he develops a relationship with Kai’s Cambodian-Chinese mother, Junn (Cheng Pei Pei), a woman struggling to integrate in her adopted country and who remains ignorant of her son’s sexuality.  

One of the UK’s most highly regarded low-budget films from last year, Lilting won plaudits at Sundance, BFI Flare and nominations at the BAFTA and BIFA awards. It’s a modern take on the need for connectivity. Cheng Pei Pei is poignant but brittle as a mother left alone by an only son who was her conduit to the outside world. The growth of her relationship with Whishaw’s Richard reveals that, despite the cultural differences and personality clashes, a delicate bond can bloom through mutual understanding.

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