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  • The Chinese in Britain by Barclay Price

    A History of Visitors & Settlers

    The Chinese Magicians, Drury Lane, 1854. (Public domain, The Chinese in Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the earliest Chinese to travel to Britain were Chinese Jugglers. Although described as jugglers, their acts also included acrobatics and magic. The first recorded troupe arrived in 1816 and were well received; ‘The Nobility, Gentry and Public in general, are most respectfully informed that The Chinese Jugglers continue to exhibit their wonderful performances every day, and to attract numerous spectators; many of whom do not tire of repeatedly witnessing the astonishing feats of these foreigners.’

    In 1818, the troupe had an unusual booking in London when they performed in the nude at a Royal Academy lecture on the naked figure. ‘Some have been so illiberal as to censure such exhibitions at the Royal Academy, but this extraordinary display of the muscles in forms and uses never before beheld, was a circumstance of the utmost service to Artists; it was a display that might never again appear in Europe; the actions of an African, at the Academy, had surprised them, those of the Indian Jugglers had astonished them, but the present ones surpassed all belief or power of description. The Chinese Jugglers then, performed their positions, and the distortions of their extremities surpassed everything that could have been conceived of them. The room was immensely crowded; the applause at the conclusion was general.’

    In 1853, another troupe included Tuck Guy whose knife-throwing trick was a standout of the show; ‘Placing his daughter, a prepossessing girl of about thirteen years of age, at one end of the stage, and causing her to stand with her back against some soft wood, her hands expanded and her fingers separated, he retires to distance. A parcel of very large knives are produced, he picks them up one after another, and, apparently without taking aim, or occupying any time in preparation, slings them recklessly at the child. With wonder amounting to amazement the spectator perceives that every knife has been aimed in the most accurate manner, and that they have been planted one between each of the girl’s fingers, one on each side of her cheek, and others close around her neck, but that not one has grazed her skin, though all have entered deeply into the wall behind her. This unique and unrivalled specimen of sharp practice—if it may be so termed—was well deserving of the applause which was elicited.’

    James Legge and the three students who attended Duchess of Gordon’s school in Huntly in 1846, engraving by J. Cochran after painting by Henry Room. (Public domain, The Chinese in Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    The Victorians also delighted in exhibitions of human ‘freaks’ and in 1864 James ‘Marquis’ Chisholm, a Scottish musician, was touring in China and noticed Chang Yu Sing. Chang was not a man easy to miss as he was at least 7 foot 8 inches in height and Chisholm saw a money-making opportunity.  He convinced Chang to travel with him to Britain, along with a dwarf, Chung-Mow. Chang the Giant and Chung-Mow were exhibited to great success at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly accompanied by Chisholm playing his specially composed The Great Chang Polka. Chang swiftly gained star status. He was invited to meet the Prince and Princess of Wales at Marlborough House and at the request of the royal children, wrote his name in Chinese characters on the wall at a height of ten feet from the ground. He later toured to America and Australia, as well as within Britain, and he settled in Bournemouth, where he and his wife, Kitty, ran a tearoom and an 'Oriental Bazaar' selling Chinese curios.

    The Chinese in Britain offers a fascinating portrayal of these and the many other Chinese travellers to Britain since the first in 1687, including seamen, students, cooks, brides, diplomats, servants, sportsmen, bureaucrats and writers. As China becomes a pre-eminent world power again in the twenty-first century, this book uncovers our long relationship with the country and its people.

    Barclay Price's new book The Chinese in Britain is available for purchase now.

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