A hundred thousand chinese and no temples

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 support.

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 ‘Take-away’ trade.

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 are changing.

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 nature.

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. Spring 1980.

5. Op Cit Ng Kwee Choo (p.66).

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