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August 30, 2015

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Chinatown’s invisible residents

ILLEGAL immigrants have rarely been welcome in any place, at any time in history. And by their legal status — or rather lack of it — they are often invisible to much of the general population; non-citizens.

“Most people have only the faintest idea of how their life is ‘under the radar’ because, as part of the subaltern class, they tend to hide away from the public eye, and are thus invisible,” writer Zhong Yilin told Shanghai Daily at a recent interview.

Based in London, Zhong’s recent work “Chinatown” is a collection of 13 short stories based on the lives of Chinese illegal immigrants in the UK. She tells of stowaways from the rural counties of China’s southern provinces; down-and-out adult children of Chinese high-ranking officials and the children of China’s nouveau riche who dropped out at junior school due to a lack of parental guidance.

Quitting her job as a TV producer in Beijing, Zhong came to study in Britain in 2002 and gained a MA from the University of Warwick three years later.

In her final year at university, while looking for a cheap apartment where she could finish her academic paper without distractions, she moved into a community in London’s Chinatown.

During her stay there, she noted that her Chinese neighbors would quickly move on and be replaced by other transient tenants. Few could speak a word of English. Some were chefs without work permits; others were engaged in making pirate DVDs or selling drugs.

“As they found out that I could speak and write in English, they came for help with translations. Sometimes it was an application for residence permit; other times a call to ask for a delayed salary from their bosses,” Zhong said.

By the time she left the apartment six months later, Zhong had become friends with many of her under-the-radar neighbors, winning them over with kindness and helpfulness.

Friendship also made Zhong privy to their stories, tales that completely changed her perception of Chinatown.

Centered along Gerrard Street in central London’s Soho, to many people Chinatown is simply a popular tourism destination, complete with stone lions and pailou decorated archways, festooned with red lanterns and packed with Chinese restaurants and shops.

But Zhong was given an insight beneath this touristy veneer.

“It’s a Chinese village which offers protection to a group of marginalized people who, for one reason or another, got stranded in a life between Britain and China,” Zhong said.

Take Zhong’s story of Ah Bao, for example. Originally called Tingting, she came to England as a student when she was 17.

Her father had made a small fortune running an Internet cafe in a small city in northeastern China in the 90s and Tingting’s parents decided to send their daughter abroad for a better education.

However, left to fend for herself in a strange country, within a year Tingting had spent all the money her parents had borrowed from the bank to fund three academic years at language school.

Penniless, she returned home, only to be surrounded by envious relatives and former classmates curious to hear about her lavish lifestyle abroad.

To save face, Tingting said it was with a sense of guilty relief that she returned to the UK.

Back in London, she worked at a Chinatown restaurant, but unable to make ends meet, became Ah Bao, the prostitute.

Though she had to hide her secret from friends and family back in China and pretend to be the successful Tingting living a good life in the UK, Ah Bao told Zhong that she has a clear conscience. She not only made a living on her own, but also paid off her father’s debts.

Zhong insists that it was not her plan to chronicle her neighbors’ stories.

“It’s just coincidence that I moved to that house on that street and lived with them. Everything happened naturally.” Zhong said.

Q: How the book came into being?

It has been 10 years since I first encountered my characters in Chinatown. But a book on them wasn’t finalized until I met Shi Tao, vice president of Amazon China, who was in London for a book fair a few years ago. We met at a Chinese restaurant, and as I was telling him the interesting people I know in London, he became interested in the story of Ah Bao and encouraged me to write down these stories.

Q: Do you see any changes to your characters in Chinatown in the past few years?

Nothing dramatic. I see them finding new jobs, getting married or having children. These are normal changes for all of us. Even though most of them have realized it is unlikely for them to become legal citizens, they hope their children who are born in the UK will one day breathe the fresh air outside of Chinatown and buy a house of their own when they grow up.

Q: Do you intend the book to be an appeal for understanding for the situation of illegal immigrants?

I meant the book to evoke a positive change in the minds of people who see illegal immigrants as being inferior, and thus ignore their very existence. All the characters in my book are fictional but they all come from real examples of what is actually happening. It is important to know there is another life in Chinatown, other than it being a cultural name.

Q: Are you planning to keep writing the Chinatown stories?

The answer is definitely yes, although it is hard and I am still waiting for inspiration. With the new wave of immigration and policy changes to Britain’s visa system, this book is just the start of a series.

About the Author

Zhong Yilin was born in Beijing into a writer’s family and first published poems when only seven. In 2002, she moved to study in London and has settled in the city. She is also the author of: “London Single’s Diary” (2009), “London Love Story” (2010) and “Personal Statement” (2013).


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