Jabez Lam (林懷燿)

Jabez Lam, a witness to decades of change in UK’s Chinese community

“This old man, ‘zaa ba see’ (揸巴士), let’s beat him up!” On the streets of London’s Chinatown, under a billowing Chinese flag, a woman’s voice pierced through the air. A dozen of people immediately started to push and shoved a man around in a busy crowd.

That took place on 23 November 2019. During that period, Hong Kong protesters’ “Daily Schedules” were chock-full of protest activities. Yet because it was the day before the District Council Elections, the situation in Hong Kong remained relatively calm, with people hoping to prevent the Government from delaying the vote.

On the other side of the world, the situation in the UK could not be more different. On that day, Hongkongers across the UK organized rallies to raise international awareness of the anti-extradition bill movement. In London, more than a thousand people gathered in Parliament Square at 1 pm, marched along King’s College London and the London School of Economics, and arrived at 10 Downing Street to hand in a letter to the Prime Minister, calling on him to take action against China for breaching the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Amongst the protesters were Jabez Lam (林懷燿), his partner, and his daughter. After the rally, at around 3 pm, the three of them felt hungry and so decided to go for lunch in Chinatown. As they arrived, they saw a group of people waving the Chinese flag, shouting that the Hong Kong protesters were “rioters”. After observing them for a while, Lam tried to explain to three white women who were also watching the group that Hongkongers were not rioters, but simply democratic protesters.

Suddenly, Lam became surrounded by a group of people. Someone yelled, “get him out of here”; others came to blows. People called out Lam’s nickname, “zaa ba see” (揸巴士, this phrase means “driving a bus”, but phonetically, it sounds like his name “Jabez”). Everyone who yelled his nickname knew who he was.

“This one is the son of a seaman,” Lam told Stand News, pointing to one person in the video. “I organised a campaign with him. At the time, the UK had a hand-foot-mouth disease outbreak, and the British government blamed Chinese catering businesses for spreading it. I organized a protest with him against this."

What about the woman shouting “beat [Lam] up”?

“She was one of the asylum seekers of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. At the time, she had no place to live, so she stayed with my friend,” Lam said. “I was the one who connected them."

Lam is the manager of Hackney Chinese Community Services (HCCS). In his words, “I deal with anything and everything… if the floor needs sweeping, I’ll sweep the floor. If the toilets need cleaning, I’ll do that too.”

Hackney is a small borough in northeast London. Established in 1988, HCCS has helped countless Chinese people, including people from Hong Kong, Macau, Fujian, and Malaysia over the past 33 years. In terms of functions, the HCCS does similar things to community centres in Hong Kong, including helping people solve problems in their daily life, providing them with mental health support, assisting with applications for housing and benefits, hosting karaoke sessions and lunches, and even arranging haircuts.

In June 2020, HCCS began to receive requests for help from Hongkongers applying for political asylum in the UK – some with BNO passports, and some without. The centre was overwhelmed by the sudden surge in caseload halfway through the year, and Lam ended up hiring immigration consultants to train the centre’s employees in immigration law in order to meet people’s needs.

To Hongkongers, the current deluge of applications for BNO visas might seem unprecedented, and indeed, a unique historical event. But to Lam, this is but one of the many waves of emigration to the UK to happen in the past few decades.

Having settled in the UK in 1973, Lam can be said to be a living embodiment of the history of Chinese immigration to the UK. From the early emigrants from Hong Kong’s New Territories to the political exiles of today, through the shifting tides of prejudice, Lam has seen and experienced it all, including the post-’89 generation of political asylum-seekers from mainland China who would later turn into ‘old pinks’ – nationalistic supporters of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Not only has he witnessed the changes in people’s reasons for emigration, and different migrants’ changing sense of identity, he has provided support and assistance to each of these communities.

The 1967 Hong Kong Riots. (File photo)

Learning socialism under the influence of John Shum

The 1967 leftist riots in Hong Kong ended with a death toll of 51 people, with another 832 wounded. At the time, Lam was only ten years old, ignorant of the ‘pineapple bombs’ and fighting on the streets – as was the desire of his parents, who had endured a decade of political turmoil in mainland China, and only wished to ensure a safe and stable environment for their offspring in Hong Kong.

His parents would say to him, “be careful when you’re walking on the street. Don’t you dare kick anything, and stay away from large crowds."

In accordance with his parents’ wishes, Lam had an uneventful childhood. However, he was not good at academics, though his parents wished for him to attend university.

“Back then, Hong Kong only had two universities, and you had to be the best of the best to get in. Dummies like me never stood a chance.”

In 1973, Lam, barely 20 years old, emigrated from Hong Kong to faraway Britain.

Arriving in the UK, and without the guidance of his parents, Lam was left drifting without direction. Lacking motivation for his studies, Lam encountered an alternative source of wisdom. That year, amidst inflation and mass unemployment, the Conservative government set a cap on pay rises, inciting coal miners to embark on a massive general strike to negotiate better working conditions. Without coal, there was no electricity. The coalminers’ strike forced the Government to impose the Three-Day Work Week to reduce electricity consumption. That year, the Labour Party, taking advantage of the political momentum from the strike, defeated the Conservative Party in the general elections and entered into power.

The events of these turbulent years made a powerful impression on young Lam.

“Workers’ struggle? What’s that… Election? What’s an election? I didn’t know citizens could force the government to change. Is that even a thing?”

Experiencing successive waves of political change, Lam began to learn about socialism and the welfare state. During those years, it was not only Lam, but many other Hong Kong intellectuals in the UK, who came into first contact with such concepts. Lam’s contemporaries included John Shum and Leung Yiu-chung.

“John Shum in particular can be credited with my political awakening.”

Early on in the 70s, John Shum was a prominent social activist, participating in various anti-capitalist movements. Lam says that it was John Shum who sent him on his journey towards socialism.

Lam became determined to become a socialist.

“But what is socialism? It’s not something you can achieve by just talking about it after dinner on a weekend.”

The mission of a socialist is to change society for the better. As Lam worked as a waiter in London’s Chinatown, he realised that the way he could change society was through getting involved in Chinese community associations.

June 30th, 1997: London’s Chinatown is thronged with people watching the handover of Hong Kong on a television screen. (Photo by Ben Curtis - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chinese restaurants, Chinatown, and immigrants from the New Territories

The Chinese community associations of the past were very different from those of today. Of the Chinese people living in the UK at the time, many were indigenous villagers from the New Territories in Hong Kong, having been born in Hong Kong and holding CUKC (Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies) status. This allowed them to settle in the UK, and they did so in large numbers, arriving as economic migrants.

“Back then, men were rare in the villages of the New Territories. Those who were left were women and children, because all the men went to Britain to make a living."

Before that, the number of Chinese living in the UK was small, and most were seamen accustomed to a drifter’s life. Their primary source of income was handwashing other people’s clothes. As washing machines outdated this sort of work, the emigrants were forced to find another means of income. What they eventually settled on doing would have a far-reaching impact on the world – bringing Chinese cuisine to the West.

Those who arrived in the UK to work in restaurants did so with purely financial motives in mind. They remitted their income to their spouses and children back home, never intending to settle down in the UK, instead hoping to return to the Hong Kong in their twilight years to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

But of course, the world had other plans. CUKC status was not limited to Hongkongers, but to all of the British Empire’s colonial subjects. With decolonisation came successive waves of CUKC emigration to Britain. The large number of immigrants was seen as a social problem, and anti-immigrant sentiment soon came to a head. The British government eventually enacted the Immigration Act of 1971 which stated that only CUKC immigrants with parents or grandparents who were born in Britain could freely settle in the UK. This would have the effect of closing the door to immigration for the villagers of the New Territories, though there would be some time until the new policy took effect.

The new policy took effect on 1 January 1973. Those who had settled in the UK before that would be allowed to stay.

The imminent deadline forced migrants from the New Territories to seriously consider their future: whether to return to their roots and go home for good, or to seize this last opportunity to have their families join them in Britain.

According to Lam, nine-tenths of people chose the latter. “If you’ve been here for tens of years, having established a successful restaurant business, would you give it all up just to go back?”

Thus, it was this law aimed at curbing immigration that ended up causing a spike in immigration instead. In the 1960s, there were only 2,000 Chinese people a year emigrating to the UK. In the 1970s, this number doubled, reaching 4,000 immigrants annually.

These immigrants gathered in their own communities. Chinese restaurants, Chinese shops, Chinese bookstores, Chinese hairdressers – one emerged after the other, like flowers in bloom.

The area where these businesses congregated later became known as “Chinatown”. It was here that Lam became a prominent activist and community leader, and also where he would be attacked by a mob. Like a rollercoaster, his experiences living in London’s Chinatown have been full of ups and downs.

London’s Chinatown (Photo by Lalitphat Phunchuang on Unsplash)

But that happened later in life. In the 1970s, Lam was just another part-time worker in a Chinatown restaurant.

“Know-it-all!” Whenever they needed assistance and asked Lam for help, the employees of the restaurant, who were migrant workers from the New Territories, would call Lam a know-it-all; when they didn’t need help, they would call him a “damned leftist”, because he was engaged in socialist politics. “Translate this for me!” The employees of the restaurant would always ask Lam for help.

In particular, migrants from the New Territories would frequently approach Lam for help. At that time, they urgently wanted to bring their wives and children over to the UK. But they faced many issues: how would their children go to school? If they got sick, how would they see a doctor? Migrant workers from the New Territories had no idea how to answer these questions, much less their recently arrived family members, because none of them could speak English, and they spent all of their time working in the restaurants. At the time, Chinese workers in restaurants would usually work eleven to twelve hours a day, six days a week. This isolation from the outside world sowed the seeds for certain Chinese communities in the UK to become inward-looking and xenophobic. During that time, those who didn’t speak Hakka or Weitou dialect would have found it impossible to make it in Chinatown.

Lam didn’t understand those languages. He only spoke Cantonese. Nonetheless, because he could speak English, the migrants from the New Territories saw some use in him.

Lam viewed these workers’ problems from a socialist perspective. “From a socialist perspective, these workers face class oppression, and need support.” In partnership with Leung Yiu-chung and others, he set up his first organisation at Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre near Chinatown, named the Chinese Workers Group. During the weekends, the Chinese Workers Group would listen to the New Territories migrants’ stories and try to help them to resolve their issues.

“Ultimately, we couldn’t solve any of their problems. We can talk all we want about socialism – but that won’t solve anyone’s problems.”

Lam said that at the time, he was an “armchair socialist”. Luckily, the British people who lent the Neighbourhood Centre space to him were “real socialists”, and would help him follow up on his cases. Lam learned practical community organising skills from them. This experience sowed the seeds for what would become Lam’s vocation.

Although Lam has dedicated his life to helping Chinese people, his starting point has never had anything to do with nationalism – it has always been rooted in an internationalist vision.

“I am an internationalist.” For Lam, nationalism is inseparable from capitalism – it is a manifestation of this unjust system.

Lam being interviewed at a rally outside the Chinese Embassy after the June Fourth Massacre. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Getty Images)

June Fourth asylum seekers have become today’s nationalists

In 1983, Lam received financial support from the British government to set up the Chinese Information Advice Centre (CIAC). He took up a role as community development worker for CIAC – this was the start of his career as a social worker for Chinese communities.

In the 1980s, Chinese community organisations began popping up everywhere – apart from CIAC, Lam also helped set up four other community centres. Every centre played a role in fighting for Chinese workers’ rights. “Later, they all betrayed me,” Lam smiled.

Over time, with the changing needs of the community, each of these community centres became primarily recreational organisations – organising lunches, mahjong sessions, and karaoke sessions. In 1973, migrants from the New Territories were still rushing over to the UK – but as they settled down over the years, they encountered fewer problems, and life became less hectic.

Nonetheless, these communities’ internal xenophobia remained. At luncheons organised by Chinese community centres, whenever a Putonghua-speaking person wanted to sit down, the people who spoke Hakka and Weitou dialect would always say, “this seat is taken."

Perhaps it is because of this reason that the migrants from the New Territories never mixed with other groups, including Mainland Chinese. In the 1980s, when China opened up, Mainland Chinese university students began to come to the UK. But they could not be more dissimilar to the migrants from the New Territories. Lam did not interact much with these students, given that they were only studying in the UK temporarily and were more fluent in English, so they did not usually require the help of the local Chinese community centres.

But what Lam did help them with, was their applications for political asylum after the Tiananmen Massacre.

That year, Lam was still working at CIAC. In April 1989, the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Hu Yaobang died, and university students in China organised memorial events all across the country. Gradually, these memorials developed into rallies and protests as students expressed their dissatisfaction with Chinese society and politics.

Back in the UK, Lam spent his lunch breaks setting up and manning a stall on the streets of Chinatown, calling on people to sign a petition supporting the students in China. Later, as the movement escalated in China, he and a group of friends established the Chinese Solidarity Campaign, to expand awareness-raising efforts. The week before June Fourth, members of the Campaign protested outside the Chinese embassy every single day. 

On the night of 3 June 1989, the People’s Liberation Army rolled tanks into Tiananmen Square. Reporters on the scene communicated what was happening in Beijing to their counterparts in Hong Kong via telephone, and the news soon spread from Hong Kong radio stations to every household. Those tuning in called their relatives and friends as far abroad as London to tell them the news. Lam and a group of friends stood around a telephone, listening quietly.

The moment the gunshot sounded, Lam felt his heart turn to ice.

“The whole world was crying.”

The day of the Tiananmen Massacre, many people left flowers in commemoration of the deaths outside the Chinese Embassy in London. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Getty Images)

Lam said that during that period, most of the people in his community considered themselves “Chinese”.

“Hong Kong identity was not even a question back then,” he said. “You were born with Chinese blood, and so you were Chinese – no matter which generation you were a part of.”

Lam said that he thought that Chinese people would see better days after China’s opening-up. But this dream was far from the reality.

Long after the Tiananmen Massacre, protesters in London continued to occupy the space outside of the Chinese Embassy en masse. In anguish, Chinese people held down the space, protesting for many days and nights. One could see a whole kilometer of mourning individuals queuing outside of the Embassy even three weeks after the event.

At the same time, many Chinese people did not participate in the rallies. If they felt anguished on the inside, they were afraid to speak up. Lam said that among these especially were Chinese restaurant owners who were concerned for their livelihoods. They were worried that their businesses would suffer if the Chinese Embassy saw them as enemies or traitors.

For his part, Lam was committed to his basic principles: to fight for the rights of Chinese people. This time around, the battlefront was the right to residency. Sensing the political winds shifting in China, his Chinese Solidarity Campaign partnered with the local organization the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO) to pressure the British government to expand visas for Chinese students, allowing them to stay in the UK until the situation settled down back home. Many of these individuals ended up staying in the UK. There were also people from China who specifically sought political asylum for participating in the Tiananmen protests – Lam also assisted them (this is substantiated by a recently-declassified set of government records).

Years later, however, some of these people who sought political asylum became “old pinks” – pro-CCP nationalists who are unafraid to raise fists and flags against their opponents. In 2019, some pro-CCP groups stirred up trouble outside of the pro-democracy Hong Kong musician Denise Ho’s concert in London, throwing eggs at her fans. Lam recognized half of those provocateurs, since many had sought asylum after the Tiananmen Massacre.

Given that so many of these people sought political asylum, it would make sense for them to oppose the CCP. How did so many of them become supporters of the regime?

Lam said that the Chinese Embassy used a set of tricks and strategies.

“It weaponizes the reality of anti-Asian racism to further its cause,” he explained. “When you interact with these people, you always hear the phrase: ‘we are all Chinese’. From there they would employ their strategies to convert others.”

The logic is as follows: through invoking the collective experience of racism faced by overseas Chinese diaspora, the Chinese Embassy galvanizes people into supporting Chinese nationalism, which subsequently translates into support for the CCP. Lam said that many people who were able to stay in the UK as students in the 80s probably had some connections to authorities back home. These people, faced rampant racism and were unable to find jobs, lean into their language abilities and positionalities to do business with CCP-linked firms. But did they become patriots because of ideology or because of these economic relationships? Lam didn’t dare say.

A rollercoaster life in Chinatown

After 1989, the UK saw smaller waves of migration from Hong Kong, Macau and China. In the run-up to the 1997 Handover, then-Hong Kong governor Chris Patten offered residency rights to 50,000 families. Among those, around 225,000 Hongkongers obtained British citizenship, though many decided to stay in Hong Kong. On the eve of Macau’s Handover in 1999, some Macanese residents were also able to relocate to the UK through their Portuguese citizenship. With China’s economic rise, many Chinese managed to emigrate through economic investments or student visas. And then there were also Falun Gong political refugees, and villagers who smuggled themselves into the UK and sought work in the black market for a better life.

Lam became the manager of Hackney Chinese Community Services in 2017. It is located far away from Chinatown, so at least he doesn’t face physical attacks while going to work. Recalling his Chinatown days, he described those years as akin to a rollercoaster ride. When people needed his help, Lam was a “know-it-all”, when people cast him out, he was a “damned leftist.”

Lam handled Chinatown’s first labor dispute; at the time, he helped a worker sue his employer for wrongful termination, leading him to face the wrath of all the restaurant owners in Chinatown. Years later, six drunken white men assaulted four Chinese restaurant workers in Chinatown. The police ended up arresting the Chinese workers instead, and two of the workers were even sentenced to a two-year imprisonment. Lam launched a campaign calling out the police’s racism and forcing the officer involved in the case to admit that the department might have made “some mistakes.” The workers were able to successfully appeal their case and Lam became popular for a moment. But as Tiananmen Massacre happened two years later, all the protest organizers, including Lam, soon became ostracized again.

Through peaks and troughs, life chugs along. Lam continues to uphold his original socialist principles, providing assistance and support whenever he sees injustice.

In 2019, like many overseas Chinese diaspora, Lam keenly followed the news in Hong Kong.

“Seeing Hongkongers’ bravery, I felt so proud, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but be worried.”

Hackney Chinese Community Services.

The worries persisted until July 2020. when the BN(O) visa scheme was announced. Lam knew that his work would pick up again. One by one, the number of inquiries he received increased, and new cases emerged. 

In January of this year, he joined Hong Kong Assistance and Resettlement Community (HKARC) and Hongkongers in Britain to draft a set of proposals to the British government on “Supporting Hongkongers to settle in the UK”, offering suggestions on how to best help Hongkongers assimilate into British society. Details include how to ensure the safety of new Hong Kong arrivals, given that they may face threats of violence from local pro-CCP organizations and individuals. The proposals suggest that the police should do its part in preventing these attacks and protecting Hongkongers.

A section of the document mentioned that many of the perpetrators in these harassment activities gained their settlement in the UK as asylum seekers following the Tiananmen Massacre, and the UK government should review their asylum/refugee claim with the view to remove those found to be infiltrators from PRC.

Many Hongkongers strongly support these provisions, but Lam thinks that one must consider things objectively, and not just help Hongkongers at the expense of others. The reality is that this is not the first time he has helped Chinese people. From early Chinese sailors, to immigrants from the New Territories; from political refugees from the Tiananmen protests, to Hong Kong families arriving after 1997 – these communities all have different understandings of their own identity and different political opinions, sometimes clashing and even discriminating against each other. But to Lam, they are all deserving of support.

“If they live here, they should have basic rights. We need to help these people obtain the services and rights they deserve.”

There is still a question whether Lam had a bias toward Hongkongers, since that is where he came from. Does he still consider himself a Hongkonger? He only replied by saying that he has “no roots.”

“I’ve been here for too long and probably wouldn’t like a lot of things about Hong Kong,” he said. “You ask me about my identity: first, I am a human being; second, I am someone who identifies with certain social values.”

An anti-extradition bill protest in London.

In the run-up to this year’s census, many Hong Kong student groups in the UK, such as ‘Power to Hongkongers’, encouraged people to fill in their ethnicity as ‘Hongkonger’, ‘British Hongkonger‘, and other similar terms, rather than ‘Chinese’. Lam said that he saw no issue with this.

“The census system itself is biased by design. They say that they can’t officially include so many different ethnic identities – but then why does the census arbitrarily privilege ‘Chinese’ as one of the only categories?”

But Lam also understands that many Hongkongers hold discriminatory attitudes toward Mainland Chinese people, like what the indigenous immigrants from the New Territories did years ago. This is unacceptable to Lam.

“I am talking about human rights. If you think you can trample on other people’s basic rights, then don’t you dare speak up when others step on yours. If you accept and perpetuate this reality yourself, what right do you have to speak up when things happen to you?”

“I don’t care if you’re Chinese, British, or American. If you are a racist and trample on others’ human rights, I will speak out against you.”

Since 2018, Lam has paved a new direction for Hackney Chinese Community Services: HCCS now serves all East and Southeast Asian communities, not just Chinese communities. In Lam’s view, these groups face similar problems in terms of racism. For example, during the recent wave of racism related to COVID-19, there were attacks on Singaporeans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, etc. – not just on Chinese people. In this situation, Lam thinks that privileging Chinese people ignores the impact on other racial minorities.

“Chinese communities receive few public resources in the UK, but other minorities receive even less. Some of these smaller communities think Chinese people are monopolising the few resources available, which does not create a healthy environment.” At this point in the interview, Lam received a voicemail: another Hongkonger has arrived in the UK, and Lam’s colleague was asking him to help with HCCS’s response.

Lam is truly an internationalist – a Cantonese-speaking internationalist from Hong Kong.

Jabez Lam (林懷燿)


Original article: 【帶著黃藍去英國.5】專訪林懷燿 — 他幫過的六四流亡者,變了揮拳的「老粉紅」