The Lancaster-China connection

Raymond and Sam Moi Chan in Lancaster
Raymond and Sam Moi Chan in Lancaster

This month, Lancaster has been awash with colour and expression during the Chinese New Year celebrations, with hundreds of people attending events in the city centre and at the university.

Festival director Raymond Chan said that 2017 - the year of the Rooster in the Chinese zodiac - marks an important turning point for the event, which has been reborn as Lancaster Chinese Arts Festival to better reflect its creative direction.

Coun Robert Redfern, the Mayor of Lancaster, with Shuangfa Huang

Coun Robert Redfern, the Mayor of Lancaster, with Shuangfa Huang

Lancaster’s reputation for hosting a top 10 university has not gone un-noticed in China, either.

Chinese students now make up more than 10 per cent of Lancaster University’s entire student population, and Shuangfa Huang, president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Society, said he had found the city to be “quite open, diverse” with very nice people.

In February 2004, the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster put the town’s Chinese community in the spotlight.

Malaysian born Sam Moi Chan MBE, 61, who had moved to Morecambe in 1989 when her son Raymond was three, recalls becoming a voice for the Asian community in Morecambe, after meeting then Conservative leader Michael Howard.

Chinese New Year celebrations in Lancaster

Chinese New Year celebrations in Lancaster

Sam initially moved to Manchester with her husband in 1979, and became involved in community work there, helping people with drug or relationship problems.

She said: “After the tragic incident in the bay, Michael Howard was the Tory leader, and he made an appearance in Morecambe.

“He was looking for someone to represent the Chinese community.

“And then the police said it would be great to have a representative, so I ended up going to a meeting that he had set up, and the police noticed that I knew a lot about the community.

The Chinese Festival Group at Lancaster University

The Chinese Festival Group at Lancaster University

“They asked me to represent to build confidence, become a liaison and be a focal point.

“At that time in Morecambe, the Chinese community was much more established with people from Hong Kong, or Cantonese backgrounds.”

Sam continued her community work, and set up the Hua Xian Chinese Society with Raymond, and the group started by organising the charity fund-raising Morecambe Chinese New Year Festival in February 2005.

It brought together the local Chinese and wider community to celebrate the event whilst raising funds for the DEC’s Tsunami Relief Appeal.

Raymond said: “As I was growing up, I got dragged on to my mum’s college classes which were English classes for people from China, Malaysia, India.

“We wanted to demonstrate there were some positive things that happen in the Chinese community, and we didn’t want the tragic event to overshadow some of the great things that happen.

“We raised money for the lifeboats just to thank them for all the work they did at the time.

“What’s happened over the last few years is because of the university and changes within China itself, China has opened up immigration between areas, via Hong Kong, and also Fujinese people, who started moving here, and that has changed the demographic.

“Over the years the uni has grown, and is a much bigger influence as a top 10 university.

“A lot of people choose to study abroad, and if they’re going to come all this way, it’s important that the university is prestigious.”

There are currently 1,500 Chinese students at Lancaster University.

Shuangfa Huang, 31, who is himself from the Fujian Province of China, is in his final year of a four year PhD in Management and is living on campus.

He said: “The reason for choosing Lancaster is that it’s got a very good reputation for teaching and the university’s reputation in general is very good.

“To be honest my first impressions were that it’s such a small city.

“But the longer I stayed here, I’ve found it to be quite open, diverse, and most people I meet here are very nice.

“There are lots of cultural activities, there’s been events in town, and at the castle like the fireworks, you have the opportunity to experience new things.

“The history is interesting and the restaurants are very good.

“You have Williamson Park which is nice, and it’s so close to the Lake District.”

The Chinese Students and Scholars Society organised events at the university, the biggest being the Chinese Festival on January 19, giving people the opportunity to find out more about China and its culture.

Shuangfa added: “In terms of support for new students, it’s something we’d like to do more of.

“We do pre-departure events in China, so students know what to expect.

“We all have different perceptions about different cultures. It’s more about the experience, and the people are an important part of that.

“If you see someone smiling in the street it’s good.

“I’ll finish my PhD here, and depending on job opportunities, who knows what will come next.”

Raymond said some people struggle when they come to the city for the first time. “We all share similar experiences as immigrants to the UK, which can include racism and barriers to language,” he said.

“We still suffer from small issues and challenges.

“Some don’t understand the life in England, and 
 people often struggle to adjust to the cultural differences.

“Often in China, there are people from very rural communities coming into the UK, and the differences are so big.

“We’ve had a few cases where people come to the country, and this goes for students as well, because they’ve never been to Lancaster before, they can come with rose tinted glasses about what to expect.

“This is a city but only just. It’s giving people slightly unrealistic expectations, especially when you compare it to cities in China.”

Raymond, who currently lives and works in Birmingham as a graphic designer, said the Hua Xian Chinese Society - which means Chinese Virtue or Chinese Benevolance - organises a lot of events and does outreach work, visiting families and students.

Volunteers take part “to try and find experiences, broaden their horizons” he said.

“People can get homesick.

“They see a motherly figure in Sam, and my mum is a very good chef!”

Sam added: “People should take some experience from outside their country. They want their children to experience as much of the outside world as possible. In that way, Lancaster is connected to the world. Chinese students do see it as a massive beneficial experience.

“They come to study business, accountancy, they want to set up a business here, want to invest.

“A lot of businesses have opened.”

She added: “Our society is about the community and relationships.

“If you have the same heart, and are interested in helping, we do teaching, cooking, even ballroom dancing, we let the volunteers shape what we do.”

Raymond, who considers Lancaster his home, said China has always had the mentality of preserving its way of life.

“It wants to preserve its status in the world, and that’s the mentality in the country,” he said.

“It wants its seat at the table.

“We’re very aware of what’s happening in the world, we have history. And we don’t just gloss over the surface of things, you understand that it’s not just this ‘Disneyfied’ view of things, which of course is easier to understand, but not necessarily true.”

Raymond said he hoped some of the art would resonate with people in Lancaster, and that future events would continue to give the city centre a boost.

Find out more at www.chineseartsfestival.co.uk, or www.chinesesociety.org.uk.