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Beyond the Secret Garden:


East Asian Characters in British Children’s Fiction On the 31 January, the UK government started a new visa programme specifically for Hong Kong residents with a British National Overseas passport or their dependents. The Home Office expect up to 300,000 people to move to Britain over the next five years and seek citizenship in what some are calling the ‘Hong Kong Windrush’. Unlike the Black and Asian immigrants who came to Britain after 1948, however, the new Hong Kong British will be able to see at least some positive representations of people that look like them in British children’s books.


It was not always the case that East Asian people were represented positively—if they were represented at all. The best that one 1907 geography, Thomas Nelson’s The World and its People, could say was that the people of Hong Kong were ‘fairly contented under their British rulers’ (197). East Asian people were rarely represented as existing in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century, and indeed, most British children would have received ideas about East Asian people from pantomimes such as Aladdin, versions of which included characters such as Chin Chop (1903 Theatre Royal Nottingham) or Wishee Washee, who first appeared in versions in the 1960s and is still part of some versions of the pantomime today. When a book had a character from Hong Kong or Singapore, as in Bessie Marchant’s boarding school story Two New Girls (1927), that character was usually white and British, the daughter of a merchant or soldier in the Empire. This is one reason why Robin Stevens’ character in her Murder Most Unladylike series (2014-present), Hazel Wong, drew such attention; for many who had been brought up on the all-white world of boarding school stories, a Hong Kong Chinese character was a revelation. The success of the series perhaps opened the way for other re-visions of the boarding school story written by Black and Asian writers, such as the 2019 New Class at Malory Towers, which includes stories by Patrice Lawrence and Narinder Dhami.


Some pre-21st century representations of East Asian characters


written by people from East Asian background are linked to the Windrush generation. Meiling Jin, a British Guyanese author who grew up in London and suffered racist abuse in school, published her only children’s book, The Thieving Summer, in 1993; the main characters are from Trinidad but their ethnic origins are left vague. Poppie, the main child character, is friends with other people of colour in London; they band together to find a white thief after they are accused of his crimes. The idea of different groups of people of colour being depicted as one community accords with the notion of political blackness, wherein racially minoritised people in Britain were often all labelled ‘black’ by white Britons, and in response banded together as one community to fight such racism. Another text, Grace Nichols’ poetry collection Poetry Jump-Up: A Collection of Black Poetry (1988), includes many Asian poets as well as Afro-Caribbean, Indo-Caribbean and African American poets. The collection includes a Vietnamese poet as well – albeit one from the early 16th century, Nguyen Binh Khiem.


However, beginning in the 21st century, British children’s books were increasingly likely to depict East Asian characters whose own or whose family’s origins were more directly linked to East Asian countries. Authors and illustrators/photographers were also more likely to have East Asian origins. Hyechong Chung, author of K is for Korea (2008) was born in South Korea. Perhaps as an immigrant looking back to her country of origin, it is unsurprising that her alphabet focuses on mostly traditional aspects of Korean culture rather than the ‘dynamic and vibrant’ modern country that she mentions in her introduction. Anna McQuinn’s My Friend Amy has


10 Books for Keeps No.247 March 2021


photographic illustration by Irvin Cheung; although set in Britain, the contrast is subtly made between modern, urban Britain and a rural version of Hong Kong. Amy’s grandmother comes from Hong Kong where a farmer’s life is ‘very hard’ but they come to England and ‘started a restaurant and had to work really, really hard’. Both lives are hard, but the prospect of achieving success is only available in Britain.


The interest in books about East Asia goes beyond representation for East Asian British communities, however. Several books on the Kate Greenaway nomination list for 2021 were written by people of East Asian origin, including author of Starbird Sharon King-Chai (born in Australia of Chinese-Malaysian parents and now living in London); Soojin Kwak, author of A Hat for Mr Mountain who describes herself as ‘based in Seoul and London’; Chinese illustrator Zhu Cheng-Liang who illustrated Mary Murphy’s What I Like Most; and Japanese-born author-illustrator of Dandelion’s Dream, Yoko Tanaka. These picture books cover a wide range of genres and moods, but are all searches of one kind or another. From the Starbird’s search for home and safety and the dreamlike search of a lion finding where he belongs to the humorous search for a hat big enough to cover a mountain to the search of a Chinese-British girl for what she likes most, these books do not pin the East Asian (or British East Asian) experience down to a single story. Similarly, but for older readers, Katie and Kevin Tsang’s Dragon Mountain depicts two very different Chinese characters – the quiet peacemaker, Ling-Fei, and the brash surfer, Billy Chan. Ling-Fei is from China and Billy, whose father is from Hong Kong, is American. The two must work together with a white Irish boy and a white American girl (who is a jiu-jitsu champion and a pageant queen) to defeat the Dragon of Death. The Tsangs use Western stereotypes of East Asian people (such as the wise old sage) to provide plot twists, as Billy, Ling-Fei and their friends find out that stereotypes cannot be relied upon when trying to defeat evil; individuals must be appreciated (or avoided) for their own characteristics.


Sue Cheung’s Chinglish (2019) and Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths (forthcoming) are deserving of closer examination. There are obvious similarities. Both books depict


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