When besea.n (Britain’s East and South East Asian Network) launched the first heritage month to celebrate the UK’s East and South East Asian (ESEA) communities in September, they cheerfully admit that they had to start from zero. “We literally went on Google to search ‘how do you start a heritage month’,” laughs Viv Yau, one of the six co-founders of the grassroots organisation.
While the UK has South Asian Heritage Month in August and Black History Month in October, there hasn’t been a specific date to mark the contributions or culture of ESEA people in the UK. And after a year and a half that has seen a staggering increase of anti-Asian violence and racism in Europe, the US and the UK, besea.n figured that people needed a space to step back, take a breather and simply reconnect with their communities in love, affection and, yes, rage.
The month so far has seen a Malaysian supper club, a multimedia exhibition on the British Vietnamese and Viet Hoa community, an ESEA talent showcase fronted by Netflix comedian Phil Wang and panels from ESEA authors, NHS staff, podcasters and creatives. The ultimate aim is to get September officially recognised as ESEA Heritage Month in the UK, with a petition lobbying the government almost at 2,000 signatures and support from Labour MP Sarah Owen.
VICE photographer Jennifer Lo met the six besea.n co-founders of ESEA Heritage Month in London to find out more about the inaugural event, their hopes for the future and the joy of coming together after a devastating pandemic.
Amy Phung: "We felt like there was a space missing – a safe space."
Amy Phung, 36, South London
We founded besea.n last year – we were fuelled by rage, basically [laughs], which is a great way to bond. At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt this really strong sense of anxiety and fear, because the news reports were coming out calling the virus "the China virus”, and you could tell that the rhetoric was very focused on China.
I started telling my friends, "I feel really scared to go outside." I remember a lot of them – these were my white friends – would say, "Oh, no, don't worry, you're being silly, no one's gonna attack you." And although they were being kind and trying to put me at ease, it didn't work. They just didn't understand that fear of having a virus literally named after your ethnicity.
I started to seek out people like me, started listening to podcasts by East and Southeast Asians – that's how I found out about the petition [calling on news media to stop using photos of ESEA people in COVID-19 stories]. I followed [Viv Yau’s] advice of complaining to the newspapers and we got the same responses back: "We're not being racist, we don't have biases. This is a pure coincidence that we're using ESEA people in our photos." That made us want to campaign even harder, and so we decided to create besea.n because we felt like there was a space missing – a safe space, a validating space for people to come together and talk about these issues.
ESEA Heritage Month is one of the ways we are trying to create more space for people to be able to do that. There’s six of us, we don’t represent every ESEA person in the UK. It’s almost a gift; it’s saying: “Please use our platform as a launchpad and do the thing that you think is missing. We want to amplify you.”
Viv Yau: "Our experiences are so wildly different – it's important not to homogenise."
Viv Yau, 30, Manchester
One thing I'm very aware of is the fact that in the past year, when the whole ESEA community has been affected by COVID-related racism, [is that] Chinese people have been scapegoated but have also taken up the space in terms of talking about it. But there's so many East Asians and South East Asians that are affected by this and are racialised as Chinese as well. For me, it's been really important to hear from other communities outside of me being a Chinese person, and finding commonalities with other East and South East Asian backgrounds.
I was very much siloed from my community growing up. It wasn't until last year that I started to think about my identity – how I was racialised, and how the society saw me – because of the rise in hate crime and hate incidents towards ESEA people. To find commonalities between other ESEA women has been really empowering and really comforting, too.
I have so many British Chinese friends who grew up in the takeaway world, but I've also met people who are East and South East Asian living in Britain who have varied experiences that weren't in my worldview whatsoever, which has only enriched my experience of learning about my own identity. The past 18 months has taught me that our experiences are so wildly different – it's important not to homogenise and give each other space to bring in those nuances of who we are.
Mai-Anh Peterson: "The fact that we had so many responses shows that it really is needed."
Mai-Anh Peterson, 32, Edinburgh and Dakar
[ESEA Heritage Month] initially started as a dream that I had. Like, an actual dream [laughs] that we put together an East and South East Asian fete in a village hall with bunting and a tombola. All of the aunties had made loads of food, we had a mahjong table for the elders, a creche and lots of different stalls with food from different countries in East Asia and South East Asia. I was thinking, ‘Oh, wouldn't it be so amazing if we could do something like that?’
Fast forward a few months, around May, we were having a Zoom call and we got talking about Heritage Month. I think it was me who said, “Shall we just do it?” It was just recognising that there was really a need for something and just saying, “Well, you know, what, if we don't just do this now, then we're going to lose momentum.”
The fact that we had so many responses shows that it really is needed – we have had over 70 events registered. That kind of validated us that we were right, people do want something like this.
Asia as a continent is enormous – we have access to so many diverse spaces and narratives and we're constantly learning from each other. I feel that we have so much to learn from different communities, from South Asians or West Asians. We have this huge amount of untapped potential in our communities; the heritage that we're celebrating at the moment is just a testament of how much can be achieved when communities come together and work together.
Karlie Wu: "Being Asian in Britain isn't just being Chinese."
Karlie Wu, 25, Glasgow
Being Asian in Britain isn't just being Chinese. It encompasses many, many other nationalities and also ethnic backgrounds. Because we don't have such an education and awareness of that, a Heritage Month is a really good way of sharing that information, both educationally but also as a form of connection between between us. Growing up, you could have gone to Chinese school, or you could have made friends with family friends' children, or depending on the area, maybe there were other ESEA kids. Otherwise, there's no real visibility of our community. A Heritage Month really gives people a way of connecting with others, and finding people from similar backgrounds, but also meeting people you might not have realised that you have so many commonalities with.
It's especially important in the UK, given that there's not very much recognition or awareness of the ESEA community, despite the centuries of history that the community have. There’s been a lot of immigration not only in recent times, like with our parents in the 50s and 60s, but far earlier when you had Chinese seamen in Liverpool who worked for the British Empire, and then got sent back.
We’re not a separate entity from the British population. We’re not a subset of British culture. We are very much ingrained in Britain today, and it seems baffling to me there’s no awareness or celebration around that.
Kai: "In the context of UK society, we're still the model minority."
Kai, 29, London
There's so many other aspects of ESEA cultures that aren't really known, even just the fact that there's like so many different countries in Asia. Just speaking from experience as a teacher, kids only probably know China, Japan and Korea – I think that's maybe the same with adults. Heritage Month really allows people to find out more about different cultures – even I've learnt so much from by going to events. Learning about cultures has ripple effects in many ways, allowing people to understand each other. It hopefully would have an effect on reducing the ignorant attitudes that lead to racism.
In the context of UK society, we're still the model minority. I think it's a bit difficult sometimes to feel like we're accepted. That leads to issues that we experience being downplayed and dismissed. As a teacher, I’ve experienced a lot of casual racism in the classroom in the past. You can’t get annoyed with them because they’re young; you learn to address these comments in a professional way, accept they’re kids and help them to see why it’s wrong. [But] the fact that these kids are still saying these things shows that racism against Asians is so normalised. Hopefully one day, future iterations of Heritage Month could come into classrooms and schools and reach out more to the younger generation.
Charley Wong: "We're going to continue to spread joy and do all these things and take up space."
Charley Wong, 29, Manchester
Growing up, I didn't know any other East and South East Asians. I lived in a very white community, I went to a white school. The past couple of years we've been able to come together – it's been so magical, so heartwarming and so thought-provoking to be able to unpack my identity and the things I've gone through in life and not really understood. Like microaggressions – all of those things I’ve been able to unpick and now I'm part of this much wider community. We’re only going to grow stronger, we're gonna increase in numbers, we're going to continue to spread joy and do all these things and take up space. I think that’s really incredible.
Since the pandemic, it has been really difficult to be racialised as Chinese with all the increased racism. But from that, we have borne this community that has just been so phenomenal. Now I'm so proud to be ESEA in the UK and be part of this movement and this community that's just kind of coming together. You don't have to be ESEA to join in the Heritage Month. If you've got an interest in the community, if you support the community, you know, everyone is welcome here. And we want to share our joy and our culture with you.
I think the lack of representation in positions of power in the media and politics is something that we really need to work on as a community; work on taking space, work on occupying that space and owning it and thriving in a world that's not necessarily always been made for us. It's about standing up and being seen.