At 3PM yesterday, the restaurant staff of London's Chinatown packed away their steaming baskets and frog hammers and took to the streets to protest. They were angry at raids carried out over the summer by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), who were trying to catch illegal immigrants working in the area, and they released this statement to that effect: "Over 13 businesses have reported heavy-handed raids of their premises […] Business owners also believe that the raids did not comply with lawful procedures and have only added fuel to the negative stereotyping and ‘racial profiling’ of the Chinese community."
Since the raids, businesses have been stung with fines of up to £10,000 for each illegally employed worker, and workers themselves have faced arrest and deportation if they are found to be in the UK illegally. I went down to Chinatown to see the protest unfold.
When I arrived, I found a number of restaurants still open past the advertised 2PM shutdown. I first thought that perhaps they were just being cheeky and trying to squeeze as much of the late-lunch crowd through their doors before trudging down to join everyone else on Gerrard Street (though why anyone would want to eat at a "scab restaurant", I don't know; it's not a very appetising phrase).
But then a guy who seemed to be MCing the whole thing made an announcement to the assembled press that the protest was, in fact, scheduled for between 3PM and 5PM – happy hour in Chinatown. So I hung around for a while eating food that wasn't quite half price yet while I waited for everyone else to turn up.
This guy was so glum about the raids that even his job as dedicated balloon distributor – a traditionally joyful task – couldn't lift his spirits.
He really did seem terribly sad.
Before I burst into tears, I decided to talk to Lawrence Cheng, General Secretary of the London Chinatown Chinese Association. "This is the result of the many raids that we regard as 'fishing' raids all through the summer months," he said. "There were about 13 raids resulting in about 40 arrests. From the accounts given by our members, we reckon they are fishing raids," implying that the UKBA were randomly searching multiple premises without any prior cause.
"In general, there were accusations of them being heavy handed – verbal abuse and that sort of thing," Cheng continued. "To tell you one extreme example, at the end of one of the raids, they showed the warrant to the owner – which they should have done at the beginning – and the owner pointed out that they were at the wrong place! So it couldn't be intelligence led. Many of us have been legitimate businesses for many years. We’re not here to be on the wrong side of the law. I'd love to see some evidence that this is not racial profiling."
A crowd gathered, and just before 3PM a countdown was chanted before all the restaurants closed for the two least profitable hours of the day.
Then the whistle blowing started. There were a lot of people with whistles, which was supposed to be a pun on the fact that the protest was "blowing the whistle" on discrimination. As a pun, I felt it was a weak one, but if anger at a ratcheting up of racial tensions could be measured in decibels, then these were some very angry people. Unfortunately, it did have the side-effect of rendering many of the speeches kind of inaudible.
Above the din, I managed to talk to Merlene Emerson of the Chinese Liberal Democrats, a sinophile branch of the coalition party. She told me that she thought Chinatown was being picked on because it's an easy target. "It’s easy to spot the Chinese because there aren’t many indigenous Chinese people," she said. "So we’re saying they’re abusing their power."
Emerson also pointed out a more practical problem with the policy, explaining that – thanks to factors like a backlog of half a million unresolved immigration cases – it's often not possible to deport people. "What do you do if tens of thousands are illegal and they can’t work?" she asked. "They’re destitute, they turn to crime – we need a system that recognises that."
After speaking to Merlene, I asked Willem from Holland here what he thought of the protest. He didn't have much sympathy. "I think it’s good that the illegals are caught," he said. "In Holland, the Dutch people who want to work in the Chinese restaurants are not allowed – they say they can’t cook Chinese, which isn't true. They close it for Dutch people. I think it’s not fair."
After a fair few speeches, it was time to gather and march through Chinatown, chanting, "UKBA go away, Chinese community here to stay!"
Some people were linking the Chinatown raids to the Home Office's declared strategy of making the UK a "hostile environment" for immigrants. The same strategy that's seeing ethnic minorities hounded by racist vans and intimidating tweets, and hassled by surly immigration officials while they’re trying to get some sleep or catch the train.
The idea that the raids were part of some wider, immigrant-bashing agenda was a credible one, but it seemed to jar with the shameless dirty talk George Osborne flattered China with on his recent visit to the country, as this guy's placard pointed out. (I wasn't sure about the "labour shortage" part of his banner, though – I'm pretty certain a lot of people are unemployed at the moment.)
Osborne had said, "I want more of you to come. And more Chinese visitors, too. Let me make this clear to you and to the whole of China – there is no limit to the number of Chinese who can study in Britain. No limit to the number of Chinese tourists who can visit. No limit on the amount of business we can do together. For, in the end, what is a true dialogue?"
Effectively, if you can afford to come and prop up our ailing university sector by paying inflated foreigners' fees, or spending money on "I <3 LONDON" T-shirts and Union Jack paraphernalia, then Osborne is falling over himself to welcome you. If, however, you’re so poor that leaving home forever to come to London to scrub woks for 20 hours a day seems like an attractive option, it’s an enforced flight back to China for you.
To be fair to George, you can see the logic of letting the money in and keeping the hardworking poor people trying to make a life for themselves out, but the stance still seems pretty brutal. Which is probably why one of the speakers – Stafford Scott from the Tottenham Defence Campaign – encouraged the Chinese not to invest in the UK. "Let them eat fish and chips," he said.
As I mulled that point over, I bumped into a guy who gave his name as Wayne and didn't want to be photographed. Wayne said he had worked in Chinatown for 20 years. I asked him if there really was a labour shortage in the area and he said, "It’s nice to say local work for local people, but do you really, seriously think that anybody would come to work in a Chinese restaurant kitchen? They’re so hectic. They have such long hours."
So what was he saying, I asked? That Chinatown is, in fact, reliant on illegal immigrant labour? "Yes, some of them are – there’s no denying it. Without it, 60 or 70 percent [of the shops and restaurants] would be closed. It’s like any other job. You rely on the Polish to do the building, but you can’t rely on them to cook in Chinatown."
Wayne's words made me wonder if everything in Chinatown is quite as rosy a picture as some of the restaurateurs were trying to paint. If your crappy kitchen jobs are so stressful that you struggle to fill your workforce without dipping into a pool of illegal immigrants who barely have any other option, you might not be the real victim here.
Nevertheless, what does seem clear is that the UKBA's approach is ham-fisted and is yet again making an ethnic minority group feel stigmatised. Indiscriminately blundering into places and making people feel scared doesn't tend to be the solution to things, but it's an approach UKBA seem to be fond of.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonChilds13
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