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Chinese Singing Group – What does culture mean to you?

Rosie Jamieson is stuying for a BA Honours Degree in Urban Geography at the University of Leeds. She has helped to co-produce the new Culture Strategy for Leeds, arranging and documenting focus groups and open discussions about what culture means to different groups across Leeds.

We were invited along to the weekly Chinese community group gathering at Beeston Village Community Centre to explore the views of the thriving Chinese community in Leeds. The centre hosts a range of different cultural groups across the week in order to strengthen the community in the area.  The building could have been easily missed, but as soon as we were inside we knew we were in the right place. The room was filled with friendly chatter and delicious smells of food, which would form the basis of what was to be an extremely inviting and welcoming community group. Groups such as this are rare for the Chinese community in Leeds and as a result, people travelled from all over the region to attend this session.

We started off with a very interesting chat with one of the most senior members of the group, who didn’t look old enough to be 72! He was one of the elders of the community and had prepared a lot to say to us about Chinese culture and how it was represented in Leeds. One of the main issues he highlighted was the language barrier which creates many difficulties for the Chinese community when it comes to culture as there is a views that there is just one language but Chinese has many variations including Cantonese and Mandarin. Many of the community (particularly the elderly) struggle to speak English and this was apparent later in the session when we met with the wider group and our host had to translate this session for us. He told us about the group activity which was taking place next to us where the Chinese community would gather at the centre every week to sing English songs as singing is an easier way of learning language than speaking or reading it. The group were singing English nursery rhymes and traditional songs like Auld Lang Syne but when we met them later they were not able to speak English.

When we talked about language our host was emphatic that language is one of the biggest parts of Chinese culture but seldom taught in schools. Education and language are key to the Chinese community and they run regular supplementary schools on Sundays for young Chinese people who were born in England to learn the language of their heritage. The schools are paid for by the community and although some of the young people do not enjoy giving up their Sunday to learn a language that they find difficult, for the parents it is an important link to their heritage and shared identity.

Our host talked about Chinese culture being very reserved so it is difficult to engage in some of the western cultures and customs. It is important in Chinese culture not to feel stupid or ignorant, where western cultures would ask if they are unsure of something, Chinese communities will not so it was our hosts view that they become isolated not because they don’t want to integrate and enjoy new cultures but the barrier of their customs and traditions means that they are waiting to be invited and for Leeds to share its culture with them.

After our initial conversation we met with the whole group for an open discussion and some key ideas came up throughout.

We discussed the ways in which Chinese people make a living within Leeds, and our host highlighted the importance of food in the Chinese culture. Many first wave immigrants to the UK previously owned Chinese restaurants, and these have now turned into takeaway shops following the decline of the Chinese restaurant culture as new generations have chosen different careers. A strong part of their culture is cooking food for others and sharing food in a group. This inevitably led to discussions about the potential introduction of a ‘China Town’ area in Leeds to enable the Chinese food culture to develop further in the city. The community felt that other cities make much more effort to have more visible celebration of immigrant culture. Birmingham and Bradford have a Curry Mile and Manchester and Liverpool have big China Town areas.

When asked about how the culture in the city could be improved for the Chinese community, our host told us that Chinese people will not shout about what they want, or even complain about what they have. However, when asked about their culture and the ways the city could improve, they will respond with constructive answers. China is not a homogenous country when it comes to culture, rather it has many cultural differences across the country and this transpires through the Chinese community in Leeds too. Chinese New Year is one of the biggest festivals celebrated in China and the group consensus was that they would like to see a bigger emphasis on this throughout Leeds in future years. A small event does take place in Leeds Town Hall but they wanted it to spill out into the city like it does elsewhere across the UK. They talked of Chinese culture being everyone’s culture and our host told us about the Chinese Lion Parade where underneath the costumes people from across ethnicities and religions performed to celebrate Chinese New Year.

One of the people in the group seemed keen for more cultural group sessions to be arranged. They suggested activities such as singing, dancing and exercise classes to be implemented in central locations within the city, as currently there is a lack of classes to engage the elderly population. Transport around the city was not claimed to be a specific problem for the Chinese community, however it is seen to be a general hindrance, as often people have to get several buses to travel to places. This is something that perhaps prevents more regular community group meetings.

The final point to be raised in the group discussion was that of improving services across different ages. Again, language is an issue for many elderly Chinese people, and due to this, they would struggle in a care home. This is something many felt needs to be adapted in order to provide them with care, despite the language barrier. A slightly disturbing issue was that many elderly Chinese people living in Leeds often pass away without anyone noticing for weeks as the community is so isolated due to its language barrier, so some elderly people do not have carers and if they can’t get to a community group nobody misses them. A member of the group suggested a type of community visit scheme could be set up to prevent elderly people going unnoticed.

It seems, despite not wanting to shout about what they want, the Chinese community group had many constructive ideas to improve culture in Leeds, and want to be more visible in the city they call home.


The Chinese Singing Group is organised by South Leeds based Health for All and takes place at Beeston Village Community Centre every Monday lunch time.

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