In August, I received a notification reminding me that a year ago, the organisation I co-founded, Britain’s East and South East Asian Network or besea.n, was about to launch. We were six angry women who had been relentlessly pressuring major news media outlets to stop using images of ESEA people in their COVID-19-related articles unnecessarily. It was causing an uptick in hate crimes and incidents against people who are Chinese or racialised as Chinese.
Historically, it’s not the first time ESEA people have faced discrimination in the UK. You only need to read about the Chinese merchant seamen who were forcibly deported from the UK after aiding Allied forces during the Second World War, or the plight of undocumented migrant healthcare workers from the Phillipines who suffer under Hostile Environment policies, to know that ESEA people face erasure on a systemic level. Lack of education around our contributions to UK society fuels the idea that we are ‘perpetual foreigners’, despite the fact that our presence in this country is unmistakably interwoven in the fabric of UK culture and history.
At besea.n, we aim to tackle discrimination on multiple levels that includes bringing the causes that affect the UK ESEA community to light via our online platforms. Within our core team, our identities span various languages and dialects, including Hakka, Vietnamese, French, German, Cantonese and Mandarin. Our family histories have travelled the world including Vietnam to Hong Kong, France to the UK, Scotland to West Africa, China to Brunei. Each of our journeys are so unique and varied, an honest answer to the question, “But where are you from?” would require at least ten minutes of your attention. However, at heart we are a network and with that comes the opportunity to propel the reach of our stories even further. Over the past year, we have been able to showcase the voices of Muslim, Queer, Trans and mixed-ethnicity members of the UK ESEA diaspora in the form of articles and resources published on our website, yet we are far from scratching the surface. This is why we decided to launch UK’s inaugural East and South East Asian Heritage Month in September of this year, which combines an online presence together with physical events organised by both besea.n and the wider community.
Over the course of around 60 events, there will be panel talks about representation in broadcasting and publishing, an exploration of Queer ESEA identity, a feminist tour of the National Gallery, a supperclub featuring the popular rice porridge of many ESEA countries, a music night showcasing UK-based ESEA artists and art fairs promoting the work of ESEA creatives. The variety and geographical breadth of events taking place is indicative of how driven we are to share aspects of our heritage with a wider UK-audience, and ensure that our stories are told with our perspectives and lived-experiences front and centre. Recent incidents such as the racist depiction of ESEA people by The Ivy Asia restaurant proves that without the prioritisation of ESEA voices in how our culture is portrayed, harmful narratives are perpetuated around who we are, which leads to further marginalising of our communities.
East and South East Asian Heritage Month will prove a powerful tool to create lasting effect beyond the month of September, by strengthening our networks and allowing an exchange of conversations and ideas that will enable further organising. Before we can enact change, we must seek out pockets of common understanding. From there, I believe that East and South East Asian people in the UK will be able to harness our collective voice and instigate change in education, leadership, media, government policy and beyond. East and South East Asia comprises 48 countries, the vastness of which cannot be fully encapsulated with just our platform alone. The nuanced relationship between countries and the fluidity of identities that make up members of the ESEA diaspora is a continuing conversation that I hope our programme of events is a lasting contribution to.
Above all else, East and South East Asian Heritage Month is about reclaiming joy. Oral history projects such as Ingat-Ingat, where the children or grandchildren of people who travelled from ESEA countries during the 1960s-70s to work for the NHS interview their elders about their experiences, have initiated conversations between generations of families that have rarely taken place. This is one of many events created in a space defined by ESEA people to share our histories, hopes and indelibly mark our place in the UK cultural landscape.
See the full line up of events via the besea.n website and share news of our campaign on social media by using the hashtag #ESEAHM2021. To help ESEA Heritage Month become recognised as an official annual observance, we invite you to sign our petition and write to your MP using this template. Finally, join us on a stellar line up of events and follow our network for more updates on upcoming news and events from the UK East and South East Asian community.