The Missing Chinese – My Conversation with Milan Svanderlik 29.3.15

Milan Svanderlik - Artist
Milan Svanderlik – Artist

The term ‘outsiders’ often has negative connotations: these are the people who are regarded as ‘them’ in contrast to ‘us’, the arrivals from distant provinces or foreign lands, those not quite belonging, those not exactly fitting in, those not conforming.

Artist: Milan Svanderlik


The ‘Outsiders in London – Are You One, Too!’ is an exhibition of photographic portraits of fourty different Britons (from various and diverse ethnic backgrounds), who, for one reason or another – be it for political, cultural, social, immigration, asylum, racial, ethnic, sexuality, gender, disability, religious, or economic reasons, etc. – consider themselves to be ‘outsiders’ living in London. The artist – Milan Svanderlik – a photographer of some considerable note – interviewed many individuals about their lives, or read significant amounts of written biographies from hundreds of voluntary contributors (apparently shifting out a number of fraudulent participants in the process), before choosing the fourty life stories that he thought best represented the concept he wanted to convey. During my conversation with the artist (on a wet Sunday afternoon in The Gallery in the Crypt of St Martin in the Field, London), he was adamant that this concept of actual or perceived alienation had a life of its own, and that his work was simply served as a conduit of expression. This self-facing and humble attitude, of course, typical of an artist of Milan Svanderlik’s obvious standing and ability, downplays the extent of the research he had to undertake, and the effort and work he had to exert to create such as work of expressive, philosophical, visual and expressive art. These are the names and categories that emerged:

Political – Secular Anarchist – Haldun Musazlioglu

Maverick – Andrew Maisel

Muslim and Gay – Naseer Muhammad

Divorced Woman – Giulia Gentile

Illegal Immigrant – Christine De Oliveira

Political Asylum – Pedro Gonzales

Racial Discrimination – Benedict Ighotu Agbaimoni

Transsexual – Margaret Dawn Pepper

Cross-Dresser ( Transvestite ) – Raphael / Rachel Spicer

Challenging Cultural and Social Norms ( Treatment of Widows ) – Chinwe Azubuike

Living with Deafness – Paul Cripps

Single and Childless Woman, by Choice – Katarína Homolová

Civil & Human Rights Campaigner – Peter Tatchell

Muslims in Britain ( ‘Clash of Civilisations ?’ ) – Harun Rashid Khan

Anti-Zionist Jewish Woman Artist – Anouche Sherman

A Duality of Gender – Pippa Holmes

Living with Serious Illness – Carole Pyke

Historically Vilified Ethnic Group – Roma ( Gypsies ) – Stan ( Stanislaw ) Kierpacz

Personal Presentation and Appearance – Vladmir Damianos

Living with Serious Disability – Henry Fraser

Challenging Social and Political Commentator – Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Living with Dementia – Christine Fagg

Criminalised Peaceful Political Protester – Trenton Oldfield

Anti-Zionist Rabbi (Neturei Karta) – Rabbi Ahron Leib Cohen

Controversial Art Critic and Writer – Brian Sewell

Happy Asexual Woman – Melanie Sawyer

Honour-Based Abuse/Forced Marriage (Karma Nirvana) – Jasvinder Sanghera CBE

Vilified Nationality (Romanians) – Anda Anastasescu

The Dissidence of Old Age – Margaret Owen OBE

Homelessness – Henry Stevenson

Poverty – Dean Steers

Working Tirelessly to Transform a Problem Estate – Julie Louise Fawcett MBE

Respected Insider but an Outsider Too – Lord Herman Ouseley

Inadequate English – Ranjeet Kaur Bhachu

Managing Bi-polar Disorder – Alec Scott Rook

Campaigning for the De-Criminalisation of Drugs – Dr Eliot Ross Albers

An Outsider in Her Own Family – Sonita Turner

Working Class Origins and Social Mobility – Lainy Malkani

Ex-Offender Striving to Make a New Life – Dennis Rose

A Soldier’s Struggle to Return to Civilian Life – Gary Areef Barnes

The Unknown Outsider – Borislav ( Bobo ) Marković

This is a breath-taking array of concerning the analysis of ‘difference’. It is interesting to see the apparent inclusiveness represented by the demographic sample chosen by the artist, and contingent upon those who chose to come forward. One conclusion is that ‘alienation’ is in no way limited to issues of race, ethnicity, or religion, but permeates all social groups from lords to workers, from religionists to secularists, and from asexuality to different expressions of sexuality, and that the subject is probably so diverse that 400, 4000, or even 40,000 people could be chosen to express its presence within British society. The fact that being an ‘outsider’ cuts-through virtually the entirety of British society suggests that there is a historical force at work, which is expressed through the minutiae of individual life experiences. As my family is Anglo-Chinese – with historical links to the UK and China (via Hong Kong) – I was curious why, out of fourty exhibits of individuals that covered many cultural and ethnic backgrounds, (such as Western European, Eastern Europe, Indian subcontinent, Africa, African-Caribbean, and Middle Eastern), and different religions (such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism), and secular atheism, as well as criticism (either directly or implied) of both capitalism and communism, there was not one single representative of the sizable and historically significant Chinese community which has lived in the UK and contributed to its economic and cultural development, in one form or another, for probably over one hundred years or more. To be fair to Milan Svanderlik, he made it clear to me that he could only work with the people who approached him, and that he does not, as a general rule, actively approach specific individuals or groups to participate in his art projects – which remain essentially ‘self-selecting’. He also made the point that he does not necessarily consider ‘ethnicity’, in and of itself, grounds for a person (or by implication a group of people), to be considered an ‘outsider’. In other words, how one looks is not necessarily grounds for social exclusion. I found this explanation something of a philosophical contradiction to the premise of the entire exhibition – as racism is a major component (albeit not the only constituent) of why many people feel alienated.

Where are the missing Chinese people of the UK? Well, there are hundreds of thousands British born Chinese people living in the UK whose parents or grandparents cane from the British colony of Hong Kong. This number is augmented by probably a million ore mainland Chinese students who attend British universities – and others who are employed in UK business. During WWI, thousands of Chinese men were conscripted into the British Army to work as unarmed labourers on the frontline in France. Despite taking all the same risks as the armed soldiers, they were paid less and used essentially as pack-animals – carrying food, ammunition, and desperately needed equipment to the frontline, and carrying the bodies of the dead and wounded to the rear areas for burial or to receive medical attention. Many of these men settled in and around Liverpool after the war – but the rightwing British press (led by the Daily Mail ad Daily Telegraph), demanded that they be rejected from the UK as their presence was culturally polluting. As a result, the British Army was sent into their living areas and they were rounded-up at bayonet point and put on ships back to China. This process took just two weeks to expel 20,000 Chinese people from the British shores. Astonishingly, this process occurred again (although on a smaller scale) in London in 1946 – where thousands of Chinese men, (some of whom had married English women), were arrested by the police on their way to work, and deported back to Hong Kong or China – never to be heard of again. Their descendents still live in the UK today – but have never forgotten what happened to their family members. Since these dark times, the British Chinese community has grown from strength to strength, but due to the despicable historical treatment it has received from the British authorities, it has tended to keep itself away from official contact as a policy of self-preservation. Perhaps this explains why individuals from the British Chinese community – made to feel as eternal ‘outsiders’ – did not come forward to participate in this gathering of important stories.



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