How Chinese design and culture influenced British artwork, motifs and color schemes

Chinese design’s influence on the West was subtle, almost by osmosis, one might say, but we can see many references in Western art today. Britain has long had a magpie tradition of taking from the various cultures it has come into contact with in its colonial, imperial past.

Chinese communities have been in the UK for much longer than many people realize. Many came from both mainland China and Southeast Asia and stayed to create a rich and diverse arts and design influence in Britain.

The Chinese and British exhibition at the British Library explores this relationship, telling the story of the first people to arrive from China in the late 16th century to the founding of Liverpool’s first Chinatown in the 1850s. It celebrates the lasting influence of Chinese art and design, from cuisine to literature, sports, film, music and fashion.

Dollhouse by Polin Law. Image: British Library

like dr Lucienne Loh, Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Liverpool and co-curator of the Chinese and British exhibition, says: “Chinese and British at the British Library is an incredible opportunity to celebrate the diverse contributions of under-represented people to British society through communities personal survival and success stories.”

An examination of motifs, design and objects

The Chinese and British Exhibition has many fine objects, including a hand-drawn map of China by Shen Fuzong, the first recorded person to visit Britain in 1687. There is also a beautiful fan made of bamboo slats and paper made from mulberry bark from Hangzhou province. A classic Chinese design are the hand-embroidered shoes by Kathy Hall, a practitioner of traditional Chinese opera. They are adorable, fun slippers in bright pink with green and red floral motifs; The finishing touches are extravagant light blue tassels on the toes.

There is also the fascinating and forgotten trench art created by the Chinese Labor Corps during World War I. The material was basically what was plentiful – conch shells – and these items are decorated with ancient Chinese symbolism and iconography. After 1916, 140,000 Chinese men assisted the British army in clearing the battlefields of shell casings and corpses. While there, as a pastime, they modeled and engraved shell casings as well as French francs found in the combat zones.

Frank Soo, first Sino-British soccer player.  Image: British Library

Frank Soo, first Sino-British soccer player. Image: British Library

From the 1950s, cigarette card collecting was a very popular pastime. There is a colorful cigarette card of Frank Soo, the first player of Chinese descent to play in the English football league. He was of mixed heritage, his father was a Liverpool-based Chinese seafarer’s father, Ah Kwong-Soo, and his mother, Beatrice Whittam, was English.

One of the most well-known tropes for the Chinese in the UK is take-out. Rosanna Lee’s film Parallel explores this archetype and follows a family that many Chinese (and Westerners alike) will recognize as keen on dim sum, filmed at the Pearl Dragon restaurant in Southend-on-Sea. Beautifully shot and with symbols such as the goldfish (meaning abundance and wealth in Chinese culture) swimming throughout the film.

Still from Rosanna Lee's film Parallel

Still from Rosanna Lee’s film Parallel

The Chinese in the UK are probably best known for take out. There is a wonderful dollhouse model of a Chinese diner made by Polin Law based on an actual family business. It’s a bird’s-eye view of the interior, replete with a ground-floor restaurant and a kitchen stocked with woks and rice cookers.

The 3D design of the exhibition was created by Chloë Leen, co-founder of Pup Architects. The Clapton-based practice’s past clients include the East End Women’s Museum, the V&A and the first exhibition at the Design Museum, Fear & Love.

In creating the space, “the aim wasn’t to create something historic or too culturally specific. It’s about thinking that a lot of these design ideas don’t really appeal to everyone in the British-Chinese community,” says Leen. “It is very difficult to neatly summarize the unity of a single thing. We wanted to create a sense of neutrality and stay away from the expected.”

Chloë Leen (far right) co-founder of Pup Architects

Chloë Leen (far right) co-founder of Pup Architects

The aim was to appeal beyond the Chinese community and educate everyone about Sino-British identity.

This makes the room look very light and contemporary. There are references to red that symbolize luck, joy, and happiness. It also represents celebration, vitality and fertility and is the traditional color worn by Chinese brides to ward off evil spirits.

The sheer curtains, printed with black and white photographs, convey an ethereal sense of yesteryear, yet are in the present with us. “It’s about layering and transparency and overlaying with the graphics,” suggests Leen.

For example, the subtle colors and patterns of light turquoise, green, and pink are so far removed from the garish colors in Ming Dynasty paintings. But the reference is closer to the water-based ink and pastel paint on paper or silk.

Leen says she wants to bring lightness to the exhibition space. “The room used to be much darker. We wanted it to feel more open, and the colors largely relate to culture-specific objects and places.”

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