Tag Archives: immigration

Portsmouth the Global City

3 Jun

There’s a popular perception of Portsmouth as a monocultural, jingoistic and reactionary city. Taking a very different angle, University of Portsmouth lecturer and foreign affairs commentator Tom Sykes discusses Portsmouth’s role as a global city with social and cultural connections to almost every other part of the world. This article is based on a lecture Tom delivered as part of the nationwide Being Human festival last year.

A few sunny Saturdays ago, I was having a beer with friends in the garden of a laid-back Albert Road pub. To the left of us was a lively group of heavy-set and mostly bald men. All were dressed in black, some wore jackboots in addition. When they’d finished their pints of pissy lager they put on black masks and lined up for a group photograph. ‘Fuck the immigrants!’ they chanted several times before piling outside to, no doubt, repeat this hate crime somewhere else.

When I tell friends from outside Portsmouth about this incident, they tend to smile dourly and say, ‘Well that’s Portsmouth, what do you expect?’ They have a point, as nastiness of this type has been oozing out of our city for a long time. In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists would descend here to spread racial hatred, although they’d often be challenged by thousands of protesters. More lately, their political descendants – the EDL, BNP, Pie and Mash Squad, Hitler-loving publicans, Islamo- and homophobic football coaches – have hit the headlines a little too frequently for comfort.

Our elected leaders – from the mainstream “respectable” parties – appear to fan the flames of such bigotry rather than pour sand on them. Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt was recently accused of lying and ‘dog whistle politics’ when she claimed that EU member states have no veto over Turkey joining the EU and that such an eventuality would make Britain vulnerable to foreign criminals and terrorists. During last winter’s European refugee crisis, Donna Jones, leader of Portsmouth City Council, declared the city closed to her fellow human beings desperately fleeing war, penury and persecution.

All of which implies that tolerance and diversity aren’t Portsmouth’s strong suits. But there is a different story about our city not often enough told. It’s a story of highly successful immigration, integration, assimilation and exchange.

Throughout the industrial era, Portsmouth’s role as a sea port guaranteed ethnic and cultural diversity. The 1851 census shows that the Irish – most of whom were skilled dock labourers – were then the largest minority in the city. They worked alongside so many Russians, North Africans and Southern Europeans that the historian James H Thomas speculates that rarely would you have heard English being spoken during those times at the dockyard – that most potent symbol of English economic and imperial power.

Today, the 270-year-old graveyard on Fawcett Road is the only obvious trace of Portsmouth’s oldest and arguably most influential ethnic minority: the Jews. In 1749, the Portsmouth and Southsea Hebrew Congregation was founded, followed by the building in 1780 of the synagogue at White’s Row (now Curzon Howe Road). During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), large numbers of Jewish businesspeople came to Portsmouth to lend money and sell clothes, watches, jewellery and silver trinkets to soldiers and sailors. By the end of the wars, Portsmouth was home to one of the four major British-Jewish populations outside of London.

Compared to other parts of the UK, Portsmouth was sympathetic to the struggle for Jewish civil and political rights of the early 1800s. Leading gentiles accepted invites to dine at the Hebrew Benevolent Institution and, by 1841, Portsmouth had elected its first Jewish councillor. There were three more by the end of the decade. To this day, four Lord Mayors of Portsmouth have been Jews: Emmanuel Emmanuel (1866-7), Abraham Leon Emmanuel (1894 & 1901), Harry Sotnick (1963) and Richard E Sotnick (1978). The former two were not related; the latter two were father and son. For more detail on the compelling history of Portsmouth Jewry please see Dr Audrey Weinberg’s two-part essay here.

Some people believe that the first significant Polish community in Britain was established after EU freedom of movement policies were relaxed in 2004. In truth, it happened in Portsmouth two centuries before. In 1834, 212 Polish soldiers fled Russia after their plot to overthrow the then Tsar was foiled. They came to Portsmouth where the residents not only welcomed them but raised money to pay for their food and shelter. As a contemporary journalist noted, ‘Not the rich and great alone have contributed, but perhaps many a hard-earned shilling has been dropped into the subscription boxes by the artisan or labourer.’

After World War II, Portsmouth’s three major ethnic minority groups were Hong Kong Chinese, Indian and East Pakistani (later Bangladeshi). The Chinese population spiked in the 1950s when a growing demand amongst sailors for Chinese food prompted the opening of dozens of new restaurants in the Portsmouth area.

According to the 2011 census, 205,400 people live in Portsmouth. Council figures from 2014 show that 16% of the city’s population is BME (Black Minority and Ethnic). The largest BME communities are Bangladeshi (1.8% of residents), African and Indian (both 1.4%). Other notable groups – presented here in order of size – are Chinese, mixed white and Asian, white and black Caribbean, and Arab.

Over 100 languages can now be heard around Portsmouth, with Polish the most commonly spoken non-English tongue (1,914 speakers or 1% of the city population). 1,517 residents speak Bengali (including Sylheti and Chatgaya), 1,180 Chinese languages other than Mandarin and 979 Arabic.

The headline here – and a happier one than the hateful headlines above – is that Portsmouth’s BME population doubled between 2001 and 2011.

This article was originally published here.

Tragedies of Exile Part I

28 Aug
Tragedies of Exile: Candid Encounters with Expats
27 August, 2012


During my two years in Asia, some of the most intriguing people I met were expats. Some were genial and intelligent, others were obnoxious, but not one was ever dull. Settling down for brief periods in India, Malaysia, and other places, I became an expat myself. I experienced a weird kind of dislocation, a confusion about who I was and what I was doing. Despite my keenness to integrate, I had many fears and anxieties. Such feelings were new to me; I wanted to understand them better.

I decided to interview a number of expats about their attitudes, motives, and desires. I became fascinated not only by their personal stories, but with the wider phenomenon of expatriation itself. I found out that expats are defined as migrants from economically advanced countries and that, while there’s much debate about immigration to such countries, there is less focus on emigration from them. I was surprised to learn that six million Britons (10% of the total population) currently live outside the country, while 5% of Australians and 2% of Americans have moved overseas.

The more interviews I conducted, the more I realised that my troubles weren’t unique. An expat life seldom runs a smooth course.


I first meet Annisa at the University of Malaysia. She is performing an experimental dance routine drawing on African and Asian styles. She lurches around the stage as if possessed, her face pinched with terror. Afterwards, she sits down with me, exhausted.

Her beauty suggests she is younger than the “late 30s” she claims. She has caramel skin, sleek black hair and small elliptical eyes. These looks are typical of Cape Malays, she tells me, the descendents of Javanese slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch. But while her ancestors were forcibly expatriated, Annisa has freely chosen to return to their country of origin five centuries later. She belongs to a genre of expat called “the returnee.” As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe in Brits Abroad, other returnees include British-Jamaicans who opt to go back to the Caribbean in later life. They are not always impressed with what they find. “It’s a foreign culture for us,” complains one man. “Now it is Americanised and strange.”

Is Annisa impressed with what she’s found? “It’s not how I imagined,” she sighs. “I was hoping for more gamelan music and fewer shopping malls.”

Does she spend time with other expats? “Apart from my English husband, not really.” She inverts Aesop’s adage: “Divided we stand, united we fall.” Fellow expats are “too inward-looking; they have little to do with the locals.” She has touched on a big theme: the problem of integration. In one school in Spain with a majority of British pupils, teachers protest the refusal of these Brits to learn Spanish. While living in Manila, a Filipino friend accused me of hiding in a gated community: a tower of rich outsiders guarded by natives poor enough to be sacrificed in an armed robbery or kidnap attempt. I pointed out to my friend that this was the only accommodation available to foreign workers like me; I hated it as much as she did.

However, some expats don’t feel welcomed to integrate. In Knowles and Harper’s study Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes, and Journeys, British teenager Jess complains that Hong Kongers won’t sit next to her on the bus. When she enters a clothes shop they giggle at her Western physique. Knowles and Harper link this hostility to the colonial past, when local coolies had to ask special permission to enter whites-only neighbourhoods such as Victoria Peak. “There is a whole other life here which is very different from ours,” Jess concludes miserably.

In contrast with Jess, Annisa has learned fluent Malay and is founding a theatre company here in Kuala Lumpur. I ask her why she chose the expat life. “I was a professional actress in South Africa for five years, but the work dried up. I thought I should travel and better myself as a writer and performer.”
Annisa belongs to a long tradition of creatives who have sought inspiration and ideas abroad. As Malcolm Bradbury puts it, “by virtue of his dedication, creative anguish, and distinctive perception, the artist exercises his freedom and his powers by existing in a displaced relationship to his national culture.” Bradbury goes on to examine the great American writers who moved to Europe, from Henry James to Washington Irving, Ezra Pound to T. S. Eliot, Henry Miller to William Burroughs. Many of them went to Paris and joined a United Nations of artists: Irish playwrights, Spanish filmmakers, German painters, and so on.

Has Annisa been an expat anywhere else? “I’ve lived in San Francisco, Jakarta, Mumbai, and Yeovil.” “Yeovil?” I wonder if I heard correctly. “Yes,” she laughs. “It’s where my husband’s from. We didn’t last long there.”


I sit with Lily in a peach-coloured bar that used to be a Portuguese villa. Her peroxide blonde hair and sequined dress recall a femme fatale from a film noir, except she may be too old for the part. We are waiting for a band to tune up.

I ask Lily how she came to live in Goa. She looks over at the band, tears filming her heavily shadowed eyes. I seem to have upset her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, catching a tear in a napkin. “It’s been a while since somebody asked me that question.” She composes herself and begins her story.

Lily used to be a “workaholic miser,” running old people’s homes in Auckland. When her 20-year-old son Doug died in a car crash, she stopped caring about her career, money, New Zealand, and a lot else besides. She moved to Australia and lived on a houseboat. She threw lavish parties for her neighbours, enjoying this “new feeling called generosity.” A typical party would start with steak and champagne for breakfast and end with skinny dipping in the Timor Sea.

Lily then lived on a houseboat in Thailand for two years before sailing on a cargo ship to Goa. She admits to “running away from something,” but doesn’t mention her son. Her latest act of generosity was to buy instruments for the band, which has just started playing.

“Doug loved music,” she shouts in my ear. “Really loved it.” For the first time this evening she smiles. Some other expats join us, kissing Lily on the cheek. She keeps smiling for the whole of the gig.

Read part two in next month’s issue of The Expat.
This article was written by Tom Sykes for The Expat magazine.

Source: The Expat August 2012