Shalimar Indian restaurant, Motherwell, 1971 Shalimar Indian restaurant, Motherwell, 1971

Colonialism, Empire and Migration: North Lanarkshire’s Asian Connections

5 min read

Countless Scots went to Asia from the early eighteenth century. As part of the British Empire, India brought great wealth to the home nations. Dr William Hamilton of Dalzell was among the many Scots who profited from India’s prosperity, having treated the Mogul Emperor in 1711.

Rise and Fall of an Empire

The East India Company had been founded by the English in 1600. For a century its focus was trade but by the early 1700s the Mogul Empire had begun to decline. Competitors like the Dutch and French East India Companies stepped up a gear. The East India Company turned to empire-building and was effectively ruling parts of India by the 1750s.

By 1803, the British East India Company boasted a private army twice the size of the British Army! The two Anglo-Sikh Wars, fought between 1845 and 1849, culminated in the Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie (another Scot) annexing the Punjab for the British East India Company.

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 led to the Government of India Act 1858. This saw the British Crown seize control of the Indian subcontinent, which was now under the rule of the British Raj. By the 1860s, with the Industrial Revolution well underway, European countries including Germany and France were competing aggressively to expand into unclaimed territories. Britain adopted a new policy that focused on protecting existing colonies and the all-important Indian trade route.

The decline of the British Empire began in earnest from around the 1920s. The First World War and the economic Depression that followed had weakened Britain considerably. The Second World War had even greater financial impact and signalled a shift in the balance of power. The Atlantic Charter of 1941, instigated by US President Roosevelt but signed by Winston Churchill, decreed “the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they live” and paved the way for devolving power away from the British Empire.

South Asia to North Lanarkshire

The economic depression of the 1920s forced some Indian workers to leave their homeland. Many Lascars (Indian sailors) found work in the coal mines and steel works of Lanarkshire. Civil unrest arose in India and Pakistan after the Indian Independence Act 1947, which caused many more people to migrate from the Indian sub-continent.

Thousands of Asians had settled in Lanarkshire by the 1960s, including many Pakistani people from the Central Punjab region.

Asian-Scots featured prominently in North Lanarkshire’s communities by the 1970s. Many were doctors, engineers and academics. Others, like Yaqub Ali, were self-employed businessmen. The son of an Indian farmer, Yaqub had come to Scotland in 1953 as a Muslim refugee:

When I was a child, my family weren’t poor. Then, when we became refugees, we lost everything. Being a refugee is so painful. There were days when we had nothing to eat at all. We were hungry and desperate.”

From almost nothing, Yaqub built up a small business empire with several premises in Glasgow and Lanarkshire. He and his brother Taj opened the A.A. Brothers licensed grocer’s in Motherwell in 1965.

Vietnam to North Lanarkshire

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the United Kingdom was among a group of developed countries who allowed the Vietnamese “boat people” entry to resettle. These refugees, mainly Hoa (ethnic Chinese) people, were being persecuted in their homeland following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. They had to endure difficult journeys in overcrowded boats (often subject to violent storms and piracy) in order to reach the UK from refugee camps in Southeast Asia.

Coltness House in Wishaw was used as a resettlement centre where Vietnamese refugees spent thirteen weeks acclimatising, learning the language and absorbing Scottish culture. Kersewell College near Carnwath, South Lanarkshire was another venue used to resettle the boat people: see film footage from the Moving Image Archive.

Many Vietnamese families were then received into Lanarkshire communities, although the welcome was not always warm. Fear of contagious diseases like TB and typhoid spreading from the resettlement centres combined with concerns about a local authority overspend sometimes gave rise to bad feeling towards the boat people.

East Asia to North Lanarkshire

By the 1980s a small Chinese community had formed in Lanarkshire too. Largely Cantonese and very often in the catering business, these economic migrants further expanded the cultural diversity of the area.

Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire from 1842 until the territory was transferred to China in 1997. The lead-up to the transfer, agreed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, triggered mass emigration from Hong Kong. Many residents feared their civil rights would be eroded and their quality of life badly affected.

First-generation Asian Scot Heidi Tang moved from Hong Kong to Scotland in 1984. Initially an English language student, Heidi settled in Airdrie, where she and her family owned the Lucky Star restaurant, serving Cantonese cuisine. Katie Leung is a second-generation Asian Scot. She was born in Motherwell in 1987, after her mother and father, respectively a banker and businessman, moved from Hong Kong. Katie made her name playing the role of Cho Chang in the Harry Potter film franchise.

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Heidi Tang: Cultural differences between Hong Kong and Lanarkshire

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