When Chiang Yee arrived in Britain in 1933, he was determined to study for a master’s degree at the London School of Economics and then return to China, where he had left his wife and four children under the care of his brother. He was 30 years old and knew just a handful of English words.
Yet Yee went on to become a popular artist, bestselling author, poet, designer, academic and hugely influential cultural ambassador of China to the west.
Now, 40 years after his death, his contribution to British and Chinese life has been honoured with a blue plaque unveiled yesterday in Oxford. Organised by author Paul French, a specialist in modern Chinese history, and Anne Witchard from the University of Westminster, Yee’s plaque comes in response to a campaign launched by English Heritage in 2016, calling for a more representative celebration of history.
According to the charity, which oversees the blue plaque scheme in London, only 14% of the 900 plaques in the capital celebrate women and just 4% are dedicated to black and Asian figures.
Yee is the third Chinese figure to be granted the honour; writer Lao She’s blue plaque stands in Notting Hill, while Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China in 1912, is remembered in the Hertfordshire village of Cottered.
“The scarcity of blue plaques for ethnic minority people really piqued my interest,” says French. “I thought Chiang Yee was an excellent candidate; he made an important and creative impact on British society and his work should be remembered. But the blue plaque system is quite odd. There is no central database. Outside London it is run by local councils and volunteers at random.
“One of the problems for black and Asian migrants is that the technical rules require the person to have been resident in the same place for 15 years for it to qualify as a place that can be commemorated. That’s difficult for people from transient communities – if you come here with no money, you move a lot more. We were lucky with Yee because he lived on Southmoor Road in Oxford as a lodger after being bombed out of Hampstead on the first night of the Blitz.”
Yee wrote that he “arrived in London on a June day in 1933 and it was raining. I felt chilly and thought it must soon be autumn”. His neighbours in Hampstead were artists and intellectuals, including Piet Mondrian, Ernő Goldfinger, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. According to Paul Bevan, a fellow in Chinese painting at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, this community created “a unique artistic ambience in London” in which Yee was able to flourish.
He wrote and illustrated a number of books, most notably the Silent Traveller series that made his name in the 1930s and 40s and sold across Europe and the US. In them, he describes his experience of the Lake District, Oxford and London and many of the great cities in the west with wry affection.
Tessa Thorniley, a PhD student researching Chinese authors at the University of Westminster, suggests that travel writer Bill Bryson’s work has echoes of what Yee achieved first in Britain and later in the US, where he settled in 1955.
“Both were super popular, good at interpreting different cultures, used humour in their work and used a travel format … [Yee’s] style was always amused rather than cynical or satirical, which drew readers in,” she said.
But he also collaborated on a Chinese cookbook, wrote a seminal text on Chinese calligraphy and designed sets and costumes for the Royal Ballet. He worked at the Wellcome Collection and taught Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His paintings – British landscapes rendered in the traditional Chinese guóhuà style – were shown in galleries in Mayfair.
Perhaps, most importantly, he charmed Britons into understanding China better and without hostility. Even the popularity of the cartoon panda, say his supporters, was a notion introduced to the mainstream by Yee.
“We think of them as lovely cuddly animals now and a symbol of friendly China, but it was Yee who wrote and illustrated pandas as characters in the books he wrote for children,” says French. “Pandas are actually quite spiteful and mean but without Yee they wouldn’t be the logo for the World Wide Fund for Nature.”
His biographer, Professor Da Zheng, wrote that Yee’s “transcultural and transnational experiences were so extensive that reading the story of his life is like watching all of China change, transform, develop and interact with the west”.
Zheng, along with Rita Keene Lester, whose parents let out two rooms to Yee from 1940 to 1955, unveiled the plaque to the public at 28 Southmoor Road, Oxford. He said the honour was a fitting tribute to a figure long due reappraisal. “He has a unique style: humorous, innovative, and insightful … he is able to discover something extraordinary out of common phenomena,” Zheng said.
Extracts from The Silent Traveller in London
Fur coats and fires persist month after month, and so do the identical vegetables and fruits, and this benefit of science, I find, makes life monotonous.
I was often told that John Bull seldom went out without an umbrella, or its substitute, a stick, if it was fine. I do not see many Londoners carrying sticks in the street, but an umbrella they seem to have all the time.
It is strange that, though London suffers an excess of rain most of the time, Londoners talk very anxiously of the need of it if there is a short drought.
My friend was surprised and a little shocked to see so many pieces of land enclosed and marked “private”, protesting that in China we should never find the public forbidden a free enjoyment of scenery.