The first migrant communities formed around port towns and cities, reflecting Britain’s historic connections to its Empire by the seas. There are records of ‘Asiatic sailors’ (often called ‘lascars’) in Birmingham as early as the 1870s. Many would have been young men.
The two world wars accelerated migration as people and resources were flung around the world with increasing intensity. In Britain, the Second World War created internal movement as migrants relocated to places like Birmingham, where there was plentiful employment in the munitions factories. It was during the war, and in its immediate aftermath, that ‘coloured’ faces started to become more noticeable across the city.
While small in number, these pioneers formed Birmingham’s first Asian communities.
During the 1950s and 60s, some Asians came to Britain for work; others to study. Together they formed the labour force of industrial Britain, strengthening the professions, becoming entrepreneurs, and adding to the ranks of activists looking to forge a better world. Britain’s eventual industrial decline disproportionately affected ethnic minorities and working classes.
Whether young Asians arrived as workers, students, or members of more privileged classes, the realities of being visibly different, and being able to see oneself reflected in the realities of the ‘mother-country’, shaped experiences of Asian youth. Even those who returned to the Punjab, Mirpur, Gujarat, Sylhet or East Africa would never be the same. In many respects, the journey of diasporic youth was not only about survival but about self-discovery in unfamiliar surroundings.
- What were the various ways and contexts within which young Asians arrived in Britain?
- What were the common experiences and feelings amongst Asian youth, in Birmingham and across Britain, during the 1950s and 60s?
- How did wider society, with its own diversity, acknowledge or resist this demographic change?
- How were Asians represented in the media and accounts of mainstream cultural activity?
We have used the gathered stories and archival research to interrogate experiences of being young, Asian and different in Birmingham. Please explore further by reading the oral histories from the 1950s-60s.