The story that apparently inspired Barclay Price to write this book is of a Chinese man called William Macao who arrived in Britain in or around 1775 as a servant. Thanks to benign employers, he was educated, converted to the Scottish Church and regularly promoted in the government’s excise department. He married a Scotswoman and became known as an all-round respectable middle-class gent.
Certain aspects of the story are somewhat unbelievable. For instance, his name seems made up, Macao being then a Portuguese enclave off the Chinese coast, and if he ‘assimilated seamlessly’ to Scottish life, as Price claims, why did his children emigrate and the line die out? The tale encapsulates all the merits and demerits of this book. Price has done a great deal of research. But the narrative flow is often drowned by detail: one does not need to know, for example, who designed the excise office where Macao worked or how to cram more pews into a church.
The Chinese in Britain consists of two parts. In the first, Price gives us an encyclopedic listing, arranged thematically, of the Chinese who set foot in Britain before the 20th century – as servants, entertainers, prospects for conversion to Christianity, diplomats and students. He then tackles a similar group in