Reflections on 2020 from China Exchange

China Exchange started 2020 with an injection of positivity. Four hundred people came to enjoy our Chinese New Year celebrations with Mothers Bridge of Love. Over 100 people joined our community-led walking tours in the first two months of the year. The cold weather couldn’t stop us from sharing the history of our special neighbourhood. Our Making of Chinatown exhibition set off on its tour of London venues and two artists joined us in residency for our Made in Chinatown project. In February, we marked our 5th anniversary and welcomed friends and supporters to Gerrard Street to celebrate this milestone.  In these five years, over 32,000 people have joined our activities, our YouTube videos have had almost 1 million views and our incredible volunteers have donated the equivalent of 6 months of working days since 2018.

The year also started with a jagged edge – we got to see anti-Chinese sentiment, racism and prejudice in affronting ways. Two of our volunteers reported being aggressed. News report after news report featured people of East Asian heritage wearing facemasks to illustrate stories about covid-19 and Chinatown became the backdrop of choice for news reports about the virus’s emergence in Wuhan. We watched as footfall in Chinatown dwindled. We did not know at the time that these prejudices would be revealed in violent ways or that we would need to direct our energy and attention to combating racism.

We were unable to hold events or generate our funds through the use of our building like we usually do. For several months, our future looked uncertain and, at times, it was bleak. We had to make a team member redundant. I had already drafted the email to the team and the newsletter to all our subscribers to share the sad news that we would be forced to close. Around the same time, one of our longstanding volunteers passed away suddenly. Receiving the call from her family to share the news, they said how she had enjoyed and valued her time at China Exchange. I was moved to be on the list of people to contact after she had died and remain thankful that we had the chance to work together. A small organisation like ours can only deliver things through the energy, creativity and hard work of people, and we are fortunate to have a resilient team who can find ways to stay motivated to find solutions even when things feel impossible. When I felt my own hope fading, I would restore it by seeing how hard my team and our volunteers were willing to work to make things happen.

Our volunteers stayed connected through two projects this year. During the first lockdown, they completed a piece of research into change in Chinatown. This was our first virtual volunteering programme and meant that we could welcome people from across the country and even Canada to take part. You will see the results of their work in the new year. Our Made in Chinatown volunteers also found ways to continue with the project, working with artists and community members to create unique products rooted in Chinatown’s heritage.

In the autumn, we got our first strong indication that we could survive. China Exchange was awarded Culture Recovery Fund support through the Arts Council from the Department of Media, Culture and Sport. This would cover our basic costs until the Spring, when we hope that we can operate and generate funds ourselves. We have since been awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT) grant to fund work combatting covid-19 racism. Our Made in Chinatown products went on sale in November and the response has been fantastic. All proceeds will fund community projects in Chinatown. We are not yet on firm ground, but we are here. Our work in creating opportunities for people to understand China, Chinese culture and London’s Chinatown has never felt more urgent or more important. It has also never been more difficult. Thankfully, we are a team that never gives up. See you in 2021!