ESEA Heritage Month: Celebrating East and Southeast Asians in Britain

In British-Asian history, this September represents an important moment as the first ever ESEA Heritage Month in the U.K. Hosted by the British East and South East Asia Network [besea.n) it is an opportunity to give a platform to a community that often hasn’t had a public voice. It is a chance for individuals from these communities to share their stories, experiences and culture on a national level with each other and the wider community they belong to.

There are a wealth of different events that will take place up and down the country, a large portion of these are virtual due to the ongoing pandemic, the majority are also free, making them accessible to everyone. It really celebrates the vast array of culture, food and art from the diverse range of countries that make up southeast Asia. Too often we tend to refer to the geographical area as a whole, but they are actually 11 separate countries that are all unique in their heritage, religions, languages and cultures.

Besea.n is a grassroots non-profit, founded by six women during the 2020 coronavirus lockdowns, to create space and network for people in the community to be heard and seen. They want to tackle discrimination, promote positive representation and importantly provide a community for ESEA folks. In a piece written for one of the partners of Heritage Month, online feminist publication gal-dem, one of the founders Mai-Ahn Peterson writes:

If there’s anything we at besea.n have learned in life so far, it’s that cultural identity is so uniquely personal and fluid that there is simply no way any single organisation or individual can speak on behalf of a community. While members of the East and South East Asian (ESEA) community in the UK share many cultural traits, practices and the occasional in-joke, all of our experiences are uniquely our own – and therein lies their beauty.

What kind of events are there?

There really is a varied collection of events. Many targeted toward southeast Asian diaspora such as ‘breaking the bamboo ceiling’ for those who want to take their careers to the next level or celebrating ESEA queer identity. There are also plenty of things for those without ESEA heritage who just want to support the event or learn more. For example, Land, Sea and Stars is an online multimedia event exploring the impact of the refugee migration from Vietnam, or a kids fair to champion ESEA businesses.

Very few of the events are in person, but for those who can travel or who are fortunate enough to live within the vicinity of London, the b.esean birthday bash celebrating the anniversary of its founding coincides during heritage month and will be celebrated with a talent night of comedians and spoken word poetry.

The ethos behind all of the events is to provide space for community and to uplift many who grew up or live in a society where those voices haven't always been given opportunity to be centre stage.

Why is British ESEA history important?

The influence of these different cultures is a prominent feature of the multicultural landscape that makes up British identity. In the 2011 census (results of the 2021 census are yet to be published) the southeast Asian diaspora had almost doubled in size since 2001. Around a third of these people had addresses in London. In today’s modern times of second and third generation immigrants, have moved all about the country to create a network of people with shared experiences.

British and southeast Asian combined history stretches back all the way to the eighteenth century, where at the time it was dubbed advances into ‘Further India’ and was an attempt to build upon the early trade settlements between Britain and India. The rise of colonialism and imperialism between 1870-1914 saw the British continue to extend their power and influence in the continent of Asia and elsewhere. Other European countries also had a dominant interest in southeast Asia, notably the Netherlands and France as well as the U.S.A in The Phillippines. In fact Thailand was one of the very few countries that managed to maintain its independence.

Fast forward to the 1950s and post World War II saw the eventual dismantling of the British Empire, and independence restored. However, this was far from peaceful and the lasting effects of colonialism can still be felt today. The Vietnam War created the beginnings of immigration from southeast Asia to Britain, as displaced individuals and their families tried to start new lives for themselves as refugees.

How to get involved:

The full line up of events is available at the besea.n website. You can also help by signing their petition to establish ESEA Heritage Month as an annual observance celebrating the history, heritage and social contributions of East and South East Asian (ESEA) communities in the UK, recognised by the government department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and open to everyone to observe.

Even if you don't attend any of the events, this is also a great opportunity to get educated on ESEA issues, history and culture, there are many resources available through the besea.n resource page, some of which are collected here:

Resources and Further Reading:

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