Birmingham’s 200-year-old relationship with China is being celebrated through the city’s first food festival devoted to Asian cuisine this month.
The Union Oriental Food Festival 2013 will be held on March 22nd and 23rd, in Victoria Square, when the food and flavours on offer will come from China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The event has been organised by UK China Union, a fast-growing web-based organisation dedicated to the needs of Chinese students living in the UK, and its driving force is marketing director Sophie Huang.
“We really hope that everyone who comes to Victoria Square will go away with a wider knowledge of the amazing foods, spices, noodles, soups and delicacies that China and its Asian neighbours can offer,” she says.
“Many of my English friends here have a small number of favourite Chinese meals, but don’t take the time to explore our cuisine more deeply, so I hope the festival encourages everyone to try something new.”
However, Sophie says the event has far more ambitious aims than simply making people in Birmingham realise the vast array of cuisines which Asia has to offer.
“We want to bring the Chinese people living, working and studying here out into the open, to encourage them to develop contacts with the wider community, and to develop stronger social and cultural links between China and Birmingham,” she admits.
“For thousands of years, China was a very inward-looking country, and that has impacted on the way which most Chinese live today when they go overseas to work and study, and almost all stay in their own tight social circles.
“Everyone in the education sector is aware that students from China, and other Asian countries are present in Birmingham, but I don’t think most other people are really aware of their presence, or their spending power, or their potential to contribute to the city’s cultural environment.
“There have been links between Birmingham and China for 200 years, but other ethnic minorities have developed a much stronger presence and a higher visibility, so the festival is a chance for us to make everyone aware that we do see ourselves as part of Birmingham.”
Even Sophie didn’t realise just how long-standing the city’s China connections were, until she began researching the subject as the festival was being planned.
“There are amazing stories in the council archives, going back to 1792, when the British Ambassador to China asked Matthew Boulton to choose a skilled worker to visit China, to make people realise what Birmingham had to offer, and to see what the Chinese were making,” she says.
“During the 1800s, one of the biggest ways in which Britain paid for the huge amounts of tea it imported from China was selling metal goods, ornaments and coins made in Birmingham.
“Even I thought Chinese students coming here was a relatively new trend, but it turns out that the first Chinese undergraduate came here in 1907, to study mining at the University of Birmingham, which was only seven years after the university had been founded.
“I hope that our community will gradually become more outward-facing, and that our presence here will become more visible, and inviting local people to learn more about our cuisine is a small, but very enjoyable first step in that direction.”