The son of a Chinese seaman – with pivotal links to Hong Kong – has launched a bid to become Mayor of Liverpool, the English city which is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe.
Stephen Yip, whose family story traces a turbulent path from Guangzhou to Liverpool via Hong Kong, says he “wants to push the reset button” after the city’s reputation was tarnished by claims of official corruption.
“I want our city to be a beacon that people look to and say: ‘That’s how you have a proper council with officials who are working for the benefit of the people and not for the benefit of themselves,” he told HKFP.
Key departments in Liverpool City Council are currently being run by government commissioners following allegations of bribery over land deals and contracts. Liverpool’s previous Mayor, Joe Anderson, stepped aside earlier this year following his arrest and questioning by police on charges he intimidated key witnesses and took kickbacks.
Stephen’s father, Loy Yip, arrived there in 1941. He had travelled from Guangzhou to Hong Kong as a teenager, where he earned his passage to Britain on the Blue Funnel Line.
“When the Chinese first came out, they were a community that had to look after each other. They were so far from home, you know, eventually they started to settle and marry, to have children here,” said Stephen Yip.
Loy Yip met Stephen’s mother, Betty, at a tea dance. As an English woman who had chosen to marry a Chinese man, his mother’s family disowned her and cut her off. He says they were supported by the other families of Chinese seamen who had also made their new home in Liverpool.
“I think I’m lucky to have the family I had. We didn’t have new things all the time, but we were always fed and we were always clean”.
Stephen was one of eleven children who were born into a small terraced house on a cobbled back street, close to Liverpool’s Chinatown. His father would spend months away from home, crossing the Atlantic.
“I believe the foundation that my mum and dad gave me and the family, taught us the difference between right and wrong, respect for other people and respect for yourself. We look Chinese. We eat Chinese food. But in reality, we’re Scousers.”
Stephen says he’s determined to tackle the poverty faced by many families across the city, today, and create better life chances for disadvantaged youth.
The Chinese Detective
Stephen Yip’s brother, David, who has researched his family’s history, found fame in the 1980’s playing the lead character in the ground-breaking 1980s BBC television drama; “The Chinese Detective”. David says their father was never articulate and had mental health problems, mainly due to opium addiction.
“People of his generation coming from where he did, they were used to not talking about themselves. I believe he grew up near the coast, the English translation of the area is Kuan Yang County. His family had a boat and a history of doing a bit of smuggling, as I think most people did round them”, Stephen says.
Loy Yip told David the same story many times; how he slighted a local official who married the daughter of a rival family family in the area. “This man had the power of life and death. His father’s family said to him, ‘you’ve got to go. You can’t stay here. It’s too dangerous. You’ve got to go to Hong Kong’.” That was 1939 and two years later he would be settled in Liverpool, aged 21.
“The Chinese seaman went out on the Atlantic convoys, but they were paid a third of the white guys’ salaries, and the white guys got this war bonus. It was dangerous work. The Chinese guys never got that, to start off with. So, they went on strike”.
The seamen were known as ‘The Dragons’ and those sailors from Shanghai had the backing of the Chinese Communist Party. They won an increase in pay, and they got their bonus, but after the war, the British government became worried about their politics.
“Virtually overnight they tried to quickly grab these guys from Shanghai off the streets, out of their homes. They left for work, one day and never came home, leaving their families in Liverpool. For many, it was a death sentence. Dad was lucky, he was away at sea. But it was a terrible time”.
The British Empire had taken opium to China and the Chinese seamen would smoke on board ship, because it killed their appetite and they didn’t have to eat as much. Their whole objective was to save money and send it back to their families.
“Finally, one day while I was working in London I got a call from mum to say; ‘dad’s in a terrible way’. He’d smoked opium since we were kids. He cooked up in our kitchen. It seems crazy to me, now, but he managed to go through cold turkey, by himself”.
David says this strength of character is something they have both inherited from their father. One day he says he hopes to return to the village where his father was born and spread his ashes in the sea.
Charity and integrity
Their family home in Liverpool was close to today’s headquarters of the children’s charity, KIND, that Stephen has run for forty years. It’s also a short walk from the hoardings that surround a derelict building site, sold to overseas investors as; “New Chinatown.” The then-UK chancellor George Osborn and former city mayor Joe Anderson went to Asia with their “Northern Powerhouse Pitchbook.” Hong Kong and Chinese buyers bought into the scheme because they believed it was government backed, but the private development was never built.
“I have so much sympathy for those people. I don’t know what we, as a council, or I as a mayor will be able to do. But it will be something that we have to look at seriously. We have to repair the damage which has been done to our international reputation. I mean, honest investors will not come to our city”.
New Chinatown is one of 39 stalled or abandoned developments in Liverpool that have been sold off-plan, to be funded by buyers’ deposits. Vast areas of Liverpool are now boarded off, after the bones of buildings rose up, and then nothing happened. Thousands of would-be property owners from around the world have lost their investments in these schemes, and many face ruin.
Of the recent corruption scandal in the city, Yip said: “There’s been no oversight, no transparency, no accountability. We have to bring that back to our city. This scandal has given us a once in a lifetime opportunity to change how we view things, and how we do things.”
These are bold promises from the founder of a children’s charity who has no experience in politics. The 66-year-old will be a rank outsider, up against the mainstream political party machines and as an independent candidate.
“It’s a good thing that I have worked for a kids’ charity, because some of our politicians are acting like school children. But, this is not a career choice for me. It’s not about me becoming a politician, because I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have the humility to ask people who do”.
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