The History of Cardiff's Migration and Taffistani

If you google the word Taffistani, you’ll find a news clipping about one of Cardiff’s most famous Panjabis, Indian Bobby. Indian Bobby is described as “proud to be the First Welsh Asian popstar” by the writer.

In the article, he says he wants to be a Bhangra star and goes on to say “I’m a Sikh, so if someone called me a Pakistani it would offend me because I’m not from Pakistan. But calling me a Taffistani is brilliant, I was born yards away from the river Taff, I'm a Cardiff lad so I see this as a real mixing of cultures. It’s great.”

A Taffistani is a portmanteau, part ‘Taff’ which is the river that runs through Cardiff, rerouted through the city to streamline the exportation of coal in the late 19th century. The suffix ‘-stan’ meaning land in numerous languages. It’s a term that’s endured for years. Some of the South Asian community in Wales predates a lot of the commonwealth migration to the UK - but that’s not to say that we didn’t see large waves of migration from East Africa or from Pakistan in the 1970s. In fact, in the early 1900s Butetown, an area of South Cardiff, was so diverse that it had quarters for different seamen from different diasporas, along with boarding houses - there was even a Latin quarter in the docks.

As a child, I heard an age old story about a lascar (seamen) who had come to Cardiff: in the 40s he was Indian, following Partition he found out that the he was Pakistani, and then after the civil war he was, finally, Bangladeshi. There are still remnants of the Docks and Docks communities in Cardiff such as Somalis and Yemenis who are yet to be gentrified out of Butetown, whereas people of colour in cities like Liverpool have been moved on or rather, forced out.

Seamen and especially Merchant Navy seamen travelled from all over the world to work in the docklands. In fact, so many came to Wales that in 1911 Cardiff had the second highest proportion of foreign born males outside of London, out of any city in the United Kingdom.

Wales is 96.4% white according to the 2011 census, and Cardiff overwhelmingly houses the majority of that 3.6% BME population.

While there are large and growing populations of South Asian diaspora groups in cities such as Newport and Swansea, Cardiff’s got the largest amount of South Asian people, hence the creation of the term “Taffistani”.

Gentrification is fast seeing Taffistani areas decrease in various ways. People are moving out, new people are moving in. Especially since the arrival of the crachach, a Welsh language term translating as “petty gentry” or “snobs”. Taffia’s a term used and it’s sometimes seen as contentious. It points to non-Cardiffians who come to Cardiff for work. Given the fact that nearly half or so of Wales’ BME population live in Cardiff, it has severe implications for the South Asian diaspora in Wales. Cardiff’s now the 2nd fastest growing city after London in the UK - with the rent to prove it. It’s not just Welsh people who are gentrifying Cardiff, to be honest, there’s probably a lot of English people and of course, students.

British Asian discourse, media and discussion is overwhelmingly anglocentric in that it focuses on South Asian diaspora communities in England and not in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. Perhaps Taffistanis have more in common with our English Desi cousins than expected, especially in a post 9/11 climate than our non-racialised Welsh brothers and sisters in the city. Once, a British Asian friend from London referred to Taffistanis as “provincial Asians” with a subtle understanding that from his point of view, Taffistanis had more in common with other Welsh South Asian people outside of Cardiff than they did British Asian people in England. There’s a deeply embedded rivalry between Cardiff and Swansea that’s been solidified around areas like football.

Panjabi Bobby’s got a Kurta of the Welsh flag, the Indian flag and the Pakistani flag made by a tailor in the Welsh city of Newport. I grew up as a dual heritage Pakistani child in a multiracial community where my best friend was Bangladeshi descent and my other best friend was Indian. I didn’t realise how rare that was until I was older and began to understand more about 1947, colonialism and trauma.

Learning about Partition about the legacy of activists such as Ambedkar and Bhaghat Singh radically changed how I felt about myself, the communities I come from and about British legacy in South Asia and other places. In 2017 there were very few, if any events that looked at the commemoration of the 70th Partition in Wales. The ones that did refused to engage with Welsh South Asian communities on the ground, preferring to bring in ‘experts’ from England - some of whom, ironically, asked for information on Welsh Asians on Twitter. We need better visibility: not just for South Asian diaspora in Wales, but for all Welsh black and minority ethnic communities - as the recently deceased A. Sivanandan said “We are here because you were there”.