Great War Chinese Labourers Forgotten

BY ANASTASIA CHOO

The 140,000 Chinese farm labourers, who over a century ago volunteered to leave their remote villages and work for Britain and France in the first world war, have been called “the forgotten of the forgotten”.

Over the past decade, the story of China’s human contribution to the Great War has received some of the attention it has long been denied. These peasant farm workers from northern China were sent as non-combatants: they dug trenches, buried the dead, carried the wounded, fixed tanks and made munitions, freeing up the allied forces to fight the German-led aggressors. Their farming skills also proved invaluable to grow food for the troops.

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Although the Chinese labourers had been assured that they would not be working near the front, where there were manpower shortages, they were given arms to fight on the frontline. One member of the corps, First Class Ganger Liu Dien Chen, was recommended for the Military Medal for rallying his men while under shellfire in March 1918. However, he was eventually awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, as it was decided Chinese Labour Corps members were not eligible for the Military Medal.

Many were killed by shell fire and explosions; around 3,000 died from various causes in Europe, while just under 1,000 died at sea from submarine attacks on their transport ships.  Conditions were harsh for Europeans and Chinese alike and all longed for an end to the war. Yet when Armistice was declared in 1918, while British soldiers returned to England, the CLC were made to stay on and were given the dangerous and gruesome task of clearing mines, exhuming bodies from battlefield burials and moving them to the new war cemeteries.

Despite their contributions, the CLC was barely recognised at the end of the war and has almost been forgotten since. In the UK there are 40,000 war memorials but there are none attributed to the Chinese, there are no descendants in Britain because they were refused any right to settle after the war; they were literally painted out of the canvas recording the rainbow of nations who joined the war effort.

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We cannot change history. However, awareness has arisen year on year and several books have been published on the subject.  There have been documentaries made, museum installations showcased and there have been seminars and talks.  The Chinese Community in the UK has campaigned over the years to create a memorial for the Chinese Labour Corps and in 2014 Steven Lau, Chair of the Ensuring We Remember campaign, was invited to the service of commemoration at Glasgow Cathedral by the British Government.

“It amazes me how few people know about the contribution made by the Chinese in helping Britain and its allies win the Great War, and I think if they knew how crucial they were in that victory, then some of the stereotyping of the Chinese in Britain would cease”.

Steven Lau, chairman of the Ensuring We Remember campaign

Fast forward to 2019 and a 9.6-metre-high marble huabiao – a traditional ceremonial column – weighing more than 30 tonnes has been completed by stone­masons in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province and is now ready for shipment to the UK.  The only problem is with land prices being a premium in London, the campaigners have run into trouble finding a home for the memorial, despite having the backing of London Mayor Sadiq Khan in his 2016 mayoral election promise.

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The monument cost £250,000 to make and was paid for largely by donations from the UK’s Chinese community who were keen to install a tribute to the 140,000 Chinese men, who formed the Chinese Labour Corps.  The base of the statue is 12 metres square, and extra space will be required around it to give people room to visit.  Carvings on the mammoth structure include motifs of four poppies representing the UK, France, Belgium and China and a “Y” symbol, a nod to the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA, that provided welfare and educational support to the Chinese labourers.

The monument is expected to be a major attraction for Chinese tourists visiting London but let’s not forget that this is a memorial of relevance to the whole of Britain and not a Chinese monument.  As mentioned, in a leaflet addressed to the Chinese community shortly before the 2016 mayoral election, Sadiq Khan promised to support the campaign for the memorial.  Why has he not done so? It would be fitting if City Hall could now find a few square metres of land to honour those who gave so much to the war effort and Khan lived up to his promise to London’s Chinese.