21 August 2019
A poster of the "Ensuring We Remember" campaign to create a permanent memorial for the Chinese Labor Corps in central London. Photo: EWR
A poster of the "Ensuring We Remember" campaign to create a permanent memorial for the Chinese Labor Corps in central London. Photo: EWR

Chinese in Britain plan monument to World War One workers

In Britain, there are 43,000 monuments to those who served in World War Two – but not one to the tens of thousands of Chinese who worked for the British and French armies close to the front line and lost more than 3,000 between 1916 and 1922.

Now the Chinese community in Britain has launched a campaign to create a permanent memorial for the Chinese Labor Corps (CLC) in central London, to be unveiled in 2017.

Steve Lau is the chairman of the “Ensuring We Remember” campaign. “The contribution of the Chinese workers did not receive proper acknowledgement after the war. But, in the future, we will remember forever their suffering and hard work. How ironic it was that they built the famous Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery but they themselves were forgotten,” he said.

When the Imperial War Museum in London re-opened in July after a refurbishing that cost £40 million (US$66.35), there was no mention of the Chinese workers in the new World War I gallery.

The campaign has the support of the Chinese embassy, the Chinese in Britain Forum and members of the government, including Lord Wallace of Saltaire who attended the launch of the campaign in London in mid-August representing the Foreign Office. He is a member of the official advisory group on the WWI commemorations.

The campaign is a sign of the increasing self-confidence and status of the Chinese community in Britain and the rising place of their motherland in the world. The first generation of Chinese in Britain, as in other countries in Europe, worked in restaurants, grocery shops and launderettes and kept a low profile.

But the second and third generations have entered the mainstream, as doctors, lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs and public officials. Chinese in Britain are better educated and earn more than the British average. They want to have their voices heard and receive what they consider their due.

Zhao Yongren, a political counsellor at the Chinese embassy, expressed this sentiment at the launch ceremony: “For a long time, the contributions of the Chinese to British society were neglected. In recent years, they have risen in society and have increasingly close relations with the government. They have started to demand the protection of their interests. So the contribution of the Chinese is gradually being acknowledged.”

This year, which marks the 100th anniversary of World War I, has been full of new books, films, documentaries and exhibitions about the Great War, more in the UK than in any country. The British have discovered that, while they, the French and the Americans were the principal victors, their success was due to the help of people from dozens of countries.

“The campaign [for the memorial] is a useful corrective to the portrayal of the war as plucky little England standing alone against the enemy,” said Lord Wallace. “It required the effort of a great many people from a great many countries, willingly or unwillingly.”

China provided more laborers than any other country. Britain and France recruited tens of thousands from their colonies in Africa and Asia as well as soldiers from the Indian Army and West Africa. The workers were needed because of the devastating human cost of the war that left Britain and France short of manpower.

The British recruited 94,000 men for the CLC and France recruited 40,000.

Of the latter, 23,000 worked in factories, mines and fields and unloaded cargoes at ports and warehouses. The others, and all those in the CLC, worked for the two armies, carrying ammunition, building trenches, repairing roads and railways.

After the armistice in November 1918, they continued their work, in clearing the battlefields of dead humans and animals, finding mines and returning the land and the infrastructure to what it had been before the war. The last workers left at the end of 1922; 3,000 chose to remain in France and form the genesis of the Chinese community in Europe.

They earned high praise from their commanders. An article in L’Information newspaper of June 1918 said that they “were the most satisfactory of the foreign workers. The reports of the employers agree on this point. The Chinese thrives in different weathers, he is patient and attentive. He works without stopping.”

It was their contribution that won China a seat among the 27 victor nations at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 and its military a place in a grand victory parade through the streets of London with 15,000 soldiers from 18 nations on July 19 that year.

But, in the years that followed, British arrogance and racial pride and the reticence of the small Chinese community in the UK and their government at home caused this contribution to be forgotten. It was the “great powers” that had won the war and made the peace. To admit the reliance on tens of thousands of foreign workers and soldiers would diminish the victory of the British and the French.

It has taken a century for the truth to be acknowledged.

The writer is a Hong Kong-based journalist and author.

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Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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