Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Chinese Labour Corps, the forgotten army: my column for the South China Morning Post


Anna Chen's South China Morning Post magazine City Scope column on the China Labour Corps memorial campaign

31st August 2014

This month, the world commemorated the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. Notably absent in the British ceremonies was any mention of the 140,000 or more Chinese workers, including 96,000 in the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), who provided the support system for frontline Allied troops. Thousands of these men died in service.

The Chinese did the heavy support work - digging trenches, hauling ammunition and supplies, and retrieving bodies. Yet none of Britain's 43,000 first world war memorials acknowledge the participation of the CLC, despite the battlefields of France and Belgium being littered with the remains of these men.

Redress could be in sight, however. August saw the launch of a three-year British campaign, Ensuring We Remember, aimed at establishing a permanent memorial to the Chinese who died in the war.

Steve Lau, of the Chinese In Britain Forum, one of the organisations behind the campaign, is hopeful that change is coming. His invitation to the National Service of Commemoration at Glasgow Cathedral on August 4 "was probably the first time the CLC have been recognised by a British government since the war".

"There were thousands of Chinese who worked in Britain during the war," Lau says. "At least 500 worked in munitions factories in Birmingham, and a further 1,500 are recorded as assisting in the building of various aerodromes.

"This is a narrative of the Home Front nobody wants to know about."

Its historical significance has also been missed. The mix of Chinese workers and intellectuals on the European battlefield was a catalyst for change.

In 1937, Gu Xingqing published an account of his time as a CLC interpreter in Europe and described the mixture of workers and intellectuals as a political awakening. The ideals formed during this conflict were carried back home and contributed to China's political landscape in the 20th century.

"These men were failed by everyone. Their contribution to China's journey into the modern world should be recognised and commemorated," says Lau.

"We have planned a three-year programme of grass-roots community engagement to be supported by a one-year national lecture tour aimed at the British establishment.

"Ultimately, we want a permanent memorial fitting to the men who served in the war effort."

Ensuring We Remember campaign:

1 comment:

w white said...

I was made aware of the CLC's existence in late March this year by the Sinica podcast (highly respected locally in Beijing). They interviewed Mark O'Neill who has published an eBook ("The Chinese Labour Corps").

I understand you don't allow all HTML so won't even try that, but if you're interested it's the March 28 episode of Sinica (in English), .

They should interview you some time, come to think of it. Make sure to get in touch with Kaiser or Jeremy if/when in Beijing.