Remembering Our Debt to The Forgotten WW1 Heroes of the Chinese Labour Corps

I first learnt about the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), the recruits from China who came to work for the British and French armies behind the Western Front, when it was announced that '14-18 Now' would commemorate the centenary of WW1 through a series of arts commissions. I typed the words 'Chinese WW1' into my search engine and to my surprise, articles about the CLC popped up. Why had I never heard of them before, having studied WW1 at school during my 'O' levels? What had happened to wipe their contribution out of the history books?

In Dec 2013, the Shandong Government toured an exhibition of the CLC across major European capitals, including London. The pictures of a Chinese interpreter eating with a British officer; a Chinese labourer cleaning a British tank; two CLC carrying British bombs on their shoulders; and CLC dressed in British army uniforms, was affecting. A few months later, I attended a fundraising dinner for the Ensuring We Remember campaign, to create a dedicated memorial in London to the CLC. By then, I had decided that CAS would commission new artworks inspired by the forgotten CLC story, touching all of us who had benefitted from the peaceful conclusion of WW1.

From my research, I learnt that 100 years ago, almost 100,000 illiterate peasant farmers and hundreds of student interpreters from China passed through Liverpool, Plymouth and Folkestone, en route to serve behind the Western Front in France and Belgium. They were recruited by the British Army and called the Chinese Labour Corps. A further 40,000 - les travailleurs Chinois - were recruited by the French Army, passing through Marseille and other French ports en route to their camps.

Together, these 140,000 men were the largest overseas labour force, giving their blood, sweat and tears to help the Allies win WW1. They did every conceivable ‘backstage’ job: digging trenches and toilets; unloading food supplies from ships and trains; laying railway tracks and rebuilding bombed-out roads; repairing tanks, ships and planes; and transporting bullets and bombs to wherever the British and French armies needed supplies. They also carried out the gruesome task of clearing bodies and animals from No-Man’s Land, putting their own lives at risk from unexploded landmines.

Our common humanity was affirmed in a time when powerful figures in the world seek constantly to divide us

I wanted CAS Project New Earth to retell their story and remind audiences of the huge debt of thanks we owe the CLC. Thousands of them paid the ultimate sacrifice, killed by shelling, accidents, landmines and especially the Spanish Flu pandemic. They are buried in cemeteries across France (notably the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer), in Belgium and a few in England (Liverpool’s Anfield Cemetery, Plymouth’s Efford Cemetery and Folkestone’s Shorncliffe Military Cemetery).

From a general call-out for proposals, I commissioned four groups of exciting British contemporary artists to explore the lost story of the CLC in a variety of artforms: short music-dance films; a live contemporary dance; and a moving music-drama, with songs sung or inspired by the CLC. The work sits alongside the current '14-18 Now' commemorations and is the first British touring production to explore this historically significant event. It was disappointing that '14-18 Now' did not commission our production, and heartwarming that both Arts Council England and our own crowdfunding campaign has enabled the tour to go ahead.

These forgotten heroes forged early links between Europe and China, helping to restore peace in the world. They made a perilous journey to war-torn Europe, where they did backbreaking work to help the Allies defeat the forces of aggression. Many developed respiratory diseases, unused to the damp climate of northern Europe. Those who died of TB or other infections, while recuperating in British hospitals after their exhausting 3 months’ journey, account for the handful of CLC buried in Liverpool, Plymouth and Folkestone.

After touring  to those three port cities, I discovered that whether CAS played to majority Chinese, Caucasian or mixed ethnicities and ages, the show's impact was similar. Audiences responded positively to the story, were surprised that they had never heard of the CLC, and were moved to tears by their plight. Our common humanity was affirmed in a time when powerful figures in the world seek constantly to divide us. During Europe’s moment of need, China answered the call for help. In our currently turbulent world, we should celebrate and affirm ongoing, positive friendship between East and West.

Project New Earth will be at the Southbank Centre as part of the China Changing festival on 16th December.

David Tse

 

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