FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER wreaths were laid at the Cenotaph in Whitehall in memory of the Chinese labourers who came to support the Allied war effort in the First World War. The act comes amid growing momentum to activities, including the Ensuring We Remember Campaign, organised both inside and outside of the Chinese community to inform and educate the British public on this long neglected chapter of our history.
It is worth remembering that over 100,000 Chinese volunteers joined Britain and her allies in the First World War. They served on the Western Front (96,000), in Mesopotamia (5,000) and in East Africa (1,000). Thousands more served in the British merchant navy. Many made the ultimate sacrifice with the number of Chinese who died while assisting Britain’s war effort believed to be around 5,500. Totally unprepared for what they would encounter, the mental health of the Chinese labourers suffered hugely. Thousands succumbed to a variety of psychiatric disorders. While officials deemed cases of total insanity “inexplicably high”, and with around 350 such cases, were high indeed; perhaps not so inexplicable given that they were compelled after the Armistice to exhume and rebury the war dead in the new cemeteries.
As we have stated often, over 60,000 war memorials were built in the few decades after the war. Surprisingly, given the contribution the Chinese made and the price they paid, it is difficult to understand why neither China nor the Chinese labourers are mentioned on even just one of them, and yet there are at ;east six memorials to Japan; four to contributions made by animals; and even two memorials dedicated to Germans.
Commenting on the historical lack of recognition afforded the Chinese, Lord Bourne, Minister for Communities at the Department for Communities and Local Government said,
“It is ironic that those who were so instrumental in the creation of such iconic places of remembrance as the Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries were then, themselves, forgotten.”
A contingent of over 30, the largest after the Western From Associations contingent, paraded in commemoration of the Chinese labourers, in the annual Western Front Association’s commemorative service at the Cenotaph.
Ms Wenlan Peng, who co-ordinated the community’s participation, said,
“These simple men left their homes in the Far East, some forever, to travel to the alien West and toiled through those years of the turbulent past to help secure for us a peaceful today. We are laying wreaths to them on Armistice Day to honour them and to bring them to the attention of the wider British public, for the story of the Chinese Labour Corps belongs not only to China, but also to Britain. It is a shared history and it is therefore only right that we come together to remember them through a shared gesture. “
Further events to raise awareness of the Chinese contribution in the Great War will continue from various organisations, including Meridian Society, Ming Ai Institute, China Exchange, and the Ensuring We Remember Campaign will, of course continue its mission to inform, educate and inspire, including through the fulfilment of the campaign’s primary objective, the unveiling of a national memorial to the Chinese labourers and the British Officers who commanded them – expect more exciting news on this in the next few weeks!
We are delighted to once again have been generously supported by Duton’s at the third edition of their Appreciation of China presentation which is taking place to take place in Mayfair, London from 5th – 8th November, a highlight of the 20th Anniversary of Asian Art in London.
Entitled The Exhibition of Chinese Legacy, it features a rare array of ceramic and sculptural masterpieces that have received praise from Chinese and international museums alike. The collections range from painted potteries from the Neolithic period and the Northern Qi Dynasty to Tang Dynasty horses, camels and auspicious beasts.
The hero piece of the exhibition is a monolithic pair of painted horses, approximately 90 centimeters in height, the likes of which would be extraordinary to find in any institutional collection around the world. The exhibition boasts an impressive collection of famille verte porcelains from the late Ming Dynasty and early Qing Dynasty, recognisable for their iconic life-like paintings in bold colours, favoured by sophisticated noblemen and scholars.
There’s still time, just , to see this incredible collection of Chinese art:
Sunday 5th November – Wednesday 8th November from 9:30 – 19:30
Grosvenor House Hotel, Mayfair, W1K 7TN
Co-hosted by Oxford Authentication and supported by Barratt London
01 November, 2017 at 2pm (till 4pm).
152/3 Cayley Room, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2HW
As part of a two-year project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund to commemorate the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), The Meridian Society has made a film of oral histories with descendants of Chinese labourers and their Western commanding officers. Peng Wenlan, documentary filmmaker and director of the society’s heritage project, will give a brief introduction to the historical background of the CLC story, with insights into the political machinations behind the scenes. This will be followed by a screening of the film Forgotten Faces of the Great War: The Chinese Labour Corps.
An incredible collection of candid photographs of the Chinese Labour Corps taken on the Western Front by Captain WJ Hawkings. More details here.
A presentation by Steve Lau, Chair of the Ensuring We Remember Campaign, at the launch event of, The Stories behind the Pictures: Colonial Troops in the First World War. This event is being held at
University of Hull,
Friday, 20th October.
An outline of the presentation follows.
By the outbreak of the First World War photography was the hobby of millions around the world. Although the technology had been looked at by the military, its significance was not to be developed fully until the First World War.
This short presentation will give a very brief introduction to the militarisation of photography, In particular it will explore the use of the photographic image as a tool for influencing the opinions of the public at home, as well as the public and governments overseas. This propaganda use of photographs will be brought into sharper focus by comparing and contrasting the official photographic record, as published by the Ministry of Information (1914-1918) with unofficial photographs, most particularly those by Captain William J Hawkings, of the Chinese Labour Corps (www.EnsuringWeRemember.org.uk/photobook).
The presentation shall be drawn to an end with reflections on how, a hundred years on, our use of these photographs have changed? Debunked, what value can we attach to propaganda photographs of the Great War? And if at all, where have we managed to shift reality to?
The event is ticketed but free, tickets available here.
Parliament and World War One: The forgotten Chinese Labourers of World War One
UK Parliament Outreach and Engagement Service
Tuesday, 7 November 2017 from 19:00 to 20:30 (GMT), Portcullis House, Parliament, London.
In an entertaining and informative talk Frances Wood, author of Betrayed Ally: China and the Great War and former curator of Chinese Collections at the British Library, will outline the historical background to the CLC story, with insights into the political manoeuvres and debates in Parliament. Her talk will be followed by an oral history film Forgotten Faces of the Great War: The Chinese Labour Corps, presented by Peng Wenlan, documentary filmmaker and director of The Meridian Society’s two-year project commemorating the CLC and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The event will be hosted by Lord Wallace of Saltaire a member of the government’s Advisory Board for the Commemoration of World War One . There will be a Q&A after the screening.
We have reorganised the way our videos are presented. Hopefully the new layout will make it easier to see what is available and to access them. Find our videos from the link on the left hand side of this page.
The following is an independent review of the publication Chinese Labour Corps Photographs from the W J Hawkings Collection. The review is by Dr John R A Cleaver, Life Fellow and College Archivist, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Our thanks to Dr Cleaver for making this contribution.
This new book is an annotated collection of photographs from William James Hawkings, who was an officer in the Chinese Labour Corps. His background seems to have been typical for CLC officers, as he had worked in China from 1908 with the British American Tobacco Company and was fluent in Mandarin.
Initially he accompanied two contingents of workers from China, formally becoming Second Lieutenant when he reached France in August 1917 (but with seniority back-dated to March 1917 in recognition of his prior service) and later attaining the role of Acting Captain. After demobilization he returned to Shanghai, and he was in Shanghai at the time of the Japanese invasion. He died in India in 1965.
After the war he turned his photographs of his time with the Chinese Labour Corps into lantern slides, and these provided the images for this new photo-book. His slides included copies of images that are official or have been published previously, but the ones reproduced in this book are those that he himself took; they are more personal and it is believed that they have not been published before.
Hawkings was able to take photographs which portrayed the intimate aspects of the life and work of the Chinese people. I am always reluctant to use the shorthand of describing them as labourers, despite their membership of the Chinese Labour Corps; terminology is a little misleading. The majority of the workers were unskilled and of peasant background but there were many who had or who acquired skills (in particular, in the workshops of the Tank Corps, where they were highly productive) and many of their counterparts working for the French were engaged in factory work. For a time, Hawkings was responsible for a Skilled Trades Company. In addition, educated Chinese men supported the actual workers.
The images provide fascinating contrasts between the medical provisions for the men and the procedures that were employed in their work. Hygiene and medical treatment appears repeatedly – particularly memorable are the images of inspection and treatment of the eye diseases that were endemic amongst Chinese peasantry in that era. Trachoma and conjunctivitis were particular problems, and we see the men subject to regular medical inspection, to the daily receipt of eye drops, and to hygienic precautions to minimise transmission of infection between the men. The majority of the photographs are around Noyelles-sur-Mer, on the Baie de Somme, where the main CLC base and a substantial CLC hospital were situated, so it may well be that practice there was more regular and scrupulous than when the men were dispersed in the field.
But the actual working practices shown are distinctly disconcerting. After the end of hostilities, Labour Corps members engaged in recovering munitions and corpses from battlefields (though these activities are not shown) and in breaking down surplus, captured, and unexploded munitions – many CLC personnel had worked in munition depots during the time of combat. The work shown in the photographs of the unskilled men breaking down munitions is quite daunting to modern eyes; only general-purpose tools are visible, rather than tools configured for specific operations on particular types of munition, and there is an absence of any obvious safety precautions other than an optimistically generous provision of fire extinguishers. There is minimal spatial separation between workers to limit the consequences of any one explosive or incendiary incident. Munitions and their components are held in unprotected hands or clamped in simple, traditional mechanics’ workbench vices without any special jigs or fixtures.
It is no wonder that more than half of the CLC deaths recorded by the Imperial War Graves Commission occurred after the Armistice, although many of those resulted from tuberculosis and influenza rather than from accidents.
In the ninety pages of photographs, as well as work and formalities and the experiences of travel from China, the more personal and domestic life of the men is shown. These include the daily tasks of food preparation, cleaning, and the tending of the kitchen garden of the hospital at Noyelles, as well as traditional activities of festivals, kite flying, and gymnastics.
Thus Hawkings’ images provide a very interesting addition to the growing body of material on the Chinese Labour Corps in the Great War – a topic that had been neglected and almost forgotten for most of the intervening century.
The image reproduction in the book is excellent: clear and essentially free of defects. Some images would have benefited from reproduction with higher contrast – but, without seeing the tone range of the original slides, it is not possible to judge whether the original images could consistently have been restored and contrast-enhanced without unduly emphasising defects.
A good touch is that the captions and other text in the book are tri-lingual, in French as well as in English and Chinese, even though the images are entirely from the British sector of the Western Front – this serves as a reminder that the French imported around 40,000 Chinese workers.
So – a useful addition to the material on the CLC. Further, profits from the publication will be donated to the Chinese in Britain Forum, a registered charity, and used for raising awareness of the contribution of the Chinese Labour Corps.
Dr John R.A. Cleaver
Cambridge, 30 August 2017
The Ensuring We Remember Campaign if spearheaded by a coalition of major UK Chinese non-profit organisations. To mark today’s centennial anniversary of China declaring war on Germany we reflect on the position of the Chinese community in the UK, whilst launching our Centenary Commemorations Toolkit.
Today the Chinese community holds a privileged position in the UK. Through the hard work of those Chinese who came after the second World War, Chinese communities in Britain are strong and vibrant. Although no country is perfect, and no people are without faults, Britain and the British people have overwhelmingly welcomed and accepted Chinese people. For their part, the Chinese have worked hard and hindered nobody, through which they have built, and maintain, strong economic and cultural capital. Chinese children have for decades outperformed children from all other ethnic groups at both GCSE and A’Level, fulfilling the dream of every parent that their children’s lives should be better than their own. But it is not only duty to family that concerned the Chinese in Britain – we would argue that they have also contributed to a better society. The Chinese are the only ethnic minority group that is under-represented in the British criminal justice system, something for which the Chinese community can justly be proud.
Less obvious is the pride that might be held in the fact that in both World Wars the Chinese and British peoples stood united against common enemies and ideologies.
For this reason we are today encouraging Britain’s Chinese communities and supporters to commemorate this much neglected are of our heritage – a century to the day when China formally declared war against Germany and joined Britain and her allies in World War I.
To this end we created a Centenary Commemorations Toolkit which has already been sent out to British Chinese religious, voluntary and community organisations. We will be working with Chinese supplementary schools in rolling out the toolkit.
We hope, by promoting a growing awareness of the full contribution of Chinese people in British history, we can contribute to the ongoing development of a fully integrated, high performing, socially cohesive British Chinese community.
We are delighted to announce the publications of, The Chinese Labour Corps: Photographs from the WJ Hawkings collection, launched today to commemorate the centenary of China declaring war against Germany and formally joining Britain and her allies in the Great War.
- Hardcover: 96 pages
- Publisher: Myosotis Books (14 August 2017)
- Languages: English, Chinese and French
- ISBN-13: 978-1-9998066-0-6
- Product Dimensions: 28.5 x 1.3cm x 21 cm
Rediscovered in 2014 by his grandson, John De Lucy, photographs from the collection are published here for the first time. Unlike the set piece propaganda photographs taken by official photographers, the WJ Hawkings Collection shows the day-to-day lives of the Chinese Labour Corps; many of the photographs are believed to be unique in the subject matter they cover.
The profits from the sales of this book will be donated to the Chinese in Britain Forum, registered charity 1096542 ,and used exclusively for raising the awareness and profile of the Chinese Labour Corps.
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