Out of China by Professor Robert Bickers

Robert Bickers, who many will know from his excellent contribution to the Penguin (China) World War One Special Editions with Getting Stuck in For Shanghai: Putting the Kibosh on the Kaiser from the Bund: The British at Shanghai and the Great War, has written a new book, Out of China, officially published on 30 March: earlier copies will be available at the events below. 

Out of China narrates the struggle of China’s peoples across the twentieth century to roll back foreign power, and explores the explosive legacy today of the era of foreign domination. Starting in 1918 it charts the decline, fall and afterlife of the foreign enclaves that had been established in many of China’s great cities (as well as in some quite out-of-the-way backwaters). It shows how the battle to restore China’s dignity and sovereignty took place on battlefields, and in conference chambers, but also in museums and galleries, in Hollywood, in print, and on stage. Out of China is concerned with struggles over ideas, and political power, but I also draw out the human dimension, and the stories of those caught up by design or chance in this now largely vanished world. The battle for China was not over even when the last foreign colony, Macao, was handed back in 1999, and tensions over the record of foreign powers in China, and over the wider legacy and impact of the West remain live today.

Robert Bickers will be talking about the book at the following events.

11 March: Glasgow Aye Write! 2017, Mitchell Library, 4.45-5.45 p.m.

13 March: SOAS China Institute, Russell Square, Room G3, 5.00-7.00 p.m.

27 June: Chalke Valley History Festival, afternoon.

Corfflu Llafur Tsieineaidd | Two Videos in Welsh

Erbyn hanner ffordd trwy 1916, roedd y rhagolwg o’r cyngrheiriaid colli’r rhyfel yn dod yn bosibilrwydd wirioneddol. Roedd prinder gweithlu beirniadol wedi’I rhagfynegi wrth dilyn y colliad enfawr a ddaeth o’r Brwydr y Somme. Cafodd yr argyfwng hyn ei ddatrys gan y 96,000 o wirfoddolwyr Tsieineaidd a ffurfiodd y Corfflu Llafur Tsieineaidd a rhoddodd y cymorth i Brydain yn eu awr o angen.

Helpwch ni i gadw ffydd efo dynion y Corfflu Llafur Tsieiniaidd os gwelwch yn dda.


Corfflu Llafur Tsieineaidd

Lansio ar Ddydd Gŵyl Dewi: Hanes anghofiedig y llafurwyr Tsieineaidd yn ystod y rhyfel byd cyntaf i gael ei adrodd yn gyfrwng y gymreag.

Reflections on SS Mendi Centenary Commemorations: A Chinese Perspective

Steve Lau, Chair of the Ensuring We Remember Campaign, offers personal reflections on  an SS Mendi commemoration event.


The SS Mendi was en route from South Africa to France. On board were over 800 member of the South African Native Labour Corps. At 5:00am on 21st February 1917 the SS Mendi was sailing past the Isle of Wight when the SS Darro, a Royal Mail packet-boat, ploughed into her at full speed. Catastrophic damage was caused and the SS Mendi began to sink. Although the SS Darro sustained only minor damage her Captain, Captain Harry Stump, inexplicably offered no assistance as the tragedy unfolded. SS Mendi sank in twenty minutes taking with her 616 men of the South African Native Labour Corps and 30 white crewmen.

For those of us familiar with the tragedy that befell 543 Chinese labourers aboard the SS Athos the parallels between the two events – which occurred just four days apart – are striking. It was those similarities that were at the forefront of my mind as I arrived to attend a commemoration event held at the Pyramid Centre on Portsmouth’s seafront, the first of a series of events to mark the centenary of the SS Mendi’s sinking organised by the South African High Commission.

Formal addresses were given by His Excellency, Obed Mlaba, the South African High Commissioner and Dr Andrew Murrison MP, the Prime Minister’s special representative in the centenary. Dr Murrison MP formally launched a new DCLG funded initiative, Unremembered (we have been delighted to be working very closely with the Big Ideas Company who are responsible for delivering the project). Unremembered seeks to encourage remembrance of members of the Labour Corps, in all their incarnations. More on this exciting project next week.

We were introduced to descendants of some of the victims as well as a twenty minute documentary produced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In attendance were the crew of the SAS Amatola numbering several hundred as well as invited guests and members of the South African diaspora in Britain.

Two things particularly struck me as remarkable. First, the afternoon’s events were interspersed with song and dance from an exuberant choir supported by an appreciative audience. It is hard to explain just how powerful the effect was. The singing could be described as jubilant, and yet at no point was the underlying tragedy of the event ever lost.

But something else impressed upon me even more profoundly. I’m not sure if anybody else noticed as I suspect it struck me as it did simply because it contrasted so markedly with how the story of the Chinese Labour Corps is, in my opinion, managed within the Chinese community in Britain. What struck me was how confidently the history had been claimed and presented.

It was a genuine privilege to share some moving moments with the assembled South African nationals: genuinely poignant with such a strong resonance with the SS Athos and Chinese labour. To see the history embraced by the government and people of South Africa so unambiguously highlighted how far we have yet to go in the Chinese community until we can assert our own understanding of history without feeling the need to justify that understanding, or without apprehensive expectation of being challenged or held to account.

It was also a time of reflection, particularly on what and how we remember, and once again I was challenged by the focus of the narrative of the day, and how and why the Chinese narrative anchors itself so very differently within the context of the Great War.

A wonderful experience, so warmly and generously shared by the South African community that I can not but feel I have found something of a point of hope and aspiration of what might be.

SS Athos Centenary

Launched at precisely 12:27 on February 17th we mark the centenary down to the minute when tragedy struck the SS Athos. The Athos was a French vessel, and was carrying 100 passengers, 850 Senegalese Tirailleurs who boarded at Djibouti and 950 Chinese labourers who had been recruited by the French (Travailleurs Chinois) who boarded the Athos at Hong Kong.

Although this group of Chinese workers were not members of the Chinese Labour Corps, the events surrounding the Athos have huge implications for the men of the CLC who were to follow. Passage from China to France would be rerouted from travelling west to Europe, and would take the safer but longer route east, via Canada, was adopted.

Review: Tricks on the Dead

After reading many reviews on Tricks on the Dead, all of which were positive, we were keen to watch the first UK screening of this docudrama. What wasn’t clear in any of the publicity was that the screening had been organised by the Meridian Society, so we’d like to both thank and congratulate the Meridian Society for their efforts.

Tricks on the Dead is the first feature length examination of the use of Chinese labour in the Great War from an international perspective. In structure it takes three strands, each of which is presented in a particular style.

  1. Through re-enactments that rely on the diaries of labourers and officers, and to a lesser extent official records, we are presented with the story through personal narratives. Voiceover narration of diary entries are used to add detail and a real sense of hearing the voices of those men.
  2. Through a fly-on-the-wall documentary style we follow the efforts of  postgraduate student, Zhang Yan, from Shandong University as he seeks to trace descendants of labourers back in China, and then his efforts to fulfil his promise to one family to locate the grave of their ancestor.
  3. Through on-screen contributions by  Gregory James (author of the encyclopaedic The Chinese Labour Corps 1916-1920) and Professor Xu Guoqi  (author of Strangers on the Western Front and China and the Great War) we are provided with analysis of the events from genuine experts in the field.

Producer and Director Jordan Paterson achieves something quite remarkable in the way these three elements are woven together into the final product.  The cinematography of the re-enactments is compelling and through them we are provided with the historical timeline; taken back and forth through the clever use of historical photographs, film footage and narration, seamlessly linking the three elements together.  The end result is a powerful presentation of the story which is far greater than the sum of its parts.

That Tricks on the Dead is a superb piece of storytelling is evidenced by the various international awards it has received. But beyond artistic merit and very high production values there is perhaps an even more impressive achievement in Tricks on the Dead, and that is to present contested history in such a way that the both Western and Chinese perspectives are respected and accommodated. To this end the contributions of Gregory James and Xu Guoqi are so cleverly interwoven that we are left with a single narrative.

The cohesive and internally consistent presentation is, however, uncomfortable viewing at times, from a Belgian farmer’s musings on which nationalities were in Belgium during the war in which he concludes there were never any Chinese, to the photograph of a public flogging of a member of the Chinese Labour Corps at William Head.  The prejudicial views of the British towards the Chinese are presented without pulling any punches, but contained by giving voice to the more enlightened attitudes of some officers.

Bravo Tricks on the Dead, Bravo!

Trick on the Dead will be screened as part of A Good Reputation Endures Forever exhibition at Durham University’s Oriental Museum, and we are planning a number of screenings across the UK over the coming year.

Exhibition: A Good Reputation Endures Forever: The Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front

7 April 2017 – 24 September 2017
Durham University’s Oriental Museum, Elvet Hill, Durham, DH1 3TH

We have been working very closely with Durham University’s Oriental Museum since late 2014 to make this exhibition perhaps the most important exhibition there has ever been on the Chinese Labour Corps.  We’re currently working on publicity, the information below is taken from the museum’s website.

An exhibition exploring the role of the thousands of Chinese who risked their lives alongside the British armed forces during the First World War.

96,000 Chinese men volunteered to work for Britain in the First World War as part of the Chinese Labour Corps. They undertook essential and often dangerous work behind the lines on the western front and thousands lost their lives. Yet their contribution was barely acknowledged at the end of the war and in the years that have followed they have been largely written out of histories of the war. They have been described as the ‘forgotten of the forgotten’.

This exhibition examines the vital role of the Chinese Labour Corps using historic photographs and objects created by the men at the front.

Image: WJ Hawkings Collection, courtesy of John de Lucy


Happy Chinese New Year 2017

As we leave the year of the Monkey and enter the year of the Fire Rooster our best wishes for good health, good fortune and prosperity, may great things lie ahead for us all. 恭喜發財!

Screening of Tricks on the Dead

See our review of this past event.

Sunday 05 February 2017 16:00
British Film Institute, Southbank Centre, London.

The multi-award winning film on the Chinese Labour Corps, Tricks on the Dead is being screened in London with an introduction by Director Jordan Paterson.

A few tickets remain available. Purchase tickets here:

UK Premier: Tricks on the Dead

BFI Southbank, London. Sunday 5th February, 2017 at 4:00pm

Tricks on the Dead is the critically acclaimed docudrama telling the story of the Chinese Labour Corps. Directed by Jordan Paterson it has won a number of prestigious domestic (Canadian) and international awards.

Tricks on the Dead will be screened at the British Film Institute on the Southbank, London on Sunday 5th February at 4:00pm. London’s Chinese New Year 2017 are also taking place on this day, so an opportunity to enjoy the festivities in Chinatown and Trafalgar Square, and then round the day off with this exciting film.

Whet your appetite with the film’s trailer:

Tickets (the theatre only has 134 seats) are on sale from Tuesday 17th January (11:30am) from the BFI website.

New Year Message from the Campaign’s Chair

It is over two years since the Campaign was launched. Our expectation was that we would achieve our primary objective of building a national memorial to the 96,000 volunteers of the Chinese Labour Corps within three years, boldly announcing our intention to unveil the memorial on the 14 August, 2017, the centennary of China’s declaration of war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The timetable was ambitious as indeed were the plans we had. However, the complexity of the process was underestimated. Memorials sit within a context or narrative, and the story of China and Chinese labourers’ involvement in the Great War is extremely complex, as history it is highly contested. Working our way through that story with the Campaign’s many stakeholders has taken time, and in truth many areas remain contested.

Our journey so far has been one of engagement, connecting with community leaders, academics, politicians, the public. We’ve made friends with people in high places at some of our leading institutions, often surprised at how open they have been to us. On the odd occaision it’s been tough with reasonable requests met with clear irritation by parts of the Establishment, but generally, even in the position of critical friend we have been received with openess and genuine goodwill.

Our greatest issue has been securing a location for the memorial. In this we’ve not made things easy for ourselves, adamant on a central London location, aspirational in our hope that the memorial would be stumbled upon as much as visited. A location microsite was produced which until now has not been made public. We still have to secure a site for the memorial.

So how confident are we of unveiling the memorial on the 14th August 2017? In truth, if we are to do so, then a seemingly impossible amount needs to happen between now and August. And although we have no doubt whatsoever that a memorial will be unveiled, we are realistic enough to accept the fact that it may not be on August 14th.

Missing the date would be disappointing, yet at the same time we’d rather be a little late having done the job properly than be on schedule having cut corners.

I don’t want to end on that slightly somber note, so let me finish with some news of a few exciting things to come in 2017. In February the critically acclaimed film, Tricks on the Dead, will be screened at the BFI, Southbank Centre, London. We’ll announce details as they are finalised. Later that month there will be a nationwide campaign that will raise the profile of the Chinese Labour Corps – again, we’ll be sure to let you know as soon as details are available.

In April the major New exhibition on the Chinese Labour Corps will be opening at Durham University’s Oriental Museum. This will arguably be the most comprehensive exhibition on the CLC and will include publication of a new book of photographs from the WJ Hawkings Collection – a unique collection of photographs which, unlike the official propaganda photographs, contain images which would never have passed the censors in their day – such as the only known photographs of the burial of a member of the CLC.

There’s lot’s more to come in the year ahead, and as you can see, the Campaign will be moving up a gear. Thank you for your support and best wishes for 2017 from us all.


Steve Lau
Ensuring We Remember Campaign

War Hellish War – the illustrated diaries of Jim Maultsaid

Barbara McClune is to be congratulated for getting Jim Maultsaid’s war diaries published. Although not a diary in the classical sense, with each entry dated, the entries are (or at least appear) to be in chronological order. What makes this book worth the five stars? That’s easy. In this book there is an intriguing, and often spellbinding combination of astute observations on human nature, some quite wonderful illustrations (drawn mostly by Jim Maultsaid, but with the occasional contributions from those he is with) and writing which draws you into Jim’s world, the world of an unassuming down to earth, yet quite remarkable man.

Nowhere is Jim’s remarkable character more clearly illustrated than in the section covering part of his command of a battalion of the Chinese Labour Corps. In stark contrast to most accounts of the relationship between the Chinese workers and their British officers, Jim demonstrates an appreciation and understanding of the Chinese that was totally contrary to how the Chinese were perceived at the time. Fear of the Yellow Peril was at its height, and the Chinese were portrayed in press and fiction (see England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great Warl) as sinister, depraved and licentious. Even British Officers of the Chinese Labor Corps were often shunned by other British Officers simply for being associated with the Chinese, refusing, for example, to sit at the same table with them to eat. Jim Maultsaid, however, paints a completely different picture, all the more amazing because it is the first time he has come into contact with Chinese people. Jim writes,

“To my last day on this Earth I will always have a very high opinion of the Chinese as people. Sober, industrious fellows, interfering with no man, only wanting to live in peace and get on with their own lives, upholding over centuries old traditions. Gain their respect by honest fair dealing and you made a friend for life. Childlike in many ways, their bland simplicity often amused me, and at other times their deep thinking astounded me. I set out to study their habits and language and, according to the Army authorities, became ‘indispensable’ in the Chinese Labour Corps.”

Undoubtedly, given the prevailing attitudes at the time, Jim would have faced some opposition to such views, and yet he stuck to his guns. In my opinion this makes him a man not only of insight but also of integrity.

With the benefit of hindsight we can read Jim’s words with an understanding he could never have had at the time, like his description of a mysterious illness that was killing his ‘boys’. Reading the first few lines of the entry it dawns upon you that he is writing about the Spanish Flu. Knowing what is to come makes reading Jim’s words and his search for an understanding of what is happening all the more poignant, and draws you strangely closer to Jim the man, and with that, further into his world – a dark world of war and weakness, of disease and despair, of sadness and sorrow; and yet a world into which Jim, often inadvertently, shines a light of hope and of happiness.

Buy your copy from Amazon.


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