The Chinese Labour Corps – ‘Labour conquers all’

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Men Chinese Labour Corps Image: W J Hawkings Collection, courtesy of John de Lucy At the eastern side of Anfield Cemetery, there is a strip of land where the Liverpool Chinese community are buried. Given that Liverpool is home to the oldest Chinese Community in Europe, these graves are hardly a surprising sight. What is surprising perhaps, are the five small white Commonwealth War Graves clustered together in the middle. They are the graves of men from the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) who died in Liverpool in 1917 and 1918. Lui Feng Hsiang, the last of the five men to be buried, died 100 years ago today (Thu 9 Aug). Born and raised in China, how did these men come to be buried in foreign soil so far away from home? By 1916, the Allied demand for labour in the First World War was critical – the British Government had already discussed the possible use of Chinese Labour, but dismissed the idea, partly due to pressure from the Trade Unions in the UK. Finally, late in 1916, the Government, followed the French in recruiting Chinese ‘coolie’ labour, known to be hard working and cheap, for use behind Allied Front lines. In total an estimated 96,000 men were recruited into the CLC Chinese Labour Corps Image: W J Hawkings Collection, courtesy of John de Lucy They were a civilian force, but subject to Military law and wore a uniform of sorts. Unskilled labourers, recruited mainly from the poor farming provinces of Shandong and Zhili, in northern China, were promised up to four times their normal earnings. Their families would also receive a separation allowance similar to British Service families and a bonus of 15 Chinese dollars for each new recruit. The men signed a three-year contract as non-combatants, which included food clothing and medical treatment. Initially they had their traditional ‘queue’ pigtail cut off and were issued with a bracelet stamped with their number rather than their name. This practice was later stopped as it was deemed degrading. A copper cap badge with the letters CLC was adopted. In April 1917, the first contingent of the Chinese Labour Corps arrived at the Western Front, having left Weihai-Wei Port in January. The initial route was by ship, via the South African Cape or the Panama Canal. The long journey led to high numbers of sickness, so breaking the journey up, going overland via Canada, later became the preferred option. It is estimated that around 84,000 men arrived on the quaysides of Liverpool or Plymouth, before continuing on to Folkestone and ultimately France. The strangest aspect is the absolute secrecy with which the whole operation was carried out. It was impossible to keep the Canadian leg of the journey a complete secret, and there was some mention in the Press, but the Liverpool newspapers make no mention at all in 1917 or 1918 of Chinese men being conveyed through the Port and then on to trains and out of the city heading south. With the men being tightly packed into ships and trains, it is perhaps no surprise that many arrived in Britain suffering from disease and already close to death. Kuo Ch’ing Shan, was the first CLC member to be buried in Britain. He was admitted straight from his ship into the Liverpool Port Sanitary Hospital, suffering from Pulmonary Tuberculosis and died on 6 June 1917 aged 26. He is one of the men buried at Anfield. Mumps was another common illness among the men and ships commonly arrived with multiple cases. The Liverpool Chronicle reported on the Corps, when it published a series of articles in 1919, looking at the part Liverpool played in the War:
Another interesting feature of the special work undertaken at Belmont-Road was the reception and treatment of 150 members of the Chinese Labour Battalions, who, having been landed in Liverpool, were found to be suffering from mumps. Dr. Bradshaw had charge of a whole block in which these infectious cases were isolated, and it is said that they behaved remarkably well. The fact that none of them could speak English rendered the work somewhat difficult, an interpreter in the person of a Chinese Corporal having to remain in the hospital during the whole of the time that any of the Chinese patients remained. As an example of the wonderful behaviour of these men and the manner in which they maintained discipline among themselves, it may be mentioned that on one occasion one of the Chinese men was discovered undergoing corporal punishment at the hands of his fellows. When inquiry was made as to the reason, the offence which he was alleged to have committed was that he had insulted the administrator, Mr. Taylor. As, however, the latter had no knowledge of the offence having been committed against him, he was able to intercede on behalf of the supposed delinquent.
The Meridian Society is leading a project to have a permanent memorial in Britain to the men of the CLC. Museum of Liverpool is working with them and the Friends of Anfield Cemetery to commemorate the five men buried in Liverpool: There will be a commemoration ceremony at 1.30pm on Friday 10 August at Anfield Cemetery and on Saturday 11 August, in Museum of Liverpool, we will be hosting a family day where people can make Chinese crafts, listen to Chinese music and watch an emotional film about the CLC created by the Meridian Society.