Sights and Hidden History
Speakers give short lectures. Apparently a large Chinese labour force was recruited by the French and the British following the disastrous casualties of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and a general feeling that the war was slipping away. Chinese foreign labour was chosen because of existing administrative structures - the British leasing the port of Weihai - and a general belief that the labourers of the region were hardy and more suited to the climate of Europe. Originally called Weihaiwei, Weihai was leased as a British naval base - an alternative to Hong Kong - between 1898 to 1930. Many labourers volunteered for a relatively good wage, but also out of desperation. Famine and flooding were common. Despite China being a neutral country thousands of labourers were recruited for the trip to Europe. Labourers, from a variety of backgrounds: carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, weavers, farmers, bricklayers and ex- soldiers, endured a strict training regime and martial control. Ships left in 1917 for Europe in all directions - to and across Canada or via the Panama Canal, Suez Canal or South Africa. German submarines were a problem and already 543 Chinese had been killed in the tragic sinking of the French steamship 'The Athos.' The work in Europe was hard – ten hours seven days a week – all being subject to martial rules despite being a non- combatative labour force. Some being executed for criminal offences, others winning awards for bravery. Labourers received a stipend for themselves, a part of their wage being made available for the family back home. Time was given for Chinese holidays. Labourers received free food, clothing, accommodation, medical treatment and English lessons including support in writing letters back home. Labourers worked on tasks as varied as trench digging, grave digging, tank maintenance, bomb clearing, body recovery, handling stores, as well as making roads and constructing rear defenses. Labourers died from bombings, gassing, disease, accidents and injuries caused by unexploded grenades and bombs. Many also died from the post-war Spanish flu. It is reputed that over 94,000 Chinese served with the British Chinese Labour Corp. Over 1800 died in France, including 279 on the seaward voyage home. Speakers tell us stories of the daily life in camps, gambling, murder, executions, bravery, communications, homesickness, recreation and trauma. We hear of Chinese labour corps that served with the Russians. We hear of a recently discovered labourer diary. One historian, Gregory James, from Hong Kong, has compiled a searchable database of 94,000 labourers from records and the visiting of cemeteries. What unravels is a complex picture: philosophical discussions centre on the impact of the journey and what skills and perceptions labourers brought back to China. During the following days we make a trip to a number of historic British buildings in the town. We see the large Happiness Gate and Weihai Park with its many curious statues: Albert Einstein as well as Chinese Philosophers. A ferry trip takes us to nearby Liugong Island. It hosts historic buildings and interesting Museums to the Sino Japanese War and British lease. The development, with its mixture of old and reconstructed buildings, feels more like an historic theme park at times, yet shows the increasing extent to which China is addressing its history. Over the following days I wander through the streets of Weihai taking many photographs. Modern buildings rise above old fishing fleets. A photograph I take captures two sides of China. In the foreground a fisherman tends to his nets. Old fishing boats dot the harbour. In the distance, perched on the promontory is the Heqing Hotel - the conference home – a monument to modern day China, opening the door for international investment and ideas. I think of the fisherman and the physical requirements of his day. He sits near to the dock where thousands of Chinese once made a most heroic journey to Europe and beyond. Weihai Municipal pages: http://www.weihai.gov.cn/weihai/en/ Heqing Hotel: http://www.heqinghotel.com/ehtml/emain.htm Further Reading on Chinese Labour Corp: The Chinese Labour Corps in France 1917 -1921 Brian Fawcett: sunzi1.lib.hku.hk/hkjo/view/44/4400862.pdf
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Mr. Darron Davies, who serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a photographer: www.darrondavies.com and works as a specialist in education supporting creative teaching within schools : www.inclueded.net.
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