Tide of remembrance for forgotten sailors

Updated: 2016-03-02 08:18

By Peng Yining(China Daily)

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During World War II, more than 20,000 Chinese mariners served the British merchant fleet with distinction. However, when the war ended, most were quickly repatriated, forcing them to leave wives and children in the United Kingdom. Peng Yining reports.

At Pier Head in the port of Liverpool in the United Kingdom stands a black marble plaque that looks out over the Atlantic Ocean. Unveiled a decade ago, the plaque, in English and Chinese, is dedicated to the memory of Chinese mariners who served in the British merchant fleet during both world wars. Placed directly between the Chinese and English verses is heping, the Chinese character for "peace", written in larger script.

During World War II, Liverpool was the headquarters of the forces that guarded the Western Approaches, an area of the Atlantic that lies to the west of the British Isles, and protected the Atlantic convoys, a crucial ocean lifeline that carried desperately needed supplies to wartime Britain.

 Tide of remembrance for forgotten sailors

The unveiling ceremony of the plaque commemorating the deeds of Chinese mariners is held at Pier Head, Liverpool, England, on Jan 23, 2006. The plaque faces the Western Approaches of the Atlantic Ocean. Photos Provided by Han Qing / For China Daily

 Tide of remembrance for forgotten sailors

A wedding ceremony in Liverpool in April 1943 depicts an unknown Chinese merchant seaman (front, third from left) and his new British wife.

 Tide of remembrance for forgotten sailors

Retired Chinese and British sailors of the Blue Funnel Shipping Line raise their glasses in a photo taken in front of the company's former offices in Liverpool.

After the loss of many ships and men, the British Merchant Navy began recruiting sailors from Allied countries around the world. More than 20,000 trained mariners came from China, mainly from Shanghai, Ningbo in Zhejiang province, Hong Kong and Shandong province.

Thousands of them died as a result of attacks by U-boats, the German submarine fleet, yet their history is largely unknown - not just to the British, but also to the Chinese.

Research conducted by Luo Xiaojian, the Chinese consul in Liverpool during WWII, showed that more than 2,000 Chinese seamen lost their lives, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the death toll among Allied sailors, both combatants and merchant mariners. The average age of the dead Chinese was 35.

Merchant sailors from China first appeared in Liverpool in 1850, when the first route was established between Shanghai and Liverpool, making the city's Chinatown the oldest in Europe.

In addition to working for the British merchant fleet, many Chinese mariners also served and died in the navies of other European countries. In 1940, a Norwegian merchant vessel was attacked and sunk by a Japanese warship during a voyage from Thailand to Singapore. Only six of the 44 Chinese sailors on board survived.

Between 1940 and 1945, about 2,000 Chinese seamen worked on Norwegian merchant ships, with 252 of them dying in the course of their duties.

A good reputation

Most Chinese worked as lower-level crew members on European merchant ships, according to research by Han Qing, professor of maritime history and culture at Dalian Maritime University in Liaoning province.

Han said Chinese seamen were paid about 50 percent less than their British counterparts. In 1939, the monthly salary of a British seaman was about 9 pounds (about $12 today) and a fireman earned 10 pounds, but Chinese sailors were paid 4 pounds for the same work, while a fireman earned 6 pounds.

"Chinese sailors were not only cheaper, they were also obedient, hard working and didn't drink and make trouble," Han said. "Even before the war, Chinese sailors had earned a good reputation in Europe."

That view is endorsed by the words of D.L.C. Evans, captain of the British merchant ship Glenartney. In a letter he wrote after undertaking a rescue mission in the Atlantic in 1941, Evans said: "The Chinese crew were truly excellent, working to the point of exhaustion ... As an illustration of the spirit prevailing, the Chinese boys made it clear that any attempt on the part of the survivors to offer any reward or gratuity would be most offensive to their feelings, and would be met with disdainful refusal. I can only say with all the sincerity that I possess that I am proud to have been in command of such a ship, manned by such excellent officers, midshipmen, and crew."

Although the war in Europe ended in May 1945, the conflict continued in Asia until the Japanese surrender in early September. That, and the ensuing war between the Communists and Nationalists in China, left many of the sailors stranded in the UK.

Forcible repatriation

According to Han's research, about 6,000 Chinese sailors married or cohabited with local women, fathering more than 1,300 children. However, in September 1945, the British government began to forcibly repatriate the Chinese sailors. Many were denied the opportunity to say goodbye to their families because they were detained on the street and sent directly to the ships that transported them back to China. The men's sudden departure had a devastating effect on those left behind.

Tide of remembrance for forgotten sailors

Yvonne Foley was born in February 1946, a few months after her father, who hailed from Shanghai, was forced to return to China. Foley's mother was too ill to accompany her husband, so she stayed in the UK.

"Back then, we didn't ask questions. As for my mum, she always thought she'd been abandoned, so there was that hurt that made it difficult," Foley said, in an interview with the BBC last year.

For the past decade, she has acted as the leader of a group for men and women whose fathers were repatriated, collecting any snippets of information that will help to provide a clearer picture of what happened to the men.

On the group's website, Liverpool and its Chinese Seamen, they wrote: "Some of us did not know we had any Chinese blood until we were teenagers or even adults. We knew we looked different to others around us, but we never knew why."

The prevailing conditions of the time meant that although many families tried to maintain contact, few managed to do so.

According to Han, a small number of the children traveled to China in the 1980s and '90s and found their fathers. However, as many of the children are now in their 70s and 80s, and most of the fathers have died, they are finding it increasingly difficult to trace their roots.

Han is currently helping the China Maritime Museum in Shanghai to organize an exhibition about the lives of Chinese seamen in wartime Europe. It will open before June 25, the International Maritime Organization's "Day of the Seafarer".

"The Chinese sailors played an important role in the victory in the war," he said. "They should not be forgotten."

Contact the writer at pengyining@chinadaily.com.cn

The dedication

"To the Chinese merchant seaman who served this country well during both world wars.

For those who gave their lives for this country - thank you.

To the many Chinese merchant seamen who after both world wars were required to leave.

For their wives and partners who were left in ignorance of what happened to their men.

For the children who never knew their fathers.

This is a small reminder of what took place. We hope nothing like it will ever happen again.

For your memory."

23rd January 2006

Tide of remembrance for forgotten sailors

(China Daily 03/02/2016 page6)