More than 100,000 Chinese men volunteered for the Chinese Labour Corps with the first arriving in the West in 1917 often doing the most dangerous tasks, moving ammunition, clearing bodies, trench digging. They were contracted to work for three years, 10 hours a week for 7 days a week with only 3 days off a year. A significant number died and are buried in commonwealth war graves. In France one such cemetery has inscribed on headstones the proverb ‘Faithful unto death’, ‘A good reputation endures forever’, ‘A noble duty bravely done’ and ‘Though dead he still liveth’.
Not heard of them? You are unlikely to be alone. Their contribution is rarely recognised in the West although they most certainly had a critical role to play in a weakened Britain short of labour and leaving their homes 5,000 miles and a entire world away.Even to this day there is no monument to their sacrifice and contribution to the war effort and one of the darkest periods in human history.
When Britain distributed 6m commemorative medals to all who took part in the war, those received by the Chinese bore only their numbers, not their names, and were bronze, not silver. Painfully symbolically, the Chinese were also painted out of a giant canvas exhibited in Paris at the end of the war. It was believed to be the largest painting in the world, and showed a victorious France surrounded by her allies. It was begun in 1914, but had to be changed in 1917 to include the arrival of the United States – the space was found by painting over the Chinese workers.
The Ensuring we Remember campaign aims to create a permanent memorial in London to properly remember the contribution of the Chinese community to the future of Britain and success of the Allies. Perhaps this may go some way to challenging the awareness gap which undoubtedly fuels discrimination and racism between ethnicities.