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Chinese Labour Corp Commemoration - a personal remembrance

November 11, 2020 1:39 PM
By Dr Yeow Poon

Chinese Labour Corps exhibitionUntil about 2 years ago, when an exhibition of the Chinese Labour Corp was held in Birmingham, I was unaware of the Chinese Labour Corp and what they did. It was only then, after living in the UK for 45 years, that I realised that nearly 100,000 Chinese people had served Britain during the First World War. They were then forgotten until a few years ago when a group of people from the Chinese community fought hard for the Chinese Labour Corp to be formally recognised by the UK Government.

Why is it important that we do not forget? After all, a 100,000 Chinese (or 140,000 including those recruited by the French) toiling away behind the frontlines is insignificant compared to around five million Brits who fought between 1914 and 1918. It has been estimated that a total of 70 million fought and up to 15 million were killed. So, why is it important for me to remember the Chinese Labour Corp?

I was born in Malaysia and came to the UK as a student. Over the years, the UK has become my home and I am fairly well integrated into British society. Yet, for a long time, I have not felt connected to this land. My home is definitely here in the UK, I feel comfortable, but a part of me felt like I am a stranger living in a strange land.

However, when I learned about the Chinese labour Corp, something in me changed

Although, it is not likely that my ancestors would be a member of the Chinese Labour Corp, I felt a kind of kinship. A feeling that I have forefathers who had come decades earlier before me, endured hardship, bled, and some even died, to serve this country. The Chinese Labour Corp sparked in me a sense of historical connection that strengthened my ties to this land. I began to feel more strongly that this land is also my land. However, I also realised the poor treatment, prejudices and racist abuse experienced by the Chinese Labour Corp a hundred years ago have not gone away. They are just as real today.

Remembering the Chinese Labour Corp reminds me of two things.

Firstly, we have a place and a home here in the UK that is worth fighting for. We must make the efforts to challenge and overcome anti-Chinese racism, stereotyping and cultural misunderstanding. We must build the bridges that promote mutual respect, acceptance of diversity and inclusivity.

Secondly, we need to go beyond just serving the interests of our own Chinese community. If we want the UK to be a good home for us, our families and our children, we must also take greater responsibilities in contributing to the overall wellbeing of this land that has become our home.

Dr Yeow Poon is Chair of Chinese Liberal Democrats, co-founder of the Covid 19 Anti Racism Group, Trustee of Chinese Welfare Trust and Chair of the Chinese Community Centre - Birmingham.

Armistice Day 2017 Chinese Labour Corps 4