As a child, I knew I was different. Why did I have black hair? Why did I get suntanned so quickly in the summer? My sister had blond hair and she just went red when she played in the sun. But there were lots of kids in our street who had brown skin, so it didn’t bother me too much.
Then one day a new kid moved into the neighbourhood. I ran home and told my mother we had a Chines boy in the street. She said ‘He’s not Chinese. He’s half – like you.’ Me? Chinese? Then I forgot about it.
Where is my father?
As a teenager, I used to argue politics with my Dad. The wonderful man who brought me up. One day, exasperated with my arguing with Dad, my mother blurted out ‘ You’re just like your father, always wanting to change the World!’ I looked at her, puzzled. She added ‘Your Shanghai father.’ And walked away.
Over the next few years I learned a little more. My Chinese father came from the French quarter of Shanghai, that was why I had a French name – Yvonne.
He was an engineer. They courted for two years. Then they had eloped when my grandfather refused to give my mother permission to marry him. She was still under 21. He had gone back to China after the War saying he would set things up for his little family then send for us. But he never came back.
Over the years I learned a little more but I was never able to discover why this man had never come back. If he was a man of such high principles, if I was so much like him, why did it happen?
My life moved on. I married, moved to Australia and then to Hong Kong. For the first time I was living in a Chinese society.
I became close friends with a Shanghai woman of my own age. She had been educated in the UK and Canada and I learned a lot from her about the culture in which I could have grown up. I was able to see Shanghai and walk the streets where my father had walked.
Eventually, I moved back to Britain. My Dad passed away and I felt I could now start to investigate what had happened.
Why had the man my mother had loved as a young woman and who, it seemed, had loved her never come back?
The truth emerges
My research helped me to discover why.
He and many other ‘agitators’ had been forced out. They had been blacklisted for demanding equality of treatment with British sailors for braving the same dangers. They were prevented from coming back.
As I learned this, I could not help but think how I would have behaved. I am now old enough to understand myself. I too would have been an ‘agitator’.
I would have pressed for equality of treatment. I would not have been able to keep quiet. I now knew how much I was my father’s daughter. I can look back over my life at the things I have done and see just how true that is. Being a Union representative as a teenager is a pretty good example!
My father’s genes are obviously strong in me. But I grew up in a Liverpool working class household. The values I hold are very much those values – treat others as you find them. Work hard. Be honest with others.
They were the values of my Mum and my Dad. Would my Chinese father’s values have been any different? I do not think so. In fact, I am sure they would have been exactly the same.
All the work I have done over the last decade has been of immense value. I am clearer now about who I am and why I am the way I am. I am half Chinese. But my culture is Western. I am the daughter of three people. And I am grateful for that.
This article is contributed by Yvonne Foley, one of the children whose life was changed because of the decision to repatirate the Chinese seamen.