During World War Two my hometown, Liverpool, was home to 20,000 Chinese merchant seamen. They crewed the cargo ships and the oil tankers that brought in the vital war supplies Britain needed to fight that war.
Most had joined their vessels in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Singapore and were paid far less than British seamen doing the same work. In addition, British seamen were paid a War Risk Bonus that was greater than the total pay of most of the Chinese mariners.
Then, in December 1941, the Japanese attacked Hong Kong and Singapore and moved to take over Shanghai. Britain was at war with Japan and the men were now trapped in the UK. They were now faced with British living costs on Chinese pay.
In February 1942 the men went on strike for equality of treatment. The strikers held out for three months and finally got a significant increase, including the same War Risk Bonus as the British mariners. But the British Government and the shipowners now viewed the men as troublemakers and continued to do so throughout the War.
Civilians caught In between
As the War dragged on, hundreds of Chinese seamen settled down with local girls. They started families.
Then in 1945 the Japanese surrendered. The War was over and the men were no longer needed.
One of the main employers of Chinese seamen, Alfred Holt and Company was determined to replace all its crews. It wanted to cut the men’s pay to pre-war levels and, with the support of the Government, get rid of the men who were considered to be left-wing ‘agitators’. In particular, the men from Shanghai.
Married or not, those who had been targeted were denied shore jobs; if married they were not told they had a right to remain in the UK. They were offered only a one-way voyage back to China. Many men left hoping they would be able to return. But they had been blacklisted. They could not get back. And by 1949 China was in the hands of the Communists.
Their families were left destitute. Some of the women eventually re-married. Some of the men from Shanghai managed to get to Hong Kong and eventually get a ship back to England. But it was too late. Their partners had new husbands and had begun new families.
My mother had re-married. She married a wonderful man who brought me up as his own daughter. He was my Dad. My mother told me when I was about ten that Dad was not my real father.
My real father was from Shanghai. The French Concession. But I resolved never to check on my background, never to find out what happened, why my Chinese father was not around. As long as my Dad was alive, I would not do it. It would be disrespectful.
The journey of discovery
It was almost ten years ago that I began to research what had happened to my Chinese father. My Dad had been dead for quite a time and I felt he would have understood.
I hunted through the documents at the National Archives in the UK. Through the records of the shipping company Alfred Holt, through union records and the archives of the city of Shanghai.
I got copies of the personal papers of the Chinese Ambassador to the UK in World War Two, Dr. Wellington Koo. Gradually, I was able to piece together the story.
I was determined that there should be a monument to our parents. I wrote to the Chief Executive of the City of Liverpool. I met with City officials. To put pressure on them, I got interviewed on local radio; I got articles in the local paper. I met with the Chinese Consul General in Manchester. Finally, they agreed.
The monument was erected on 26th January 2006. It now sits with the other monuments to the men who risked their lives in the merchant marine. It honours men who richly deserve that honour and remembers the women whose lives were damaged by those events so long ago.
This article is contributed by Yvonne Foley, one of the children whose life was changed because of the decision to repatirate the Chinese seamen.
They have developed a website half and half to record this forgotten history.