China / Cover Story

Tide of remembrance for forgotten sailors

By Peng Yining (China Daily) Updated: 2016-03-02 08:18

 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

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.

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.

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