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World War II’s undesirable elements

6 November 2008

On Sunday, thousands will be at the Cenotaph in Whitehall to pay respects to those who gave their lives for Britain in war, but there is a group whose contribution has been virtually forgotten – the Chinese crew of the Merchant Navy, says MRG’s Advocacy Officer Kathryn Ramsay.

My grandfather was in the Merchant Navy throughout World War II, sailing on the Atlantic convoys, risking the U-boats to bring vital supplies back to Britain. I still have a letter he wrote to my sister and I when I was nine; we had been given a globe for Christmas and his letter was a geography lesson in the form of a description of one of his longest voyages. It was years later before I learned that during that particular voyage, because he didn’t touch land for around nine months, he had been out of touch for so long that my grandmother thought he must have been killed.

I was only 14 when he died but I distinctly remember the stories he told about the places he visited and I think these are probably what inspired my own love of travel. He never spoke to me directly about the trauma of war though – he thought I was too young. A few of his stories were about the Chinese crew of the ships he sailed on. He spoke of their hard work and their loyalty and he made us laugh with politically incorrect impersonations of their pronunciation of particular English words. And he talked about their ingenuity in making the best of difficult circumstances.

During and after the war a lot of food stuff was in very short supply in Britain and there was a thriving black market. The crew of the merchant ships were given rice supplies to last the voyage. One day when the ship was in dock in Liverpool, my grandfather was returning from a trip into the city when he saw a trail of rice leading from the gates of the dockyard all the way to his ship. He knew exactly what had happened. One of the crew had been stopped leaving the dockyard and the customs officer had found a bag of rice destined for the black market. Customs officers had to report any misdeeds to the ship’s captain but by the time they reached the Captain’s quarters, the evidence had disappeared – thanks to a small hole in the paper bag.

There were large numbers of Chinese sailors based in Liverpool during the war; the city had a thriving Chinatown. They took the same risks as British sailors; one, Poon Lim holds the record for the longest survival time on a raft after a torpedo sank his ship. But they were paid less than their British counterparts and whether or not they received a War Risk Bonus depended on the discretion of the company they worked for. As the war came to an end, some of the companies, fearing increased competition from US companies, slashed the wages of Chinese sailors. Then between October 1945 and mid 1946 the British Government repatriated many of them through changing the terms of their contracts so they had to leave and through round ups and forcible deportations. Many of the deportees had British wives and children.

I first heard about the deportations a few years ago when my sister was making a documentary for BBC Close Up North about a Liverpool man’s search for his Chinese father who disappeared during this period. She uncovered documents from the Home Office which showed they wanted to reduce Liverpool’s Chinese population. A Home Office report accused the Chinese of being ‘an undesirable element in Liverpool’ and suggested their wives were ‘of the prostitute class’. The Home Office’s description completely contradicts reports and letters from the time, including from Liverpool and Birkenhead police.

Racism against foreigners serving Britain, either in the armed forces or like the Chinese sailors, in the Merchant Navy during WWII was common. Yet recent court cases have shown that although much improved, unequal treatment continues today. The government is happy to receive the services of foreigners but is still unwilling to provide equal benefits, residency or care. A group of retired Gurkhas had to go to the high court to win the right to settle in Britain but lost a case for equal pension rights. Injured Commonwealth soldiers faced being deported if they had less the four years service until a media investigation resulted in the Home Office changing its guidelines.

My grandfather hated Remembrance Day and could never bring himself to attend any events. Memories of the friends he’d lost and the ships he’d seen go down made it too painful. For me, when I buy my poppy or keep the two-minute silence, I think of him and of the others like him who sailed on the convoys but weren’t so lucky. And now I also think of the Chinese sailors who served with him and whose contribution has been forgotten. Perhaps one day, they too will be represented at the Cenotaph.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.