Back to the front

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2007, 12:00am

A bronze plaque on the wall of a Paris railway building and a modest monument in a small park are the only reminders of a remarkable but forgotten story of the first world war - 150,000 Chinese volunteers who cleared mines, removed the dead and made munitions, and became the first wave of Chinese to settle in Europe.

'In memory of Chinese workers and fighters who died for France in the Great War', reads the inscription on the park monument, in Chinese and French. It pays tribute to up to 10,000 workers killed by German bombing raids, disease, accidents and mine explosions.

Each year, on Ching Ming festival, the Chinese community in Paris leaves wreathes at the monument and the plaque, and at cemeteries in northern France where the men are buried.

The park is in the centre of the 13th district of Paris, the Chinatown that was born when several thousands of the workers decided to remain in France after the Great War, forming the first Chinese community in Europe. The community today numbers more than 500,000, according to official figures, and may be double that if illegals are included.

The bustling district is home to thousands of Chinese-owned factories, trading companies, shops and restaurants, whose number swelled with the arrival of the thousands of Chinese refugees from Indochina after the communist conquest of Vietnam in 1975. Among the biggest businesses is a giant supermarket owned by the Tang brothers, who arrived from Thailand in the 1970s and whose president, Chen Ke-guang, is an advocate of official recognition of the workers. Mr Chen is the secretary-general of the Association for the Advancement of Chinese in France.

'The history of the workers had been forgotten,' said an official of the association. 'The community pushed for recognition but nothing happened until 1988. I don't know the reason for the change, from the city or central governments. They put up the plaque [in 1988] and gave awards to two of the workers who were still alive.'

Many Chinese residents, especially recent arrivals, are unaware of the history of their wartime compatriots.

Philippe Liang, 83, is a native of Xiamen who later moved to Vietnam and then France, and works in an association for the Chinese from Indochina. 'When I arrived in France in the 1940s, there was racism against Chinese but not now, when it is directed against blacks and Arabs. The status of Chinese is rising. Some have very substantial businesses,' he said.

While the early arrivals kept a low profile and emphasised their Frenchness, the Chinese of today have a confidence and self-belief that comes from economic success and integration into mainstream society and the growth and prosperity of their homeland.

It was a different reality in 1916, when the British and French governments conceived the idea of recruiting Chinese workers. The death in battle of their men on a scale no-one had ever imagined had left them seriously short of labour.

The two governments conducted discreet negotiations with China, then neutral in the war. Beijing favoured the plan because it believed the workers would learn skills useful for the country's modernisation and would give it a stronger hand at the negotiating table at the end of the war.

Those under British command would join the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) and be subject to British military rule. Non-combatant, they would build and repair docks, roads, airfields, railways, man ports and railheads, stores and ammunition depots, dig trenches, remove the dead, clear mines and work in factories.

Once agreement was reached, the governments used public notices and missionaries to spread the news of the CLC, offering a five-year contract, a level of pay much higher than at home, and free food, clothing and housing.

They would receive one franc (at that time equivalent to US$19.30) for a 10-hour day, half that of a British private, while their families would receive 10 Mexican dollars (US$5.40) per month.

The first French-bound contingent, of 1,700, arrived in France on August 1916 and the first British-bound contingent, of 1,000, arrived in Plymouth in April 1917, before being sent to France. They were accompanied by missionaries and Chinese-speaking officers.

In total, 100,000 Chinese went to work for the British, 35,000 for the French, and 10,000 for the Americans. The majority were farmers and city workers from Shandong and Hebei provinces. The CLC formed the largest contingent of foreign workers employed by the Allies during the war, outnumbering the Indians, black South Africans, Egyptians and West Indians.

They were sent to camps near the front. One of the largest was in the northern French town of Noyelles-sur-Mer, close to a military base.

The biggest risk came not from carrying the dead and wounded from the front, because both sides observed a truce while this was being done, but German air raids. Others died because of long-range bombardments, accidents involving unstable shells and explosives, and disease.

The French housed their volunteers in camps across the country, putting them to work in munitions, metallurgy and chemical factories and on construction sites. Chinese labour built the ferry ports of Calais and Boulogne and a sea defence wall at Orford Ness in Suffolk, England.

Manico Gull, the British commander of the second group of CLC workers, said in 1918: 'Their emigration from the shores of Shandong will take its place certainly as one of the most important aspects of the Great European War.'

According to the Allies, 3,000 Chinese died. Chinese figures put the toll at 9,000 to 10,000. They are buried in cemeteries in northern France, the largest in Noyelles with 842 graves, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Some tombstones have the name, number, date of death and native province of the victim, but others have no name.

With the end of the war in 1918, France still needed thousands of labourers and the Chinese stayed on to work in factories, hospitals and building sites.

Most returned home in 1919 and 1920 but 3,000 from Qingtian, outside Wenzhou , Zhejiang province , stayed behind. They formed the basis of the Chinese community in France.

One who stayed was Ye Qingyuan, a native of Qingtian who volunteered at the end of 1917. 'My home village was a poor mountain village, a disaster for heaven and man alike, where you could not make a living,' he wrote in his diary. 'When Germany surrendered in November 1918, the government gave us a bonus. With my cousin, I opened a restaurant near the Gare de Lyons. The French were very curious and wanted to sample Chinese food. Within six months, we were run off our feet.'

By the end of 1920, he had enough money to return home, marry a local girl and return to Paris with three brothers. They opened restaurants and shops that sold groceries and carved stone from Qingtian. In 1985, he retired and returned, finally, to live in his ancestral village.

In the Versailles Peace Treaty after the war, the Allies did not reward Beijing for providing the workers and left it with terms so bad the Chinese delegation refused to sign the document.

Lionel Vairon, a business consultant who travels often to China, said that, after the first world war, the Chinese who stayed on concentrated on becoming French and did not speak of the war. 'They wanted to de-emphasise their Chineseness and wanted to integrate. So, the history of the workers is little known.'