"Keep my funnels tall and blue and look after my China men". So reads the quote from Victorian magnate Alfred Holt on the newly erected plaque outside the former Blue Funnel shipping office (now the New Capital Chinese restaurant) on Nelson Street, in Liverpool's Chinatown.

It has taken more than 60 years but at last the thousands of Chinese mariners who worked for the company are being remembered. The plaque's blue denotes a historical marker and Holt's "China men" wrote their own chapter in Britain's seafaring tradition - only to be shamefully cast away in the aftermath of its "finest hour".

For too long their experience constituted an episode the British authorities seemed to want to forget. Thousands of men sailed from Shanghai and Canton to Britain in the years following the Blue Funnel Line's establishment, in 1866. For decades it was Britain's main trading conduit with China - and by the second world war, some 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese sailors had made Liverpool their home.

When hostilities ceased, however, many of these men who had risked their lives to serve the Allied merchant navy found themselves rounded up and covertly returned to China against their wishes. Indeed, so secretive was the government's repatriation scheme that often the men's families had no idea where they had gone. Children were left fatherless; women assumed their men had abandoned them and were left destitute. Often the women were labelled prostitutes; many had chosen not to marry their Chinese partners for fear of losing their British citizenship.

A contemporary report in the Liverpool Echo claims up to 300 couples were affected. British Home Office files, meanwhile, indicate 1,362 men had been repatriated by July 11, 1946.

Said to be the oldest Chinese community in Europe, little is known about the Liverpool Chinese, especially of those who disappeared. In recent years, though, the seeming omerta has been challenged - locals Moira Kenny and John Campbell have done much to fill in gaps in the knowledge of many Chinese Britons about their heritage via the Liverpool Chinatown Oral History project, which has received Heritage Lottery funding.

It was during a lunch with four former Blue Funnel seamen that they came up with the idea of lobbying local councillors for a plaque to be erected.

"Together we wanted to celebrate the happy and tragic times we have been recording through the [oral history project]," says Kenny.