The 100K Chinese who assisted Britain in WW1

The forgotten of the forgotten (the lack of capitals in the title is deliberate) is based on the stories and experiences of the World War One Chinese Labour Corps, approximately 140,000 (no one knows the exact figure) of whom worked behind the Allied lines and provided vital logistical support at the tail end of the Great War and whose contributions and sacrifices have been literally airbrushed from history.

“It’s easy to dismiss 140,000 as a paltry number, seeing it as the end of a war which was being won” says York Loh, “but it’s not quite as simple as that. The First World War wasn’t won by tactics. It was a war of attrition, it’s as simple as that. Both sides struggled with manpower as the casualty rate was so high. 140,000 labourers at the vital point of the conflict freed up 140,000 men to fight on the front line and contributed significantly to the successful outcome a war that forced both sides to the point of collapse”

If this is the case, why has the Chinese contribution been overlooked for so long? “It was in no one’s interest to acknowledge this at the time, or indeed since. China was officially neutral until the last few months, indeed had German interests on its soil. The British were also very sensitive about needing assistance from “coloured” people. There was also a whole deal with China’s status at the time: a weakened nation, paying left-over indemnities from various opium wars and the Boxer Rebellion, very much at the mercy of the so-called “great powers” who would find a large nation with resources aplenty in a parlous and vulnerable position very difficult to resist. All the major powers had significant interests in China at the time. The Japanese government in particular were very keen to exploit China’s weakness and the Western powers were in debt to Japan as a fellow World War One combatant.”

Daniel York
Daniel York Loh – Turning the forgotten histories of the 100,000 Chinese citizens’ contribution to the allied fronts in WW1 into an original stage play.

And the Chinese themselves? The whole point of sending the labourers, mainly poor and illiterate peasants from Shandong Province in North-East China, was to place China in a good position to win badly needed concessions at the post-war peace conference. Unfortunately this backfired when the “great powers” turned their back and effectively humiliated China, despite a heroic performance from the Chinese delegation (which is dramatized in the play). It’s become something of a dark hour in Chinese history. It led directly to the collapse of the fledgling Republican Chinese government into the perilous Warlord Era. All this is changing though. There’s a pressure group (Ensuring We Remember) campaigning for a stature memorial for the labourers and various other activities and commemorations being planned. 

Although certainly portraying the politics of the time, the play centres on the story of three friends from a small village in Shandong who happen to be amateur opera performers. “When you’re portraying history and politics it’s vital to find the human element. I wanted a story about friendship and who gets left behind. I also wanted the main characters to be performers, maybe even artists. All the accounts of the Chinese labourers mention them carrying musical instruments, performing songs and stories for each other. There are also examples of their “trench art” which are quite extraordinary. They were very much thought of as coolie labourers at the time. Illiterate (like most of China then) and uneducated. It’s easy for people like this to become dehumanised and devalued. So my story is about three friends who yearn to tell stories and in the process of harrowing events far from home learn to tell their own story and indeed the story of their nation, which they would have had little sense of at the time. People in the West are often terrified of “Chinese nationalism” now but at the time China was struggling to even stay together. People spoke different dialects, couldn’t understand each other, often felt little in common. They literally had to find themselves as a country.

Daniel York Loh is an experienced actor who has performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and Royal Court, as well as in feature films with the likes of Leonarco di Caprio and Ewan Magregor. As a writer he came through the prestigious Royal Court Studio writers group as well as being developed on Film4 screenwriting masterclasses. His previous full-length stage play The Fu Manchu Complex ran at Ovalhouse for three weeks in 2013 and he has had short plays and readings performed at high-profile venues like the Royal Court, Orange Tree, Bush Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East. the forgotten of the forgotten like The Fu Manchu Complex is being produced through Moongate Productions, the company he started with actress/filmmaker/producer Jennifer Lim. Moongate are also working on a revival of S.I. Hsiung’s famous Chinese play Lady Precious Stream to be staged next year.

“I’m not sure I like the words “theatre company”. Particularly “East Asian theatre company”. It seems such an outmoded concept to me. I’d rather just have platforms that enable people of Chinese and East Asian descent to tell their stories when and how they feel impassioned to do so. What we really don’t need, in my opinion, is some sort of “community representative” organisation that automatically grinds out a Chinese play every year regardless. Moongate is more than just theatre anyway. Earlier this year we produced Dream Of Emerald Hill, a short film in Singapore, directed by Lin Mingyu and starring Jennifer, about Kheng Lim, one of the pioneering English speaking Singapore stage actresses, which has just been accepted into a film festival in Cairo so we’re very excited about that.”

As someone who has advocated so strongly for better opportunities for Chinese and East Asian artistes in the UK how does he feel about the current entertainment industry landscape for East Asians? “I’m actually very optimistic, possibly for the first time ever. There are actors, writers and companies popping up literally everywhere and it’s getting harder and harder to ignore us. And the great thing is the diversity. It’s very exciting that we’re at last starting to bust out of that uniform pigeon-hole. The vital thing is that we’ve been vocal in the last years. Let’s remain so. If you don’t make yourself heard you can’t argue that people are ignoring you.”

And finally, when can we expect to see the full production of the forgotten of the forgotten? “This is the development week which is now a vital part of getting a play to the stage. Everyone does it these days. You get bits of it up on its feet with actors, maybe some music and costume elements. See what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the week you present a “showing” to an invited audience of people who could potentially help produce the play with you. This began as a 5 minute with Rikki Beadle-Blair’s Team Angelica at The Bush and now it’s growing!  I’d hope it can be produced in a fairly major way. It’s high time that stories from our history were told in the British mainstream”.

The forgotten of the forgotten by Daniel York Loh is being produced by Gemma Lloyd for Moongate Productions and directed by the acclaimed theatre director Rikki Henry (Creditors at the Young Vic).

For more information please contact Gemma at [email protected] . You can also follow the forgotten of the forgotten on Twitter @theforgotten_of  and like the Facebook page 

The forgotten of the forgotten, an original stage play by Daniel York Loh focussing on a previously little known aspect of Chinese history, will have a one week development workshop funded by Arts Council England at the famous Theatre Royal Stratford East at the end of October.

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