Liverpool’s Lost Chinese Sailors, and the Families Left Behind in the UK (AMWF History)

Liverpool, England, is home to one of those shameful, forgotten chapters in history — when the UK suddenly deported Chinese sailors, who had bravely served during World War II, devastating they families they left behind.

In the early 1940s, the British Merchant Navy recruited some 20,000 Chinese sailors to assist in the war efforts. And of them, an estimated 300 had relationships with British women (either through marriage or cohabitation). As the SCMP reported:

Many of the women who set up home with Chinese mari­ners and started families did not formally marry, either because, like Grace, they were under 21 years old and couldn’t get parental consent or because, in the 1940s, when women married foreign nationals they surrendered their British citizenship and assumed the nationality of their husbands.

Married or not, they earned a reputation in ultra-conservative post-war England as being “loose women” and, in another archive, Charles Foley found that government officials dismissed those married to or cohabiting with a Chinese partner as “the prostitute class”.

“I was very angry when I read that,” Foley says. “They obviously hadn’t met my mother.”

While Britain had initially welcomed the Chinese sailors, things changed after they had a strike to fight for higher wages in 1942, as reported by the BBC:

These men were in demand and so they won, but were considered to be “troublemakers” from then on, according to shipping firm Alfred Holt’s documents at the Ocean Archive.

After the war, British authorities moved swiftly to force the Chinese sailors out of the country. The BBC noted that a UK Home Office document from October 1945 cast the sailors as “an undesirable element in Liverpool” due to an alleged “1,000 convictions for opium smoking” in recent years. However, as per the BBC:

…Belchem says that was an unfair analysis. “There were one or two with criminal records, but the government used this minority to stigmatise the whole Chinese population.”

“If you look at the way most people see it, they would be absolutely model migrants. They were respectful, well-behaved, believed in education, weren’t violent, looked after their wives, looked after their children.”

Adds the website Half and Half:

This statement by the Home Office directly conflicts with report after report, letter after letter from the Liverpool and Birkenhead Chief Constables. Going back to the early years of the century they repeatedly praise the law-abiding nature of the Chinese.

Nevertheless, the reality didn’t matter to Britain. The country also didn’t care about the loved ones left behind, either as the BBC reported:

…during a series of police swoops on the Liverpool dock area, deportation orders were served on the Chinese sailors.

“He just went out to the shop, and my mum was waiting for him to come home, and he never came,” Linda Davis said of her father.

And as the SCMP noted:

Officials argued that no Chinese seaman married to a British-born woman had been forcibly repatriated – the legal situation was complicated and the government did not want to appear to be splitting up families – but Charles Foley has seen evidence that this was not true. At least one married man, with three children, was “rounded up” and deported.

And for the unmarried fathers who were sent home, some did not have time to say goodbye.

It’s heartbreaking to imagine what these families had to go through. Some of the children of Liverpool’s lost Chinese sailors have spent much of their lives searching for their fathers — see the BBC story Looking for my Shanghai father.

To learn about the whole dark episode, you can also visit the website Half and Half, where you can also help the families by contacting them with any information about these lost Chinese.

Additionally, an article originally written by China Daily and reprinted by the Telegraph includes two stories from Chinese ripped away from their lives in the UK.

What do you think about Liverpool’s lost Chinese sailors?