Feature Article on Hong Kong and WWI Chinese Labour Corps
The First World War broke out in the summer of 1914. As war causalities increased, the British and French forces faced a huge labour shortage, so they turned to China for help. Liang Shiyi (1869–1933), who was the Secretary-General to the President of the Republic of China at the time, proposed sending labourers instead of soldiers to help Britain and France fight the German forces, paving the way to reclaim sovereignty over Shandong.
The British and French forces recrutied Chinese labourers from northern China and coastsal area, such as Weihai, Qingdao, Tanggu, Pukou, Yunnan and Hong Kong. Li Min Company, which was founded in Hong Kong in 1916, set up a recruitment centre in Lai Chi Kok to hire Chinese labourers for the French forces. When the labourers were hired, they were sent to segregation camps, where food and accommodation were provided for them as they waited to board a ship to Europe. Overa period of five months, a total of 3,221 Chinese labourers left Hong Kong in five groups.
Initially, the Chinese labourers travelled to Europe via the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea, or by way of the Cape of Good Hope before continuing north along the African continent. But when Germany began to launch U-boat attacks on ships, the Chinese labourers were taken eastward across the Pacific Ocean. Upon arriving in Vancouver, they were transported by rail to eastern Canada, from where they crossed the Atlantic to Europe or they travelled by sea from Vancouver via the Panama Canal and then across the Atlantic. Some Chinese labourers died of illness or in German U-boat attacks before arriving in Europe.
Statistics reveal that some 140,000 labourers were recruited into the Chinese Labour Corps by Britain and France during the First World War. The labourers worked in arsenals and shipyards, before being sent to dig trenches, build roads and bridges, and bury soldiers killed in action. They even cleared mines and moved bombs. Many of them were killed in the war.
Today, there are graveyards for the WWI Chinese Labour Corps in various European countries. A similar tombstone has been erected in Hong Kong's Stanley Military Cemetery to commemorate the Chinese labourers who died in the line of duty during the First World War. Even though the Chinese Labour Corps was a non-combatant unit, the labourers contributed immensely to the war. Therefore, in the new permanent exhibition, we will revisit the spirit of these dauntless men, who travelled to the other side of the world to assist in the war effort more than a century ago.
Notice by Lee Man Company recruiting Chinese labourers for France, published in the 8 December 1916 issue of Wah Tsz Yat Po (Hong Kong).
On 17 February 1917, the French vessel Athos carrying Chinese labourers recruited by Lee Man Company was sunk by German submarine in the Mediterranean Sea, with hundreds lost.
Tombstone in Stanley Military Cemetery, Hong Kong, inscribed with the words "bend one's body and exhaust one's energy", commemorating the WWI Chinese Labour Corps.