Thursday, November 11, 2010

A time to remember all who served.

MEMORIAL near Tower Hill, London, to Merchant Seamen.
But after war, many who weren't 'British' were deported.

WHAT a pity for Lord Snooty and his Pals, that while he - alias David Cameron - was lecturing Chinese students on the advantages of freedom, British students were storming and trashing Tory party headquarters. The Metropolitan Police, more usually outnumbering demonstrators, anticipating battles that no one else has thought of, and kicking off with enthusiasm, this time seemed to be taken unaware, with only 225 officers to stem the tide, and took its time finding reinforcements.

Nothing to do with letting the government see what might happen with police cuts.
Senior officers would never do that. Still, with government policies causing rising unemployment, poverty, social conflict and crime, ministers should not expect they can have law and order on the cheap.

The Sun front-paged its outrage that the students' 70,000-strong peaceful demonstration over fees and cuts had been "hijacked" by extremists. As though the Sun and papers like it had ever bothered reporting a demonstration, however big, that stayed peaceful, let alone putting it on the front-page. But the angle of distinguishing between the main, presumably legitimate, demonstration and the Millbank assault, though reasonable, is unusually so from this source.

Perhaps they too sense that the huge student demo portends something bigger is looming. As does the explosion of anger at Millbank.

Meanwhile, David Cameron must have felt safer in China, where he was only criticised for insensitivity in wearing his poppy. Had nobody at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office thought to warn the prime minister that what might be an obligatory badge of respectability for politicians in Britain, affecting to remember those killed or maimed and disabled in the wars that they keep waging, might evoke other memories in Beijing.

In two Opium Wars, from 1839 to 1842 and from 1856 to 1860, superior British weaponry and warships imposed the 'benefits' of free trade and especially that in the poppy product on China, obtaining Hong Kong along with privileges for British merchants.

If that was long ago, and didn't figure in Cameron's Eton history syllabus, here's a more recent piece of history that probably hasn't been taught in schools, and was not included in the current season of official "remembrance".

As decisive as the Battle of Britain was in the outcome of World War II, so was the much longer Battle of the Atlantic, which made sure badly-needed food and fuel reached Britain, despite the preying U-boat wolf packs.

As the Nazi tanks and bombers spread across Europe, in 1939, the Chinese Merchant Seamen's Pool of approximately 20,000 was set up, headquartered in Liverpool. Many Chinese seafarers had settled here, though they faced prejudice (ironically Chinese people were often blamed for brining in opium!), and when jobs at sea were scarce, British seafarers could turn against the Chinese and other Asians. But when there's a war on, extra hands are welcome whatever their colour.

Reinforced from the Empire, hundreds of thousands of Chinese seamen and other workers were recruited, and many hundreds were killed and injured aboard British ships. Some were torpedoed by German submarines, and could find themselves swimming amid burning oil when tankers went down. A seaman called Poon Lim set the world record of 133 days for survival on a wooden raft after his ship was sunk by a U-boat in 1942. ( A similar but shorter experience had persuaded my Uncle Issie to quit sailing Canadian tankers for the relative safety, as he thought, of the army).

Despite facing the same dangers as their fellow crewmen, Chinese seafarers had fewer rights and lower pay than their British counterparts, until a campaign was waged to win a wartime danger bonus for Chinese seamen equal to that which was granted to British seamen.

After the war was over, it was another matter.

The Labour government and the shipping companies colluded to forcibly repatriate thousands of Chinese seamen. The Blue Funnel Line, which had started in the Far East trade, and long had Chinese crews, now fired them all. The police lost no time swooping on the docklands to deport the no longer wanted Chinese. Many had to leave behind wives and children. Only many years later was this topic aired publicly, and in 2005 the BBC broadcast something about it.

"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.

"When I was a baby, he was sent back to Shanghai. I've had to grow up without a father," said Margaret Taylor. "I try to put it out of my mind because I know I'll never meet him."

The police operation was ordered by the Home Office and supervised by Special Branch. It must have been one of the fastest things the Attlee government accomplished. Within 48 hours the Chinese seafarers were on their way to China, and there was not much chance of cases being reviewed, or appeals. No problem there with Fabian gradualism.As far as records show, there were no reviews of individual cases, or appeals. And though the government was Labour, it is unlikely to have faced any opposition from Britain's Conservatives.

Families were naturally devastated, and the after effects long outlived the action.

"I'm close to tears now, just talking," Margaret Taylor said.

In 2007 , Anna Chen made a series of programmes about the Chinese in Britain for Radio Four, revisiting the street in Liverpool where her father was born, and also seeing the plaque by the Pier Head which now commemorates the Chinese seafarers.

Today the politicians are wearing their poppies, and Searchlight magazine this month announced a campaign by Hope Not Hate, with trade union support, linking the fight against fascism with commemoration of Britain's war dead. Let us remember all those who served and suffered, and remember too that the defeat of Hitler which our parents celebrated, was not yet the end of inhumanity or racism.

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At 6:46 AM, Anonymous Barbara ONG said...

Dear Charlie,

As a child of one of the Chinese Seaman repatriated back to China, agaainst his wil, I much appreciated reading your article..

I can relate to how Marget Taylor feels, as my mother was left in dire circumstances having to support 3 children after my Father left.. Feel this left a great void in my life, as we never had the opportunity to ever meet him again.. Which makes me sad even to this day, when thinking of him..And wondering what if??

Again thank you for your insightfulness.




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