Written by: Benjamin Fielden
Edited by: Dr Vivienne Lo and Rosa Kurowska
Revision Date: Tuesday, 12 November 2013
Seafaring is the earliest British industry with notable Chinese involvement. Britain’s status as a global imperial power was reflected in its shipping industry which saw 25% of the world’s goods pass through British ports at the turn of the century.1 This was equally seen in the international profiles of workers in the industry. Centuries before any settlement began in the UK, Chinese seamen worked on British ships, coming ashore for short periods between postings. Yet, despite the long standing importance of foreign seamen to British trade and navy, the Chinese role in these industries remains largely unacknowledged. It is only with the emergence of more permanent Chinese settlements around the ports of London, Liverpool, Cardiff and Bristol that the role of the Chinese became more visible in Britain, abet in the context of Victorian paranoia about the ‘Yellow Peril’2 and the racial tensions this incited. Despite experiencing discrimination from some British workers and suffering poor conditions and wages the Chinese population in London endured and continued to grow into the twentieth century.
Around the time of the First World War traditional merchant shipping began to decline. Although many Chinese seamen were deployed in supportive roles during the two world wars the industry was in a general state of decline throughout the early decades of the twentieth century. This also led to a decline in the numbers of Chinese working in the industry after the Second World War and many seamen found new industries in which to make a living on dry land, most notably Laundry and Catering. Yet this was not the end of the Chinese role in seafaring. Although it is not a marginal profession, rather than the dominant employment, Chinese migrants continue to be employed in the shipping industry today. This article traces the role of Chinese seaman’s in the British shipping industry before they even came to stay in the county and explores their interactions with the UK by looking primarily at Limehouse, London; as well as other port cities in the UK.
The Early Voyage
Throughout history seamen have travelled great distances for their work, making them one of the earliest transnational migrationary workforces. The context of early contact between Chinese seamen and the UK must effect how we consider the first British Chinese seamen. The earliest relevant contact with Chinese seamen resulted from the attempted colonisation of China by the British Empire. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, increased British involvement in East Asia depended on British companies relationships with Chinese seamen and labourers, both at sea and in the ports. The motivations that led Chinese men into seafaring can be attributed to a combination of push factors, such as political instability in China and growing dissent towards the Qing government, as well as pull factors, such as promise of a better life in England and ready work available as seamen3.
Many of the significant incidences that transformed the role of the Chinese in the sailing industry revolve around military conflict. The First Opium War (1839-1842) provided an opportunity for the British military and traders to assert in treaty ports along the Chinese coast, increasing British interaction with the Chinese population. These intrusions into China created further opportunities for an increased supply for the tea trade leading to the employment of many Chinese seamen. The inter-relationship between a growing demand for Chinese goods such as tea and the increased access resulting from small British victories against China created the environment by which Chinese seamen became involved in British trade.4 In this context, the first settlements of Chinese seamen in Britain formed around the docklands area of London and in the maritime port cities of Cardiff, Glasgow and Liverpool.
Technology and labour costs drove the 19th century interaction of British trade with China. Firstly technological change played a role in the accessibility of the British Chinese trade route. With the advent of steam engines there was an increase in movement between East Asia and Europe. Long distances became easier to travel and this development continued throughout the 19th century. The first direct steamship service between China and Europe established in 1865, with a Chinese crew. Furthermore, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 reduced shipping times between Britain and East Asia and also facilitated an increase in volume. The increase in capital investment in steamships increased there would an even greater demand to drive down labour costs.5 Chinese seamen would work for a lower wage than their British counterparts and so became an essential part of the British role in East Asia.6 It is also not the last example of when Chinese labourers were used as a means to undercut labour costs by British business.
At this point even with the increase in trade activities and use of Chinese labourers on East India Company ships, the resident Chinese community in London remained under 300 throughout the 19th century.7 John Anthony (Chinese name unknown), a Chinese employee of the shipping company was able to work to a good position and with it gain wealth and respect from the British bourgeoisie. He was in charge of liaising with and housing Chinese seamen for the East India Company, a position which enabled him to become very wealthy. Eventually he was influential enough and rich enough to be become the first Chinese to be granted, by a specific act of parliament, British citizenship. Although the East India company initially employed Chinese seamen (predominantly from the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and some from Shanghai) purely to meet the labour demands within Chinese treaty ports, however their work eventually facilitated the seamen movement to the UK where some chose to settle. The exploitation of cheaper Chinese labour by British companies during the last decades of the nineteenth century created the opening for Chinese seamen to enter Britain in larger numbers. These men formed the basis of the first British Chinese population, even if not all were legally acknowledged like John Anthony.8
Blue Funnel, Benline, and Shell were the three major employers of Chinese labour, paying lower wages to their Chinese employees than European seamen. Chinese crews were seen as more hardworking, less likely to drink and even expected to eat less. “Shell’s Chinese seamen were entitled to 7lbs of beef, pork or fish each per week, against 8lbs allocated for white crews, and they got 10 and a half lbs of rice, instead of 11lbs of potatoes, biscuit, oatmeal and rice. They got less coffee, marmalade, bread, sugar and salt, more tea and dried vegetables, and no dried fruit, suet, mustard, curry powder or onions at all.”
However, Chinese seamen did fight for better conditions and pay on-board ship although they did score victories in labour struggle for instance in the twentieth century, in Cardiff in 1919 and during the Second World War.9
The Limehouse Days
The emergence of notable temporary and permanent residency of Chinese seamen in London seems have begun in Shadwell, where lodgings for Chinese seamen opened in the early nineteenth century. These lodgings were established by the East India Shipping Company, one for the Chinese and another for Indian seamen.10 11 Between 1854 and 1856 London saw the development of something recognised as an ‘Oriental Quarters’. This later developed into two regional areas, one of seamen from Shanghai and the other of Cantonese seamen.12 By 1911 there were 502 Chinese in Liverpool and 668 in London. In London 102 of these were seafarers.13 The seamen were a floating population, perhaps only staying in Limehouse for a few weeks at a time; they spoke little English and were not often recorded. This makes any real assessment of their numbers very difficult.14
The Docklands area is large, spanning along the River Thames from the Shadwell and Limehouse Basins in the west, to Poplar in the east and its identity became known to Londoners, particularly in the West of the city, as London’s ‘Chinatown’. However there were only a few seamen in the area who might move around from one lodging to the next, there was certainly not a large permanent community in the nineteenth century, as many Victorian writers discovered to their dismay.
China to India. 1957.
The East End was a notoriously overcrowded area, with poor hygiene and living conditions, it was home to the majority of London’s poor working class. The Chinese seamen who lived here experienced poor conditions, which were only worsened by the overcrowding prevalent in seamen lodgings.15 Chinese seamen working conditions were also harsh, there are even accounts of seamen starving on-board their ships in this period.16
Even though the majority of the Chinese population in London were concentrated around Limehouse, the area was not a Chinese enclave but was instead composed of diverse ethnicities such as Greek, Italian, Indian and African.17 Despite many early Chinese immigrants settling in Limehouse, historical censuses reveal that the Chinese constituted just 0.5% of the foreign-born population in Britain before World War I and by the 1920s and 1930s just over 1%. Comparatively, there were at least 10 times more Poles, Russians, Italians or French and Germans than Chinese. Due to the minute percentage of Chinese in Britain during the 19th century surviving historical records of Chinese are scarce.18
Though the census revealed that there were 582 Chinese-born residents in England and Wales in 1891 and over 500 Chinese living in London by 1900, the census was highly inaccurate in capturing a transient, non-English speaking population that wished to avoid any dealings with the State (often lodging-house keepers overcrowded their accommodation beyond legal limits). There were also other inaccuracies such as the variation in spelling of names due to dialect differences and nicknames eg: Jungsi, Johnson, Ah Sing and Ah Ching.19
Early Communities Beyond Limehouse: Cardiff; Glasgow and Liverpool
A community of Chinese in Cardiff has existed now for 100 years in and around Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. As with other British port cities the Chinese who entered Cardiff came because of their involvement in the seafaring industry. As a result there are the odd remarks made about the Chinese of the area, mostly in the form of curiosity pieces such as the 1907 newspaper report on a “Chinaman’s Funeral”. The “Chinaman” in question was Ah Pow, a Chinese seaman who died from pneumonia after entering the workhouse.
A CHINAMAN'S FUNERAL
Some unusual incidents occurred at Cardiff yesterday, on the occasion of the burial of Ah Pow, a Chinese seaman, who died from pneumonia soon after his admission to the Cardiff Workhouse on December 27. A dozen or more Orientals attended to witness the interment, which took place in the Nonconformist portion of the cemetery… A couple of the Chinese then brought to the graveside a large hamper, basins of rice, a bottle of whisky, a plate of sweets, a chicken, a piece of bacon, bundles of crinkled paper (on which were printed Chinese characters), and candles were produced. The whisky was poured on the coffin and the rice was thrown into the grave. While some were doing this others, behind the shelter of umbrellas, lighted the papers and candles, and a Chinaman gave utterance to what a correspondent calls "some weird incantation. All the remaining eatables were then thrown into the grave, in order to provide Ah Pow with sustenance on his journey to the next world, the fire being to light him on his way.20
The Chinese seamen in the Cardiff ports participated in some of the strike action of the early 20th Century, although in the form of blackleg labour. The result of this was that they were subjected to both physical and verbal attacks for their involvement in the disputes.21 22 Press representation that reported on the Chinese seafarers in 1911 tends to highlight the issue of cheap labour for the British working class and a “deeper cultural antipathy to their alleged immorality”, focusing on opium smoking, gambling and mixed marriages.23
Bristol has developed a small Chinese population today but in comparison to other port cities it is notable that this was not primarily the product of Chinese labour movement through the port. Whilst Bristol was a major port, at its peak dealing with traffic from the Slave Trade, it experienced a decline in its overall importance from the 1830’s. By the 19th Century Liverpool rose to become one of the major ports, connecting the industry in the north of England to the world. Chinese seamen did not begin to become significantly involved in British seafaring until the late 19th century and so it is possible to assume that a Chinese crew would have had little contact with Bristol. This may account for the lack of research and information on early Chinese presence in Bristol, or within its shipping industry. The Chinese that settled in Bristol would do so in other industries.
Glasgow also had a settled Chinese Community, but it was not until 1960 that a Chinese community developed more formally in the city. However this modern community formed around the catering trade, rather than seafaring. We can conclude that the Chinese seaman community in Glasgow in the first half of the 20th Century was one that was more transient and less interested in settling.24
Liverpool’s Chinese community is one of the oldest in the world. It began to establish itself in the 1850’s after the foundation of the Blue Funnel Shipping Line: the seamen involved in the trade would stay in boarding houses in a situation similar to that found in London. The trade that came into Liverpool from China was defined by silk, cotton and tea. It was not until the 1890’s that Chinese shops and cafes appeared in Liverpool, catering to the needs of the Chinese, and the emergence of a permanent community could be felt. As in London the Chinese community was overwhelmingly male and before the First World War broke out there were already reported cases of marriage between Chinese seamen and local British women.25
During the First World War 6000 Chinese seamen settled in Liverpool. Many were stranded in the UK during the war after the British Government requisitioned ships from the Blue Funnel Shipping Line company. Whilst being forced to wait ashore, the government compensated the seamen for their lost wages with vouchers worth £5, nicknamed the ‘white duvet cover’. During this time the first Chinese welfare centre was established in Bedford Street, Liverpool and the Chinese began to slowly move out of the areas they had previously been confined to. When the war came to an end the government attempted to forcibly repatriate many of these seamen.
In the interwar period the population of the local Chinese began to decline, this was compounded by the Liverpool council’s decision to clear the slum dwellings in the area known as ‘Chinatown’. It was not until the Second World War that the population of Chinese seamen in Liverpool was to increase again. The Second World War greatly increased the need for seamen and Chinese seamen would work for a third of the price of their British counterparts. Chinese seamen dissatisfaction with this inequality in wages led to a strike in 1942 which was successful, though the victories were slight.26 27
Despite the repatriation that occurred following the war a few Hong Kong seamen came to settle in the Liverpool during the 1950’s, they were often later followed by their families. From this point, as in London, the makeup of the Liverpool Chinese population began to change with a move away from the shipyard and docks, and into the kitchen.28
Broken Blossoms of Limehouse
The Chinese population of Limehouse did grow during the early twentieth century but numbers remained small. However despite remaining small, this area of docklands found a vivid place in the Victorian bourgeois imagination. Limehouse Chinatown became known as a den of opium dens and crime. Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is amongst the worst offender of these racist, moralising depictions of Chinese migrants. Another significant text by Thomas Burke, Limehouse Nights, painted Limehouse as the town of opium dens and miscegenation and was inspired by earlier Chinoiserie mythology. Anne Witchard29 argues that these conceptions were both a product of and fed into the Yellow Peril fever of the time.30 Despite a proliferation of these representations of Limehouse a detailed survey done by Booth in late 19th century showed that most Chinese businesses were legal and simply provided laundry, tea and groceries for the growing Chinese community. There is no doubt that the scale of any opium dens was grossly exaggerated.31
The Chinese in Liverpool were subjected to the same myth building as in Limehouse. In 1907 the Liverpool City Council, "Report of Committee investigating Chinese Settlement in Liverpool" was set up “in response to popular disquiet at the Chinese seamen in Liverpool”. The report was “designed to seek out evidence of widespread opium smoking, debauchery and illicit interracial liaisons with young English women.” However, it is noted that the report failed to find justification for xenophobia levelled at the Chinese.32 Similarly in Glasgow, the Glasgow Herald reported a mutiny by Chinese seamen on a Glasgow steamer in 1913 (August 11th), there is little comment about the motivation for such a mutiny but it demonstrates the overwhelmingly negative media attention that Chinese seamen received during this time.33
In the early 20th century, faced with growing hostility in London, Chinese seamen began to form societies to look after their own interests. In 1906 the Chun Yee Association and Sunday School was formed on East India Dock road, supporting seamen and providing a Chinese education for their children. This was followed by the Oi Tung Association established in 1907, and 1919 Zhong Shan Mutual Aid Workers Club was founded as a place for overseas Chinese to meet and campaign for better working conditions. In 1900 and 1908 Chinese Mutual Aid (or Benevolent) Associations are also set up in London and Liverpool. The Chun Yee Society remains in Limehouse today and continues to provide a space for many seamen to go during their employment and upon retirement from the seafaring industry, such as Yew Chang34 (1919 - 2012) who was a member of the society, and one of our project interviewees.
The Rioting Sea
The Alien restriction acts of 1905 and 1919, ensured that Chinese could not be discriminated against, in the sense they weren’t going to respond to calls for an outright ban of their labour which had been demanded in the trade union movement. This was compounded by a decline in trade activities as Britain’s economy sunk into a depression.35 At this point amongst Chinese males in 1911 the majority still worked in the merchant navy (49% of Chinese males) but many now faced increased job precarity which led to some repatriating back to China and Hong Kong, or moving into the more stable laundry and catering trades. The Chinese population in Limehouse was at its peak between 1932 and 1934.36 However the post-war depression led to greater competition amongst seamen for fewer jobs and an environment of increased labour competition and the rise of a jingoistic British nationalism created further problems for Chinese seamen looking for work in the docks.
Race relations begun to deteriorate rapidly during the early 20th century and there was growing dissent amongst some British workers about the use of Chinese labour. In 1908 British seamen in London tried to stop lower paid Chinese crews from signing on to work which resulted in violent clashes. In Glasgow, with similar labour conditions to Limehouse racial violence exploded. Local union leaders attempted to promote a segregationist policy in the port, while others were able to took a more extreme view, proposing that all ‘Blacks and Chinese’ should be expelled from the industry.37 In 1916 the Seamen and Firemen’s Union in London organised a protest around Limehouse and Poplar against the increasing use of cheaper Chinese labour. Meetings to protest the use of Chinese labour spilled over into the streets of Limehouse resulting in the destruction of Chinese property. Following this the Trade Union Congress in 1916 heard complaints about the use of Chinese labour which led a motion calling for the repatriation of all Chinese (non-British citizens). The violent racist rhetoric coming from the unions at this time may explain why many Chinese seamen decided to found their own mutual aid societies separate from the established British unions.
Violence continued in London across 1916 and 1917 escalating further in 1919 when news went round that the Chinese seamen were still signing on for much less than the British seamen would accept.38 In 1919 violent race riots manifested on the streets with Chinese homes and property damaged in London, Cardiff, Glasgow and Liverpool. The participant’s justified their actions by the prevalent racial discourse of the docks. The Union’s institutional scapegoating of ‘aliens’ for wage undercutting and a wider public xenophobia also contributed to these clashes.39 The riots that manifested in 1919 were blamed, by participants promoting racist policies, on the government’s refusal to pass such policies into law. Nationwide in ports during this time, there was a great racial hostility from the British workers and their Unions towards the Chinese and other migrant worker populations.40
There were 5000 Chinese seamen in the merchant Navy in 1939 and Chinese crews continued to work during the Second World War. Chinese seamen were used as they continued to accept lower wages than British seamen an also to replace British seamen who had been conscripted to the army or navy during the war. There are differing views expressed on the treatment of the Chinese crew during the war which seems to show a greater variation of opinions on Chinese crews, though treatment remained poor.41 British merchant ships reportedly underpaid Chinese seamen. During the Second World War, many deserted ships when docked in New York to move into better paid onshore employment or in the American merchant navy.Lascar seamen agitated to improve their conditions and given the large numbers who were employed in the merchant navy they reportedly saw a 200% pay increase over 2 years of continued struggle. Chinese seamen did not make similar gains, possibly due to their smaller numbers. In 1942 a Chinese seaman was killed following a mutiny on a British ship with 11 other Chinese seamen arrested for disorderly conduct. The cause and motivation of the mutiny were unreported but it appears to indicate the presence of on-going tensions during the war.42
After the war, the shipping industry was in relative decline, but did not disappear completely. Limehouse had most of its infrastructure destroyed during the war as a result of the Blitz (a total of 54 bombs were dropped in Limehouse between 7th October 1940 and 6th June 1941) and this propelled many of the Chinese inhabitants to relocate to Soho where Chinatown is today. There was also a move towards clearing the slums of the East End and many Chinese homes and businesses were affected. This had a significant impact on the seamen who had lived and worked there and marks a key moment in the long term decline of Chinese involvement in the seafaring industry.
The post-war period also experienced the forced repatriation policy seen most visibly in Liverpool which experienced the most immediate and involuntary decline of the Chinese’s role in the seafaring industry. After the Second World War in which 20,000 seamen were recruited into the Royal Navy, a compulsory repatriation policy was enacted between the post-war government and shipping companies largely in the Liverpool area. In October 1945, the Home Office opened a file on ‘the compulsory repatriation of undesirable Chinese seamen at Liverpool’.43 There was little legal basis on which the government could force this policy, thus they relied on the police rounding up Chinese seamen and forcibly putting them on ships. The Home Office files show that 800 seamen had been repatriated by 23rd March 1946 and of these many had been torn from their British wives and families.44 45
Despite what was a difficult time for the majority of Chinese seamen for some an involvement in seafaring continued after the Second World War. The National Archive holds the information of many Chinese sea merchants working from 1945 to 1972 listed as working in “sea service” for the merchant navy.46 Whilst it is unclear with whom the Chinese seamen worked, the fact that there was little open trade with China itself from the 1950’s to the late 1970’s may suggest that many Chinese seamen who remained either continued with their jobs from World War Two or were new arrivals, those who fled from China following the communist revolution and the establishment of Mao’s People’s Republic of China.
As the early 20th century fantasy fear of the Chinese subject, opium smoker and stealer of young girls, faded from the popular imagination a new stereotype took hold. In the context of the cold war, Reganism and the ‘Bamboo curtain’, documents considering the possibilities of Communist propaganda from Chinese seamen on merchant ships appeared.47 A 1967 article in The Calgary Herald reported that during a series of dock strikes in London a “battle” occurred between 30 Chinese seamen, referred to as “Chairman Mao’s boys”, after a Mao pin badge was thrown into the sea.48 There is also a 1962 article in the Glasgow Herald that covers the arrest of nine Chinese seamen who held British passports, over an immigration controversy. This indicates the continued participation of Chinese, even outside of London, in the seafaring industry.49
It is possible to speculate that with the increased shipping trade with China following Deng Xiaoping’s policy of ‘Reform and Opening Up’ in the 1980’s a great deal of Chinese crews will have entered British ports once again. It is therefore difficult to point to a moment in history where the Chinese simply stopped being involved in seafaring. Following on from the Second World War numbers declined and as the seafaring industry itself began to move away from the UK so too did the numbers of those employed in the industry. Traces of the Chinese involvement in seafaring can continue to be found to the present day, but their presence in the industry has not been well researched.
Seafaring’s role amongst the British Chinese has seen relationships that stretch back to the nineteenth century when significant contact occurred in the ports of China and settlement began in Britain. As Chinese seamen settled in the lodging houses around Limehouse a fiction built up around them of intrigue and prejudice. Whilst seamen were probably not highly affected by sensationalist stories of opium dens they will have felt the impact of racism and hostility from British seamen. The role of Chinese seamen continued during the first half the twentieth century and they experienced great changes in shipping technology as well as two world wars. Indeed the Second World War nearly destroyed Chinese Limehouse in its entirety. The combination of the bombing in London, a long-term decline in seafaring and economic changes moved the Chinese out of Limehouse and many out of the seafaring industry. Although for some the story didn’t end here and Chinese seamen continued their work, the narrative moves on with the changing tide, a new generation who were establishing themselves through the catering trade.