Military 軍事

Written by: Daniele Ermito and Lawrence Liu

Additional Research: Laura Pitkin, Rosa Kurowska

Edited by: Rosa Kurowska

Revision Date: Friday, 11 October 2013


The history of Chinese involvement in the British military is an almost unknown story in the UK today. Our project has been able to seek out this fascinating history in Europe and Hong Kong. In this article Sino-British military history will be introduced, with special reference to the largest Chinese regiments who contributed to British military efforts, the Chinese Labour Corps, the First Chinese Regiment and the Hong Kong Regiments.

The British Military

The British Military is divided into three branches, the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force. Each branch has their own area of responsibility; the Royal Navy is responsible for matters relating to the sea, the British Army is responsible for land-based operations and the Royal Air Force role is to maintain control of UK airspace.

Together the three branches of the British Military form a formidable force and maintain a good reputation in the international community regarding the individual service personnel’s high level of competence, professionalism and conduct.

The role of the British Military is first and foremost to ensure the defence and security of the realm, and also to maintain and protect UK interests. However in recent years that role has expanded to include humanitarian relief, UN peacekeeping missions. The British Navy now also plays a proactive role in the defence of UK commercial and shipping interest in matters such as counter piracy in the Gulf of Eden and the East Coast of Somalia.

Early Chinese Involvement

Early records indicate that Chinese contribution to the British military dates back to the early nineteenth century and the Napoleonic Wars. The first Chinese came to Britain working as ship hands on merchant ships, bringing goods from the East to the UK, such as tea and spices. When British men were drafted to the Royal Navy to fight Napoleon, they left behind roles that needed to be filled. Chinese men who worked in merchant ships were then used by the Royal Navy in support roles to provide cover for the British men who were away fighting, such as ships’ porters.

The First Sino-British Wars: The Opium Wars

During the early nineteenth century, the British demand for Chinese goods such as tea and silk grew. The Canton System of trade instituted by the Qing dynasty in the eighteenth century limited the contact which international traders had with the mainland. They could only negotiate through the Thirteen Tongs in Canton who oversaw all trade passing in and out of the Qing Empire. Added to this there was little desire in China for British goods like cotton and so British traders were only able to exchange their silver – leading to a massive depletion of the British silver reserves and a resulting anxiety about trade imbalance and the loss of the British Gold Standard on which the British economy was based.

British traders soon found a way around this problem by importing opium instead of silver to China in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Tolerated, at first, the rapid influx of opium soon resulted in a rebalancing of trade in the favour of the British and other international merchants, as well as creating serious social problems within China. In 1839 the Qing government ordered the governor of Canton, Lin Zexu, to take affirmative action. The destruction of over 20,000 cases of opium added to increasing tensions between trade in the region and within a few months, war broke out. This was the first Sino-British war and paved the way for diplomatic relations between the two countries for at least the next seventy years.

Despite the numerical superiority of the Qing forces, the British easily defeated their armies as they had better equipment and training. By August 1942, the British had occupied crucial trading zones all over the Chinese coast such as the mouth of the Yangtze River in Shanghai. The ease of this defeat and the terms of the resulting treaties were a source of great humiliation for the ailing Qing Empire and went a long way towards undermining their authority both at home and abroad. There are also records to indicate that some local Chinese traders who benefitted from the trade in opium fought for the British and fought against their fellow countrymen in order to protect their interest. These soldiers may represent the first Sino-British military cooperation in China.

Following the war renegotiated trading terms were agreed under the Treaty of Nanking. Aside from favourable trading conditions for the British and repatriation payments from China, the most significant outcome of Sino-British relations was the cessation of Hong Kong to the British, who would retain the territory until 1997.

However, peace did not last for long and further trade advantages were claimed by Britain following the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860). Again despite having a numerical advantage, the Chinese were not able to cope as the British again called upon their military forces, as well as their French and American allies, to quickly take on and destroy the Chinese resistance. According to the British Chinese Soldiers Benevolent Society these forces were raised in the form of the Canton Commissariat Corps (or CCC). They were led by officers from British or Indian regiments and proved to be a great help to the British during the war. Sino-British collaboration may thus be traced to 1857.1

Eventually, the British were victorious and the Convention of Peking was signed, which further extended the trading powers of the allies by opening 11 more ports to trade, as well as the establishment of a permanent diplomatic presence in Beijing for the allied powers. Also, importantly for this project, it legalised the recruitment of indentured workers who became essential to the European empires schemes following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1842. These labourers were shipped all over the British Empire and became known as coolies from the Chinese Kuli苦力 meaning bitter work. They were instrumental in building the railroads of America and in sugar production on islands like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

In these early years of contact between Britain and China, relations were often tense and although small cooperative forces appeared during the Opium Wars and later during the Taiping Rebellion when the British Soldier Charlie ‘Chinese’ Gordon led a mixed force in the suppression of this huge rebellion.

Insecure Empires: The Formation Of The First Chinese Regiment

Growing anti-Chinese feeling and the need of security for British and Western residents in Hong Kong and other Chinese cities was secured by the presence of two armies or militia formed by both British citizens (as seen for the Hong Kong volunteers) and mixed corps (as in the case of Shanghai corps). However the idea of creating a military unity formed by Chinese soldiers able to be deployed everywhere was suggested for the first time by Sir Michael Hicks Beach who called for up 20,000 units:

Chinese soldier of good physique for service in India or indeed in any part of the world that the regiment may be sent to.2

Despite the positive reactions among the British officials in China the first Chinese regiment was not raised until 1898 when Great Britain acquired a naval base at Wei-Hai-Wei, in northern China, previously stationed by Japanese Army Units in 1895. The need to ensure the protection of the new headquarter in the North led the British officials to consider finally to raise a Chinese regiment in 1899 when the regiment was listed in the Army List.3 The unit was named the 1st Battalion, Chinese Regiment but was changed after a while to 1st Chinese Regiment and by 1900, the unit comprised 420 Non-Commissioned Officers and men.4 Major Hamilton Bower was appointed to command the new unit of 25 British officials and 27 European Non-Commissioner officials were assigned to the unit to provide training to the fresh troops.

Regimental uniforms were initially similar to those one of the Royal Navy: white shirts and trousers with red waist sashes, leather webbing and wide-brimmed straw hats. However, Bower opted for a new uniform more similar to the Indian Army. A blue kutra tunic, borrowed by the Indian irregular cavalry, with breeches was adopted as winter uniform, while Khaki uniform. A small turban topped the ensemble. The training was intense but slow and interpreters were provided in order to translate the orders from the drill sergeants.

The Boxer Uprising

The rapid increase of attacks against western people and their properties experienced at the end of 19th Century was the direct consequence of the rise of the level of tension between Chinese Imperial House (Qing) and the western powers determinate to consolidate their influence in China.

This violence was increased after the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). The Boxers were an anti-foreign secret society that aimed to restore the Chinese Imperial House authority and expel the Western imperialist powers from China. In June 1900, after a series of raids lead by Boxers against Western residents in China and their properties, the foreign delegations to ask Peking Government to suppress the Boxers and restore order, ensuring their safety, but by this point, the Qing government was backing the Boxers. Facing the threat of an imminent attack the British Command entitled the 1st Chinese Regiment to join the international forces trying to reach Peking to relieve the western embassies under siege by Boxer rebels. The Qing army with the Boxers insurgents blocked the relief force of the Western troops during the siege in Tientsin. When the rescue forces reached Wei-hai-wei the 1st Chinese regiment fought alongside the other Western regiments earning praise for their valour and bravery in the actions.5

Even though the 1st Chinese Regiment distinguished itself for its valour in these conflicts, a high level of suspicion remained and this only increased in the wake of the killings of Western missionaries and civilians during the Boxer Rebellion. Captain Arthur Barnes expressed his concern about the unfair and derogatory treatment that the Chinese troops received from the other regiments:

So many unkind things have been said about the Chinese Regiment, by people with no knowledge of matter, that it has seemed advisable to place on record the doing of the regiment in the real hard fighting in Northwest China in 1900, as they actually occurred, in order to show that, though a regiment in its extreme infancy, fighting under alien officers and for alien officers and an alien empire, against its own compatriots, its own Emperor, and its Imperial troops, it bore its party with the best, deserving none of the somewhat nasty things that have been put about abroad.6

Captain Barnes strongly defended the spirit and the valour showed by Chinese regiments but at the same time he shared the majority Western belief in the superiority of Western civilization and considered the Chinese to be an inferior race even if he remained fond of his own soldiers. Barnes never mentioned the reason that led many Chinese soldiers to serve under the British Empire’s banners and it was assumed that the regiment’s success could be attributed solely to their British training:

The Chinese as soldier, has many sterling qualities. He is very amenable to discipline and control of those he knows; he is stout and well able to fatigue and hard work; he is a vary good shot, taken all round; is no trouble to feed, as he has no prejudices on the subject, except it be in the matter of quantity; and, as I have endeavoured to show, he is good on service, whether on actual field, or on those more frequent duties of a more present peaceful and less exciting nature that fall to soldier’s lot at such times.7

Problems Arise

After having defeated the Boxers insurgents, many of the veterans of Chinese regiment deserted. An Official War report claimed that the regiment registered one of the highest records of desertions during the period. According to a report was written on December 1899 by Major-General A. R. Doward, commander of the British forces in China; 805 men had deserted since the regiment formation in 1899. A third of these left the regiment before the Boxer uprising and another third fled during the aftermath of the fighting as the consequence of their fear that the Boxers would hurt their families if they continued to fight with the allies. Many Chinese soldiers received threatening letters to this effect.

On the other hand, many of the soldiers that returned from Peking had earned enough money and loot to decide to retire. In many cases, they were able to acquire many valuable Chinese art pieces and artefacts from the foreign soldiers of Wei-Hai-Wei who had no idea about their true value. Of course, Barnes who was in command of the Chinese regiment tried to defend his soldiers claiming that this trend was produced by the unfair and insulting treatment that Chinese troops received by the other British regiments. General Doward recognised the valour of the British regiments and agreed to reorganise it and create a permanent unit. The idea was to start a new campaign of recruitment for the new regiment, with Chinese NCOs and lead by experienced officers with a good command of Mandarin. This new emphasis was on the building of an elite unit well trained and disciplined, able to be deployed everywhere.

Despite the ambitious intention of Barnes to create a permanent unit and even though the recruitment campaign proceeded well, reaching 1300 men conscripted, government bureaucrats started to reconsider the expansion of the regiment when plans to develop a major Navy base at Wei-Hai-Wei were dropped, ending the need for a permanent unit to garrison the outpost. There was also an attempt to move the regiment to Hong Kong but it was unsuccessful because of the firm opposition of the Hong Kong Governor who mistrusted any regiment formed of Chinese troops. The War Office struggled to find a colony that would take it. Singapore, Mauritius and even Esquimalt in Canada were considered but were eventually dismissed.

The End Of The First Chinese Regiment

The end of the colonial conflict and the increase of more remunerative opportunities in China and abroad led many soldiers to leave the regiment. In May 1906, the decision was made to disband formally the regiment.7 The remaining members were dismissed receiving three months’ extra pay and a list of their addresses was recorded in case it was decided to reorganise a future unit. Some of them joined later on the Hong Kong Police Force.

World War One: The Chinese Labour Corps

“I often saw these Chinese marching along the road to and from labour details. They were exceptionally neat and clean and their march discipline was excellent. At the first, I thought they were Chinese troops8

When the First World War broke out, Great Britain and France decided to create labour forces able to perform supporting work on the frontline. However the scarcity of men able to be employed as civil work forces led the Allied Powers to consider a different solution in order to avoid employing soldiers for non-combat duties. A large availability of labourers able to dig trenches, work in ammunition factories, repair roads and tracks and deliver military equipment to the front line was vital to the Allied war effort.

The new-born Republic of China (1912) was very willing to offer its help, allowing Great Britain and France to recruit Chinese labourers to be employed in the war zones. These Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) would contribute to China’s acceptance among the modern Western powers after the end of the conflict. Moreover Chinese political elites were convinced that through the contribution of the CLC, a new image of China would be promoted abroad. A strong emphasis on reshaping the national identity of China was taken by the young leadership of the Republic of China. Many men who joined the CLC did so with the aim of to helping China to benefit from the resources of the Western Powers.

The British Committee discussed the need for more labour power in late 1915 and early 1916. Although the British government was at first reluctant to employ Chinese personnel on the front line because of a fear of international criticisms, the massive rise in the number of casualties and the shortage of men forced them to consider this option. Approval for CLC was authorised in 1916 allowing labourers from all territories of the Empire to be recruited. British plans were original to use workforce mainly from Hong Kong to maintain the façade of Chinese neutrality in order not to violate the neutrality status of China. Despite the British attempt to cover its operations, Germany soon presented official protests to China.

During the conflict about 140,000 Chinese men served as labour corps with the British army on the Western Front. Great Britain created an extensive web in order to recruit, gather and deploy Chinese personnel in the war zones and behind the front lines. Overall Chinese workers made up half of the British foreign labour units deployed on the western front. Many of them were killed and wounded even if they were not serving as part of combat forces. Despite this, they were led by British officers, wore the uniform and endured strict military discipline.

The Recruitment Process

The main recruitment facility was established in the British dominion of Wei-Hai-Wei and provided the recruitment of Chinese labourer corps to be sent to France from 1914 till 1917. British administration was not new to recruitment in China, having already employed private companies for the recruitment of the workforce known as coolies, mainly used in the South-African goldmines or sent to in Australia and North America to build railways.

Chinese workers were hired labourers recruited on the basis of written contracts. The terms of the contract were normally five years and they enjoyed the same status as French citizens. Moreover, the contract was very detailed about the amount of food they received and the equipment provided.

Initially worried about risking their lives working in a battle zone, the Chinese workers changed their mind when they realised that in the labour corps they could earn four times what they would earn in one month in China. Moreover, they were reassured by the recruiters that they would only serve in safe areas and they wouldn’t be employed in military operations. In addition, positive reports from the first recruits led to such a massive increase in applications that the British administration decided to open an additional recruitment facility in Tsingtao.

Recruits gathered in Wei-Hai-Wei first underwent a processing selection. Successful applicants were sent to a material deposit to collect their clothes and equipment. All recruits wore a small oval badge as well as the CLC ‘s monogram on their hats. They also had a medical examination. The 21 grounds on which they could be rejected included trachoma, tuberculosis, venereal disease and bad teeth. At certain times, up to 60% of applicants were rejected.9 If accepted, the men were allotted serial numbers, which were recorded, with their names, which were written in Chinese and English characters. There was a miniature anvil at the depot. With its assistance, a wristlet bearing each man’s number was then riveted, with a small nail and a stud, in such a way that could not take it off.

In order to complete the recruitment process each worker signed a contract stating:

By the term of this contract […] I undersigned coolie recruited by Wei-Hai-Wei Labour Bureau, declare myself to be the willing labourer.” It was printed in English and Chinese and stipulated that the signer would work in farms, dockyards, factories and so on.

Training consisted mainly of basic drilling, teaching recruits how to stand on ranks and march in companies of about 500 men. According to many British officers, training was completely useless since it was only designed to fill the time until the man could embark to France and it didn’t actually provide any useful preparations for the conditions on the Western front. Moreover, there were communication problems as the recruits could often not speak a word of English and many Chinese translators were hired to assist the commanding officers.

Even at the beginning of training, Chinese workers showed their cheerful nature; one officer claimed that recruits had the habits of leaving their places in the ranks to chat with a friend in another row. Men around him would join in creating a gossiping knot in the middle of company ostensibly standing at attention. British officers commented on what they saw as the childlike nature of many Chinese recruits and in some cases, they adopted corporal punishment to combat this. On the other hand, many officers were able to build up good relations with their troops using persuasion rather than harsher methods. Another problem was finding British officers with a sufficient understanding of Chinese language and culture to command these men. Very few British residents in China fulfilled such requirements. In addition, many of those who were willing to serve under the banner of the British Empire wanted to join a combat unit rather than a labour unit composed only of Chinese recruits. Because of this, the CLC officers were the odd mix of traders, missionaries, journalists and businessmen. Of course, the main problem was that British officers refused to recognise the social status of their colleagues from the CLC.

The Role

Once the units reached the front lines, their main role was to help handle the mountains of supplies needed to maintain the British forces. CLC workers were divided into companies of 500 men each under the command of a British officer. Four British lieutenants and nine British NCOs were also assigned to each unit supported by Chinese foremen that did the great part of the job of running the companies. Chinese labour companies under British supervision were organised into a headquarters and four platoons, each under a subaltern. Each platoon consisted of two sections, each under a sergeant.

Work mostly involved very heavy labour, loading and uploading cargos, trains and trucks in order to deliver equipment and materials. CLC built all supportive infrastructures for the war effort, including railways and airfields, as well as repairing roads and even machinery. Some specially trained labourers even cleared up minefields and spent ammunition and shells. CLC were employed in all the heavy works and soon became popular for their endurance and strength. A British labour officer, Captain A, Mcormick noted:

They were strong, healthy looking men, capable of enduring great physical exertion, and could work at an extraordinarily high pressure, if they thought they could reduce the numbers of hours to be worked, to free them so that they could sit on their “hunkers” in little groups gambling.10

Chinese labours observed the strict military discipline despite the fact that they were not technically military units. In addition in case of infractions, they were treated as military personnel. If accused of same crimes they would have faced military courts and, if convicted could be sent to a special military jail for Chinese people or even sentenced to death. For minor infractions, Chinese style punishment was employed. CLC men almost invariably carried out their duties well despite being unprepared for the harsh conditions of the war zones. In many cases, combat training was not provided even if a certain number of casualties was expected. CLC men found themselves fighting for their lives alongside British soldiers many times since they were often a target of German artillery.

However, Great Britain never wanted the CLC to be seen as combat units rather as mere workforces providing a material contribution to the British Empire’s war effort. Despite the fact that some allied officers believed that Chinese had all the necessary characteristics to become excellent soldiers. The principle obstacle to the labour corps was the strong perception of Chinese as villains or buffoons in popular literature:

As children we were taught to believe that both Cain and collies were murderers from the beginning; no coolie was trusted; he was a yellow dog, he would stick a knife into you in a dark alley on a dark night. He was treacherous. Today we have outgrown this puerility.11

Even those who didn’t share this vision about Chinese people, they didn’t see them as equals.

The moral to be drawn is that nothing passes in the mind of a coolie […] ‘Nothing, that is, of philosophic nature…His attitude towards existence is the attitude of a domesticated animal.12

The Work

Soon Chinese people showed that they could easily perform any tasks efficiently. A correspondent of The Times emphasised the great ability and endurance they showed at work:

They could handle a store and do other things for which intelligence and initiatives were required; but …. he makes a very good collie also, and can pile or unload timber all day without feeling the strain. He is capable worker and easy to manage if his European superiors are careful to leave responsibility to his own headmen and overseer.13

“The bulk of Chinese are unskilled and mostly engaged in loading and unloading. They are physically strong and capable of carrying weights, which are considered in the West to be beyond human strength. In the manner of handing lift and pulleys they are neat and systematic […]”

The Chinese Labour Corps were managed in military work and were an important part of the Allied war effort. For the British government, the main purpose of the enrolment process was to release fighting soldiers from any other duty that was not directly related to combat. Chinese men worked almost exclusively in war zones, in the immediate lines behind the front. Their duties were various and included activities such as building and repairing truck roads; building railroads; loading and unloading trains and boats; clearing and draining camp and fling fields; and working in the munitions plants and factories, including powder, paper, arsenal, and acid factories.

[The Chinese Labour Corps] exists to select men capable of doing a hard and useful ten-hour day in France and thereby release “white” labour for sterner business of fighting. 14

During the conflict many Chinese were directly exposed to enemy’s fire digging the trench, build up defence facilities and putting down barbed wire. Soon Chinese labourers became skilled trench diggers. According to a British officer “Chinese dug on average 200 cubit feet per day, the Indians dug 160, the tommies 140.”15 A great number of Chinese also repaired roads and constructed railways, while many others near the front handled munitions transportation. The BDF directory of Labour’s Way diary recorded that the Chinese were allotted to important work. Chinese with the French and American expeditionary forces mainly loaded and unloaded military supplies, but many of the French also worked in roles where skilled mechanical training was required.

London times wrote

The coming of the Chinese Labourer Corps to France relived our own men from an enormous amount of heavy and miscellaneous work behind the lines, and so helped to release a much larger proportion than otherwise would have been possible for combatant duties. For not only did the Chinese fulfil the multifarious tasks at the various bases, such as loading and unloading ships and trains, building railways, repairing roads, working in petrol factories and at various supply depots thought the northern region, but they dug hundreds of miles of support trenches in the forward areas well within shell range16.

Although in the beginning CLC were employed only as unskilled labourers, they soon demonstrated proficiency skills suitable for various skilled works, including tank maintenance. British officials were impressed by the Chinese workers’ ability and many of them were successfully certified as highly skilled workers. The use of Chinese for highly skilled work was unprecedented considering that such roles were usually reserved for white workers. Many articles of The Times emphasised the extraordinary ability of Chinese workers and their cheerful nature.

In a blue or terracotta blouses and flat hats, hauling logs or loading trucks, always with that inscrutable smile of the Far East upon their smooth yellow faces.17

Also, Chinese workers under French command made definitely a good impression. French officers in charge of them positively assessed their skillsa and started to prefer them to any other nationalities. Chinese gained a good reputation of “docile, intelligent, and good workers” and they were often welcomed with enthusiasm. According to an article in the Far Eastern Review, a French crowd waited at Le Havre to greet the Chinese when they arrived.18 The list of recognition for their hard work and endurance is long:

Douglas Haigs, the British Commander in Chief of the BEF, came in contact “with the Chinese in France and for the first time learned the splendid material of which a Chinese workman is made.”19 One brutish officer, H.R. Wakefield, reported that the Chinese labourer was “a splendid and versatile worker, inured to hardship and almost indifferent to the weather.” 20 Another officer reported the following story:

During the last big push by Germans, the Chinese labourers working behind the lines offered their services to help the wounded, who were streaming back from the front in all kinds of conveyances. When official permission was given, they gave their own cigarettes and food rations to the wounded men they were helping. The wounded soldiers were greatly touched by such a kindly act, and one of them remarked, “the Chinese labourers have hearts just good as ours.”21

The Chinese were not employed to take part in the fighting, but they had the chance to show their courage in many occasions. The New York Times reported news of the contribution given by the CLC during part of the fighting:

“Remarkable incidents connected with the prolonged battle are becoming known. One of the most dramatic was the audacious and successful effort of a scratch battalion in closing gap in British line. Major General Sandoman Carey, seeing this gap suddenly open, at once improvised a force to close the breach. It was a miscellaneous body, composed of mechanics, aerial artificers, signallers and men of labour corps. For nearly six days this scratchy force gallantly held its position on the left of the fifth army. Although we don’t know how many Chinese were involved in this fighting, we are quite certain that at least some Chinese labourers were there.22

Compared to the massive numbers of diaries, pictures and books left by the soldiers and civilians involved in the world conflicts, there is a little trace of the Chinese labourers and their experiences on the western front. One place was their contributions have been memorialised is in the Chinese graveyards on the Somme. These pictures show the graveyard at Noyelles-sur-Mer and the Chinese lions that guard the nearby village of Nollette. This graveyard, the largest in France, contains the graves of 838 Chinese workers, as well as a memorial to 40 more who died on land and sea and whose bodies were never found. Although some soldiers were named, many are remembered by their number alone:

M 1 M 2
M 3 M 4 M 5

A large number of those who served during the conflict and survived were sent back to China, other stayed and few of them settled down in France. The contribution of these men to the allied war effort was certainly Titanic in terms of energy and material. It is interesting to consider the multitude of reasons that led them to join the cause of the allied powers. Besides the poor economic conditions that drove many Chinese people to seek their fortune abroad, many of them had respectable positions in China and were just eager to discover a world different from the Chinese system and at the same time help to promote the new Chinese Republic.

During the Great War, these Chinese labourers realised that the Western world was more a wasteland than a paradise and the harsh conditions they experienced shaped the blossoming Chinese nationalism in the 1920s which looked for a new Chinese identity rather than a following of Western tropes. Those that had experienced the brutality of this war came to realise that Western society was far from an ideal model for the new Chinese Republic. The New Culture Movement, however, looked to the West for inspiration and saw the CLC as a source of pride for the new Chinese nation. One scholar, Chen Duxiu joked, "while the sun does not set on the British Empire, neither does it set on Chinese workers abroad," Chen used the contributions of the Chinese Labour Corps to highlight the role of the ordinary Chinese worker in the world and to campaign for better representation of workers in China in the 1920s.23

British Military Collaboration In Hong Kong

The Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps

Following the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in the First Opium War and the resulting Treaty of Nanking, Hong Kong became British Territory in 1842. Not long after this the beginning of the Crimean War meant that many British Troops had to leave Hong Kong to fight and the Colonial government established the Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers) (RHKR(V)) although short lived at first the regiment was reformed in 1862 and went on to serve under a number of different titles (Hong Kong Artillery and Rifle Volunteer Corps 1878 – 1917; Hong Kong Defence Corps 1917 – 1920) by the outbreak of World War Two the force was known as the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps" (HKVDC). This unit as well as many Hong Kong residents assisted in World War Two fighting alongside British troops stationed there to defend China against Japan. In 1949, the Unit became known as the Hong Kong Defence Force and comprised separate air and naval units.24 

The Hong Kong Defence Force operated until 1970 when the naval unit was phased out and became a light reconnaissance unit under the command of the British Forces Overseas Hong Kong. During the 1970s, the volunteer troops were involved in the defence of Hong Kong’s border with the mainland against migrants from the PRC and following the end of the Vietnam War they were involved in the defence of Hong Kong’s camps for Indochinese refugees escaping Vietnam.

Following the signing of the Sino-British Declaration, the unit was eventually disbanded in 1995.

The Hong Kong Military Service Corps

Following their experiences during the Second World War, many Hong Kong residents who had fought during the Battle of Hong Kong (1941) wanted to set up a more formalised link between Hong Kong and the British Army and in 1948, the Hong Kong Chinese Training Unit (HKCTU) was established. The HKCTU pledged allegiance to the United Kingdom and were enlisted as General Service Corps (GSC) of the British Regular Army.

Following the success of the unit, in 1962, it became the Hong Kong Military Service Corps (HKMSC) and soldiers could now peruse a full career in the British military up to the rank of Queen's Commissioned officer rank of the General List (HKMSC). Members of the unit could also win British army medals and were eligible to pay British income tax. The Unit was originally based at the Lyenum Barracks in 1948, between Shau Kei Wan and Chai Wan, before moving to Stonecutters Island in 1985. The Unit became a fully-fledged part of the British Army, At its peak the unit comprised 1,200 men who received full training in Hong Kong and the UK and comprising many units, including a dog handling unit and military police unit, catering and medical corps.

In the early 1990s, 29 Squadron RCT in the HKMSC carried out the Peacekeeping duties in Cyprus (UNFICYP) as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, before eventually being disbanded in 1996. The Hong Kong Ex-Serviceman’s Association was then set up to support veterans of the unit and campaign for recognition from the Government of Hong Kong. The Association has branches in Hong Kong and Canada. Following the disbandment of the regiment, some of the soldiers who were resident in the UK went on to join the Military Local Service Engagement (MLSE), Military Provost Guard Service (MPGS) as well as the Territorial Army (TA). Before HKMSC was disbanded, the British Nationality Selection Scheme (BNSS) granted 500 former unit members and their families’ British citizenship.

Chinese In The British Army Today

The British Army currently finds 25% of its recruits from ethnic minorities and is working towards becoming a more representative institution. Compared to their proportion of the UK population today, 0.1%, Chinese make up a larger proportion of the army at 0.42%. As seen in this diagram prepared by the National Army Museum in London:

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