David KS Tse

The creative director of Project New Earth remembers the forgotten Chinese heroes of WWI and their path through Liverpool

Hero image

One hundred years ago, almost 100,000 illiterate peasant farmers and hundreds of student interpreters from China passed through Liverpool, Plymouth and Folkestone, en route to serve behind the Western Front in France and Belgium during the First World War. They were recruited by the British Army and called the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). A further 40,000 – les travailleurs Chinois – were recruited by the French Army, passing through Marseille and other French ports on the way to their camps.

Together, these 140,000 men were the largest overseas labour force, giving their blood, sweat and tears to help the allies win the war, but have sadly since been forgotten. They did every conceivable backstage job: digging trenches and toilets, unloading food supplies from ships and trains, laying railway tracks and rebuilding bombed-out roads, repairing tanks, ships and planes, and transporting bullets and bombs to wherever the British and French armies needed supplies. They also carried out the gruesome task of clearing bodies and animals from no man’s land, putting their own lives at risk from unexploded landmines.

I wanted Chinese Arts Space’s Project New Earth to retell their story and remind the people of Liverpool, Plymouth and Folkestone of the huge debt of thanks we owe the CLC. Thousands of them paid the ultimate sacrifice, killed by shelling, accidents, landmines and especially the Spanish Flu pandemic. They are buried in cemeteries across France (notably the Chinese cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer), in Belgium and a few in England (Liverpool’s Anfield Cemetery, Efford Cemetery in Plymouth and Folkestone’s Shorncliffe Military Cemetery).

From a general call-out for proposals, I commissioned four groups of exciting British contemporary artists to explore the lost story of the CLC in a variety of artforms: short music-dance films, a live contemporary dance, and a moving music-drama, with songs sung or inspired by the CLC. The work sits alongside the current 14-18 Now commemorations and is the first British touring production to explore this historically significant event.

These forgotten heroes forged early links between Europe and China, helping to restore peace in the world. They made a perilous journey to war-torn Europe, where they did backbreaking work to help the Allies defeat the forces of aggression.

Many developed respiratory diseases, unused to the damp climate of northern Europe. Those who died of TB or other infections, while recuperating in British hospitals after their exhausting three-month journey, account for the handful buried in Liverpool’s Anfield cemetery as well as in Plymouth and Folkestone.

During Europe’s moment of need, China answered the call for help. In our often turbulent world, we should celebrate ongoing friendship between East and West.

Project New Earth is at The Black-E, Liverpool, 11 Oct. Visit for a full programme of events and ticket information

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