the ying-yand symbol

The First World War and after for Liverpool 's 'Chinatown '

After Britain forced her way into China in the 1840s, she seized Hong Kong and Shanghai and a number of other seaports. But only Hong Kong was taken as an official colony. Britain avoided the costs of administering China whilst obtaining all the benefits of controlling China. It had China's most important commercial centre, Shanghai. It ran the Chinese Customs and the Royal Navy patrolled the coast and sailed the Yangtze.

The United Kingdom dealt with China as part of its 'informal Empire' and when the First World War started it began to use China's enormous reserves of manpower. As a result there were up to 6,000 Chinese seamen in the British merchant marine during the conflict.

Significantly there were, possibly, around 1,500 in Liverpool at any one time during World War One.

The employment of the Chinese seems to have led to tension with white sailors. In 1916 the British seafarers' union, the National Sailor's and Firemen's Union, protested to the Government about the employment of Chinese labour.

Concerned about real or potential unemployment amongst British seamen, it complained about Chinese and other so-called Asiatic labour. The union demanded that the Government organise the immediate repatriation of the men.

The demand was rejected. But as soon as the conflict ended the government took action to force the Chinese out.

What took place was similar in many respects to what happened to our fathers after World War Two. Few men could be legally deported. Rather, they were pressured into leaving. As was to happen twenty-five years later, men who had made their lives in Britain who were married and had families were caught up in the process.

Under pressure from the British seamen's union, the Chinese seamen found it difficult to get employment. They could neither get work ashore nor get work at sea. Some waited two years to get a ship out. In the process they piled up huge debts with the Boarding House keepers who housed the men.

Chinatown after World War I and we Eurasians go mainstream

We know that some Liverpool families have Chinese ancestry dating from World War One and even before that time. But after the War Liverpool's Chinatown began to shrink. It was reduced to no more than a few hundred souls. By the 1930s Chinatown was thought to be dying and was under threat of demolition by Liverpool City Council.

It seemed inevitable that, as the old men died, Liverpool's Chinatown, such as it was, would die with them. Their children, the Eurasians, were marrying into the white community and their grandchildren became indistinguishable from other Liverpudlians. And remember that most of the Chinese-Liverpool couples, their children and their grandchildren were spread throughout the city. Chinatown was for Chinese seamen and their numbers had decreased with the ending of the War.

And, of course, Liverpool's Chinese community was not being reinforced by Chinese women of childbearing age. In the archives there are official complaints about illegal immigration of men and action is taken on this. But we have found no recorded evidence of Chinese women being brought into the country. One now elderly Eurasian lady who was born in Chinatown remembers only one Chinese woman being there when she was a child between the Wars.

Then World War Two starts and our story really begins.


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