The Current

The forgotten Canadian history of the Chinese Labour Corps

More than 81,000 Chinese labourers travelled across Canada on their way to support the war effort in Europe. Some of them died and were buried in Canada. But few Canadians know their story.

A new book sheds light on a First World War story few Canadians know

Members of the Chinese Labour Corps lean out the windows of a Canadian Pacific Railway car during a station stop in Canada. Military and security personnel look on from below. (David Livingstone Collection / Submitted by Dan Black)
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In 1917, an estimated 81,000 labourers from China travelled secretly by train from Vancouver to Halifax, where they boarded ships to cross the Atlantic. 

News about the men was censored. No one in Canada was to know about them.

The men, known as the Chinese Labour Corps, had been recruited to support British troops in the First World War, and they worked behind the lines in northern France and Belgium, digging trenches, repairing roads, delivering supplies, and cleaning up the bloody battlefields.

Some died on the battlefield, hit by stray bullets. Some died in Canada on the journey to and from the war. Most were buried in unmarked graves, including in B.C. and Ontario.

Despite their grueling and dangerous work, Chinese labourers' contribution to the war, and their connection to Canada, has received sparse attention. 

"These Chinese labourers have been, for the most part, forgotten, and are certainly not on the radar for a lot of Canadians," author Daniel Black told The Current's guest host David Common.

Black has just published a new book, Harry Livingstone's Forgotten Men: Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War

Daniel Black's new book is Harry Livingstone's Forgotten Men: Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War. It's based on the journals of a Canadian doctor and letters from Chinese labourers. (Gordon MacKay)

Harry Livingstone was a doctor in the Canadian Army Medical Corps who was sent on a top-secret mission to northeastern China, where he gave medical exams to the labourers to make sure they were healthy enough to travel. Then he accompanied a group of 2,300 of them from China, through Canada and all the way to France.

Livingstone kept three journals about his trip. Those journals, along with his letters home and the few-available letters written by some of the Chinese workers, formed the base material for Black's book.

A secret mission

In 1916, the British government worked out a deal with China to recruit labourers to serve in non-combatant roles in the war. 

They decided that the safest way to get the men to France was to send them first on ships across the North Pacific to Vancouver Island, then across Canada by train, and finally on ships again across the Atlantic to France.

That the Canadian government would keep a mission involving 81,000 people a secret might seem surprising. But Black said there were likely a number of reasons they kept it under wraps, not the least of which was discrimination.

"100 years ago, Canada was not a welcoming place for Chinese immigration," he said.

Capt. Harry Livingstone conducting one of thousands of eye exams at the British recruitment depot at Weihaiwei, China. Black says doctors were mostly on the lookout for trachoma, a highly infectious eye disease that can cause blindness if untreated. (David Livingstone Collection/Submitted by Dan Black)

At the time, the Canadian government applied a $500 head tax to any Chinese person coming to Canada. The government had waived the tax for these labourers, something they didn't want the Canadian public to know, "given the sentiments of the time," Black said.

Sacrifices went unrecognized

Thousands of men from the Chinese Labour Corps died on the Western Front, or on the journey to and from the war.

But they received little recognition for their sacrifices, in history books or war memorials.

A giant canvas exhibited in Paris at the end of the war, depicting France surrounded by its allies, actually painted over the Chinese workers, according to The Guardian. The painting, started in 1914, initially included China — but that section was reportedly painted over to include the United States after Americans joined the war.

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, the allies also broke a promise to return complete control of China's Shandong province from Japan to China. China refused to sign the treaty in protest.

The men of the Chinese Labour Corps who survived returned home to a country in hardship.

"There was drought and famine and there was a warlordism going on," said Black. "And the money that they earned on their contracts, by the way, had been devalued."

The grave of Chou Ming Shan

In the past few years, the Chinese Labour Corps has finally started to get some recognition. 

More reports of their work have emerged, and in the U.K., a group has started a campaign petitioning the British government to erect a national memorial to the men.

Last month, in Canada, a memorial was held at what is now William Head Prison, on Vancouver Island, for 21 previously unidentified labourers who died, mostly of disease, on the trip to or from the war.

This Remembrance Day, Black is thinking in particular about one young man who was buried at Garrison Petawawa in Ontario. His name was Chou Ming Shan, and he died of malaria in 1917 on a train to France.

This past summer, 102 years later, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission installed a headstone for him. Black assisted with a wreath-laying ceremony for his grave last month. 

"It really touched me that here was a man who was lying there for all that time and … a lot of people didn't know he was there," Black said. 

"And yet he was a war casualty," he added. "He was going to France, but he never made it that far."


Written by Allie Jaynes. Interview produced by Ben Jamieson.

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