Clause 9 of the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill exempts the government from giving notice of a decision to deprive a person of citizenship if they believe the person can apply for citizenship elsewhere. This clause has potentially chilling effects for the UK’s people of colour, and as Daniel York Loh writes, recalls a time when deportations and violence were inflicted on British Chinese sailors following World War Two – with lasting consequences
Featured image: Chinese seamen learning how to handle an Oerlikon gun at the Gunnery School For Inter-allied Merchant Seamen, 1942, Liverpool. Wikimedia Commons
Of course, the perpetrators and defenders of this frankly terrifying piece of legislation will argue long and loudly that the Bill’s powers will only apply to the most dangerous of criminals and the law-abiding majority need have nothing to fear. Ironically this is the very same justification the Communist Party of China (CPC) government are using to negate dispute on the draconian and authoritarian National Security Law (NSL) that they have imposed to shut down democratic protest and rights in the former British colony of Hong Kong.
The UK’s East & Southeast Asian (ESEA) communities should also be extremely concerned about this Bill and its ramifications. After all, the Chinese in Britain have direct history of forced deportations and repatriations with the British government’s scandalous treatment of Chinese sailors during and after World War Two, which separated families in the most traumatic of circumstances and, though largely swept under the carpet since, left a lasting scar on Liverpool’s Chinese community with descendants to this day never having traced or met their fathers and grandfathers.
Approximately 5000 ethnically Chinese sailors, mainly recruited from Shanghai and Singapore, were employed on British-registered ships during World War Two. In fact they made up around 15% of the British Merchant Navy at the time, playing a vital role – as the similarly airbrushed-from-history Chinese Labour Corps did towards the end of World War One – in Britain’s war effort.
And as with the World War One Chinese Labour Corps, ethnically Chinese workers were regarded as cheap, disposable… and also a threat. It’s again largely forgotten just how opposed the UK trade union and labour movement was to the idea of ‘cheap Chinese workers’, who were believed to have an inhuman work ethic, remaining after these conflicts to potentially take jobs from British workers.
As early as 1906, trade union leader Jim Larkin campaigned for the Independent Labour Party against Chinese immigration, presenting it as a threat that would undercut workers, and in an extraordinary display of ‘yellowface’ street theatre led a procession in Liverpool with fifty dockers dressed as ’Chinamen’, wearing faux-’pigtails’ with powdered faces to provide a ’yellow countenance’ to scare the local population about the perils of Chinese labour. The 1914 Defense of the Realm Act was amended to include the smoking of opium as proof of moral depravity that merited deportation – a legalistic pretext for deporting any Chinese inhabitants of Britain at the time.
During World War Two, ethnically Chinese merchant seamen were seen as a constant source of aggravation to the UK government of the time. It’s important to note that the modern British media view of the Chinese (quiet, hard-working, politically voiceless, largely invisible except in media reports about Covid) was entirely different at the time. The Chinese were regarded as bestial, ‘unaccountably wild and (prone to) resorting to collective violence’ (Tony Lane, The Merchant Seaman’s War).
These particular Chinese Merchant Seamen were also very much made up of left-wing labour organisers with the type of agitator spirit guaranteed to not inure them to what was at the time still a colonial regime. The Journal of Commerce ran a whole serialised account of one particular labour dispute that turned violent with the lurid headline ‘Chinese Run Amok’. It took until Week 4 of the five instalment series before the Journal’s readers were allowed to learn that that initial dispute had been about a grievous shortfall in pay and conditions for the Chinese workers which were well beneath their White British counterparts and even precluded Chinese sailors from being paid the ‘war risk’ bonus seen as an indelible right of British workers. The last injustice was particularly egregious to Chinese labour organisers. The bombs and guns of Britain’s war enemies were not making allowances on race grounds after all.
Often these disputes did turn violent and here too there was grievous discrimination. The captain of the oil tanker Silverash, who shot and killed a Chinese a seaman, was acquitted of all charges inside ten minutes by a New York court. Because no evidence from a ‘Chinaman’ was considered admissible.
The British response to these labour disputes was often deportation and repatriation. Unsurprisingly, many ethnically Chinese sailors took the opportunity to jump ship in anticipation, often disappearing into the Chinatowns of America to find work and build a life away from their war and strife-torn homeland.
However, with the Japanese occupations of both Shanghai and Singapore these forced and immediate repatriations became logistically impossible and so a constant state of mutual distrust ensued with angry questions raised in Parliament about the treatment of Chinese sailors.
Come war’s end, Liverpool became the scene of one of the ultimate abuses of Home Office power. Ironically, given the ‘cheap Chinese worker’ cliché, the ethnically Chinese sailors had seen their wages drop and been priced off the ships by cheaper European labour. But many Chinese sailors now had local white wives and partners. Some even had children. The ‘Alien Act’ of the time made the citizenship of any British woman married to a Chinese man complicated and vulnerable. Some British women did not marry their Chinese partners for fear of this complication. In yet another irony, China, being a wartime ‘ally’, made marrying a Chinese partner far more hazardous to the citizenship rights of a British woman than it would marrying a Japanese man – Japan being an ‘enemy’.
What followed is murky and shameful with no clear account. A Home Office figure at the time gives the number of 117 ethnically Chinese being deported but there is no clear figure. Some were forced onto ships under a ‘no work no pay’ ultimatum. Others apparently were simply rounded up with no opportunity to even say goodbye to the partners and young families they were forced to leave behind and never see again.
And the reason for these sudden and violent deportations of those who, let’s not forget, had contributed massively to Britain’s war effort? Again, shrouded in mystery and government discretion, though one Home Office meeting at the time cited that the Chinese sailors were “an undesirable element in Liverpool…”
Perhaps one reason is the aforementioned political affiliation of the Chinese sailors – the ethnically Chinese merchant navy workforce were very much left-wing labour organisers, at least in sympathy (if not actual membership) of the Chinese Communist Party. Britain’s colonial government at the time feared Chinese communism as much as it fears Muslim fundamentalism now with exactly the same blanket stigmatisation and demonisation. It’s another little-known fact after all that the British police’s teargas, kettling and water-cannon tactics for dealing with protestors was developed and honed in the colonies of East and Southeast Asia with Margeret Thatcher herself inviting the (White British) police chief of Hong Kong to advise on how to deal with the angry protests of Black people on the streets of Toxteth and St. Pauls in the early 80’s.
Indeed, it’s tempting to imagine how different Britain’s Chinese community might look now had an actual community of politically vocal ethnically Chinese been allowed to develop and grow as opposed to the geographically isolated, historically invisible and unheard disparate make-up that barely registers on the census that most of us grew up with.
And perhaps that’s the point. When a government grants itself the powers to decide on people’s citizenship rights in its own interests and with no accountability it empowers itself to take traumatically life-affecting decisions on its own particular political agenda.
I hope we all protest this monstrous Bill with every breath we have.
Daniel York Loh is associate artistic director of Chinese Arts Now, co-founding member of EVR-ESEA (End Violence & Racism Against ESEA Communities) email@example.com and BEATS Org (British East/Southeast Asian in Theatre and on Screen) firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on Liverpool and its Chinese seamen visit http://www.halfandhalf.org.uk