The Chinese Labour Corps – The Blue Orange Theatre Birmingham – February 4 2022

“One of the least known stories of the First World War.”

That was the opening blurb of the advert, and I was intrigued. I’m no fan of the British Empire; its atrocities make modern day Isis and Al Qaeda look like beginners in the human rights stakes: The Boer concentration camps, the massacre at Amritsar, the famines in India during 1940 and the subsequent partitioning years later. All are now known but still little talked about. But who were the Chinese Labour Corps?

Towards the end of the First World War, the British Government needed a workforce to continue its campaign. Therefore, the Chinese government, wanting to establish itself as a world power offered its own labour to help the shortages. Over 100,000 men from the Northern Chinese Provinces travelled to Canada, then onto Europe to help in a war they knew little about. Most worked as unskilled labourers in appalling, dangerous conditions near shellfire and were terribly malnourished. At the end of the campaign, up to 20,000 had died and for a hundred years, mostly forgotten.

I am therefore indebted to the author of The Chinese Labour Corps, Walsall poet and playwright, Ian Henery, for illuminating me on a subject I now want to know more about. An excellent story (additionally adapted by Emma Cooper) where the audience went on an eye-opening journey of life one hundred years ago.

Although only a cast of four, the story moved seamless from one scene to the next and was almost immersive with a feeling of being a part of proceedings. Fully rounded characters who you believed in, felt empathy for, and got to know intimately.

Our cast were Nathaniel Tan (Sun Gan – a teacher), Amanda Maud (Chinn An Chu – a woman pretending to be a man to enlist), Tao Guo (Lin Cheng – who leaves his family to earn money) and Ali Taheri (Liu Den Chen – the loveable rogue who does his best to make money in other ways).

The stage movement, courtesy of Director, Marcus Fernando worked well, particularly the drowning of workers during the sinking of the Canadian ship. Poignant and emotive. And the knowledge that when Chinn An Chu returned home, her father had died, having spent none of the money she sent back to him. But there was also humour, especially the sending up of a British Sergeant. Then you had both humour and sadness mixed. The beautiful scene where Lin Cheng recovers in a Field Hospital and befriends a young English nurse, Miss Alice. They play music together, badly, before life is cut short amidst the jollity when Alice falls prey to the horrors of war when the area is bombarded by opposition fire. Notice I do not use the word, enemy fire. For me, especially in this war, there was no enemy, only different sides. It’s something we could all learn.

A highly entertaining and informative evening at The Blue Orange Theatre. Not only did I enjoy the production, I also learned something too.

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