Chinese War Sailors
Posted by: Mitchy
Date: December 09, 2001 12:52PM
I came across an interesting discussion of Chinese war sailors in a book I read today:
Kwong, Peter "Chinatown, N.Y.: Labor and Politics, 1930-1950" The New Press, New York 2001.
Most of the book tracks the history of the labor movement and the gradual politicization of New York's Chinatown in response to rampant discrimination and later the anti-Japan effort but there was an interesting section of one chapter devoted to a discussion of Chinese war sailors active primarily on British and US "Liberty" ships in the European theater. I don't know how much reference there is to this group of sailors in the general literature, but for those of you who might be interested, I'll summarize some of the interesting tidbits from this section:
By the early 1940s, some 15,000 Chinese seamen were employed in the US merchant marine and British merchant marine ships. The sailors were often hired out of Hong Kong and according to the book, US authorities refused to grant any shore leave to the noncitizen Chinese (remember the infamous "Chinese Exclusion Act" in the US which made it impossible for them to get citizenship) until 1942 when New York Chinese community groups got the US Justice Department to change the shore leave policy for the Chinese and all seamen on Allied ships.
The Chinese home government, under the KMT (the Nationalist party which just lost the election in Taiwan last week) Jiang Jieshi (Chiang K'ai Shek) offered no support against unusually oppressive conditions experienced by many of the seamen, who usually occupied the most menial positions on the ships they worked on.
The Chinese on British ships were paid a weekly average of 4-10 pounds as opposed to 15-20 for non-Chinese sailors and beatings and jailing were apparently widespread.
There was a well known incident in which a Chinese sailor who was particularly abused on a British ship repeatedly ask for shore leave was was shot and killed for "insubordination". This promted the Chinese to react strongly in New York's Chinatown and hundreds of Chinese sailors "deserted" in response to this incident and their treatment only to be hunted down subsequently by the US immigration office (400 were found). A british response after the incident, "The seamen were coolies before they became seamen and they are still coolies." (p. 126) The problem was that the seamen were not employees of US companies, not US citizens and received no aid from the Chinese government in the crisis.
In response to this the Chinese seamen formed the Chinese Seamen's Union in 1943 specifically for those working on the British ships. The organization was largely ineffectual, partly because of accusations of its Communist connections and because the Chinese government had come to an agreement with the British with regards to the "coolie" labor it provided. I found this comment, allegedly by the Chinese government, amusing "We will not allow a small group of seamen to destroy our friendship with Britain. We want you people to go back and serve on the ship. If you refuse, you will be sent to India for service. I hope you will cooperate with us and all of us will be happy." (p. 128)
The book continues with discussion of sailors during the period, but mostly with reference to changes in conditions following Chinese sailors increasing membership in the NMU (National Maritime Union).