Shanghaied: Chinese Seamen of Liverpool

Feb 10, 2010

Britain’s Eurasians uncover the painful truth behind the disappearance of their Chinese fathers.

Yvonne Foley first suspected she was different when she was nine. She had already noticed that her sister was blonde with freckled pale skin whilst she had dark hair and olive features. Then one day, her mother explained everything.

“I had met a young Chinese boy in her neighbourhood and I remember going home, telling my mum ‘I've met this boy and he's Chinese!’”

Yvonne recalls. “But my mother said, ‘No, he's not – he's like you, half Chinese and half English... Your real dad is from a place called Shanghai. He left us to go back to China.’”


chinese british wedding

Some of the Chinese sailors married British women


For years Yvonne believed she had been deserted by her biological father until by chance she heard a radio programme in 2005 about a group of Chinese seamen who had been forcibly repatriated in 1946 from Liverpool's docks where she had grown up. “It was a bit of a shock!” she admits. “I realised they were probably talking about my father.”

She discovered the British government had sent home around 1,362 Chinese seamen who had sailed across the Atlantic supplying food and armament to Britain during World War II. Because of heavy losses at the start of the campaign, up to 20,000 mariners from China were recruited to help the war effort, especially since they worked for lower wages.

With the conclusion of the war, however, dire economic circumstances as well as simmering racism meant that Chinese seamen – many of whom had started families in the country – were rounded up and shipped back to Shanghai. In the confusion and chaos that ensued, fathers were deported without a chance to say goodbye, leading many families such as Yvonne's to believe they had been deserted.

Yvonne's English mother was one of over three hundred women, with around one thousand children, left facing destitution after the men were deported. During this period, inter-racial marriage was taboo and a lot of women faced social exclusion or were ostracized by their families for marrying a foreigner. “We were the skeletons in the cupboard,” explains Yvonne.

British women who married Chinese men lost their citizenship and were even branded as of the “prostitute class” in government records. Yet many of the couples had been introduced through the church. Chinese men were often considered kind and caring husbands who chose to look after their families rather than waste money on getting drunk, as seemed the norm in the working-class communities of Liverpool.

Now into her 60s, Yvonne's curiosity has taken her to China and Australia to gather more information. She has met a small group of people out of an estimated 1,300 who were similarly affected by the events. Yvonne – whose father was from the French quarter of Shanghai; hence the French name – also set up the website 'Half and Half' which chronicles the events and urges those affected to get in touch.

“I was lucky because I had a lovely [step-]dad but some weren't so lucky. It was disastrous for some families. Some of the tales people have been kind enough to share are pretty sad and even awful.”

On a windy day in January 2006, Yvonne along with others affected by the incident commemorated the Chinese sailors with a memorial plaque on Liverpool's docks. “We all agreed that we wanted to have a record of what happened to our mothers and our genetic fathers. Forcing the men out was not something to be proud of.”

Who would we get one from and who would be to blame? You can't wipe out the past. All you can do is acknowledge that it took place and hope that it never happens again.

With this in mind, I ask Yvonne whether she feels they are owed an apology. After a sigh she responds with another question: “Who would we get one from and who would be to blame?” “You can't wipe out the past. All you can do is acknowledge that it took place and hope that it never happens again.”


memorial for chinese seamen

A memorial in Liverpool for Chinese sailors



Related Stories:

One Couple, Two Cultures

I Married a White Chick