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World War Two

The Chinese sailors betrayed by Britain

Chinese sailors in Liverpool, 1938. Nick Yapp/Fox Photos/Getty Images

During World War Two, 20,000 Chinese sailors served alongside their British allies on merchant vessels, says Dan Hancox in The Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast. The ships kept food and fuel flowing into the UK and were ready targets for Nazi U-boats. Many Chinese seamen lost their lives; one sailor, Poon Lim, spent 133 days adrift on a tiny raft in the South Atlantic after the Germans destroyed his vessel. After the war, about 2,000 Chinese seamen settled in Liverpool, many with Scouse wives and children. Having been celebrated as heroes, they were soon seen as a “nuisance” by the British state.

A year after the war ended, they began to “disappear”. Rumours circulated of men going down to the docks and “never coming home again”. We now know from declassified Home Office documents that there was a secret campaign to round up and illegally deport all the Chinese seamen in Liverpool, authorised by Clement Attlee’s Labour government. But their wives were never told – many “went to their graves thinking they’d been abandoned”. Their children grew up fatherless. Chann Tan Yone is the only Chinese sailor known to have made it back to his family in Liverpool, and he sneaked back in 1949 under a false name.

Listen to the podcast here.