Gemma Chan on the truth about her father’s life at sea: ‘He knew what it was like to have nothing’
admin - Feb 8, 2022 Interviews

The actor knew her father had served in the merchant navy, but it wasn’t until she read about Britain’s mistreatment of Chinese seamen in the 40s that she understood just how much his experiences had shaped her family

“Take the rest of the noodles and the pak choi and you can have it for your lunch tomorrow.” My dad pushed the takeaway containers and their remaining contents across the table towards me.

“I’ve got loads of food at mine, why don’t you and Mum keep it?” I protested. I knew he’d insist I take the leftovers with me. This routine would always play out at the end of family dinners once I’d left home and, this time around, it felt both familiar and oddly comforting – because it had been a while since our last dinner.

Well, more than a while. It was spring, last year, and the pandemic had meant that, for months, like most families, we’d only seen one another through our screens. This was the first time in a long while that we’d been able to get together for a meal. We were even legally allowed to hug (if we exercised “care and common sense”!). I had brought champagne to celebrate, and we ordered from the local Chinese takeaway. I’d like to say it was a bid to support an Asian business that had been struggling, like many others, during the pandemic, but – in truth – it was sheer laziness. We’d talked and gorged ourselves on crispy aromatic duck with pancakes, stir-fried king prawns with peppers in black bean sauce, and chow mein with beansprouts. My childhood favourites.

“OK, I’ll take them,” I said, “but my bag’s too small to carry the boxes.” My dad got up from the table and went to the hallway to retrieve his rucksack. He rummaged around inside for a moment and then pulled out a neatly folded plastic bag. Opening it out, he offered it to me. I reached for it and then my hand paused in mid-air as I gawped in disbelief.

“How long have you had this?” I asked in amazement. He shrugged. This was no ordinary plastic bag. Indeed, the bag was not of this millennium.

It was vintage Marks & Spencer, made from thick white polythene emblazoned with St Michael QUALITY FOODS in blue lettering, the St Michael logo in a distinctive handwritten style. If you shopped in M&S in the 90s, you may remember it. It’s a classic. I’ve since found out that the St Michael brand was phased out in the year 2000, making this bag at least 20 years old.

My dad isn’t a man of many words, but that night he’d had a few glasses of wine. He told us that he used the bag regularly, despite its pristine appearance, and that the last time he’d used it in the local M&S the cashier had shrieked, “Oh my lord, I haven’t seen one of these in years,” and made the other members of staff gather round to take a look. This moment perfectly encapsulated what I would describe as Dad’s Golden Rule No 1: nothing goes to waste, which applies equally to food, clothes, household items, cars – everything really. Things will be used until they break, if they can be mended they will be mended, but rarely will anything be thrown away. This was established in his childhood out of necessity, but even now, in relative comfort, he still treats everything with such care and hates wastefulness.

A couple of weeks later, I came across an article written by the journalist Dan Hancox in the Guardian. I had thought I was pretty familiar with the long history of anti-Asian racism and discrimination in the UK and elsewhere; the shifting stereotypes, the scapegoating, Yellow Peril and the like, and the erasure of the contributions of the 140,000 men of the Chinese Labour Corps who risked their lives carrying out essential work for the allies in the first world war. But this was a story I had never heard before.

In the aftermath of the second world war, Britain forcibly deported hundreds of Chinese seamen who had served in the merchant navy, deeming them an “undesirable element” of British society. These men had helped keep the UK fed and fuelled on highly dangerous crossings of the Atlantic (approximately 3,500 vessels of the merchant navy were sunk by German U-boats, with the loss of 72,000 lives).

Many of the surviving men had married and started families with British women in Liverpool. However, they were secretly rounded up without notice and shipped back to east Asia. Many of their wives never knew what happened to them, and their children grew up believing they had been abandoned.

The fact that this story is only now coming to light, with no official acknowledgment or apology, may not be surprising, but it is still heartbreaking and enraging. By the time I finished reading the article, I was in tears. I realised that this had struck a deep chord because my own father had served for years in the merchant navy before he settled in the UK.

My dad grew up as one of six kids in a poor, single-parent household in Hong Kong. He was the third child and the oldest son. My ah-ma (his mother: barely 5ft tall, very fierce, could out-haggle anyone) worked three jobs to support her children. One was as a seamstress, with long hours bent over a sewing machine in a sweatshop, earning the equivalent of less than £1 a day. Initially my dad’s family lived in a shack on a hillside, with no running water. Then they moved into a block where they had one room, sharing a bathroom with 30 other families on the same floor. At one point they were made homeless when the block of flats burned down.

After leaving school, my dad worked for years on ships – mostly oil tankers – at sea for months at a time, and sent money home to pay for his siblings’ school fees. Only after they had all finished school could he save enough to pay for his own degree, coming to the UK to study engineering at the University of Strathclyde, where he would meet my mum (her own family’s tumultuous journey to the UK is a story for another time).

During my childhood, my dad was the most selfless and diligent father. His love for my sister and me was expressed not through words but through small acts of devotion: always cutting fresh fruit for us; making sure we drank two full glasses of milk each day so our bones would grow strong (milk being a luxury they rarely had in Hong Kong); patiently teaching us how to swim (Golden Rule No 2: learn how to swim). However, when I was younger, there were some things about him that I found hard to understand: his obsession with education, his aversion to waste of any kind, his insistence that we finish every bit of food on our plates; and his constant reminders not to take anything for granted. It was because he knew what it was like to have nothing.

After I sent him the article about the Chinese seamen, we had a long conversation on the phone. He doesn’t often speak about his past, but we talked about his time in the merchant navy. Some things I remembered him telling me long ago: how hard and lonely those years at sea were, how much he missed his family, and how dangerous it could be. On his third voyage, his ship, a chemical tanker, was sailing between Taipei and Kobe when they were caught in the tail end of a typhoon. The chief officer went out on deck to help secure the cover of the anchor chain locker, which was filling up with water, and was killed when a large wave dashed him against the ship. He was buried at sea.

But other details were new. I found out that, after seven continuous months at sea on his first voyage, my dad had noticed that the white British officers and crew spent six months at sea at most, with some serving four-month contracts before getting tickets to fly home to be with their families. This was in contrast to the Chinese crew, who usually had to serve long periods of nine months.

While some of his fellow junior engineers were apprehensive about being seen to be causing trouble, he represented other Chinese crew members on board and took it up with the shipping company’s superintendent. He found out that the British crew were employed under Article A (better pay, shorter sea time, paid study leave, etc), whereas the Chinese crew were employed under Article B (less pay, longer sea time, fewer benefits). The company told my dad he was the first person to complain. Dad told them he just wanted equal treatment. As a result, he and the others who protested were allowed to fly back home with holiday pay. They had docked in Trinidad, so he flew from there to Toronto, on to Vancouver, then Honolulu, then Tokyo. Finally, after three days of flying, he was reunited with his family in Hong Kong.

When I heard this story, it was impossible not to think again of the deported Chinese seamen. One of the reasons they were considered “undesirable” was because they had gone on strike to fight for an increase in their basic pay (originally less than half that of their British crew mates) and for the payment of the standard £10-a-month “war risk” bonus.

It’s a precarious business simply to stand up for your rights, especially if you are poor or a person of colour; and it unfortunately remains the case that those in power usually don’t appreciate being held to account. I hope that one day there will be an official acknowledgment of this terrible act of state-sanctioned racism and of the wrong done to those men and their families. I hope that the surviving children get the answers and justice they deserve, and that they can find peace.

My relationship with my dad hasn’t always been easy – as is often the case, it’s possible to derive both pain and gratitude from the same place – but I know how lucky we are to have him. And I will be forever thankful for the sacrifices he made for our family and for the things he taught me: the value of hard work, never to look down on those who have less, to stand up for others, and that a Bag for Life truly means life. [Source]

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