My first Academic Blog! Chinese Migrant workers during the Great war in England

This post is related to a research seminar I attended on 3/12/2014 at my University entitled: England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War, delivered by Dr Anne Witchard (University of Westminster). Although I attended other research seminars based on other topics, this lecture in particular piqued my interest so much so that I had to write on it. Why I was so interested was because, prior to this seminar, I had never heard of this phenomenon occurring in England prior to World War I right through to the start of the Second World War. I believe the reason for my ignorance on this subject was due to this coinciding with the first world war, which was an event that had received more attention from my perspective. Before we get into the bulk of this post it is improtant to note that, in this post my opinions on this subject does not reflect those of Dr Witchard or anyone else. These are my own ideas that I am expressing hereafter.

Witchard began the seminar speaking on the lack of attention that China was paid for their involvement in WWI. From my understanding of the seminar, the true depiction of China was rarely accurate during this period of time. Even before the war, William Francis Mannix published a book in 1913 called Memoirs of Li Hung Chang, which cast a favourable light over the General, which later turned out to be fabricated ten years later. Witchard spoke of two novelists by the name of Sax Rohmer and Thomas Burke and how their depiction of China was heavily derogatory and exaggerated. This was an attempt to heighten everyone’s suspicion of the Chinese Migrant workers that came to the west which the aftermath of the Great War had caused. Moreover, the term ‘Yellow Peril’ was first coined by the last German Emperor, Kaiser Willhelm II in 1895, in order to promote a false fear in the combined powers of China and Japan by which they could dominate the world.

This scaremongering was proving to be fruitful as writers began a series of stories and stage shows based around the east Asian threat that was popping up all over England, in particular, London’s West End. Sax Rohmer, an English novelist, created the character Dr Fu Manchu, an evil genius whose sole desire was to take over the world using London’s West End as headquarters. Since I heard about this I decided to read The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu (1913) by Rohmer (Released in the U.S as The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu) and it was a very interesting and entertaining read. I can imagine however, that reading this kind of stuff during the time it was first released was used as propaganda against the Chinese. I must admit that knowing the context of its release made me uneasy throughout my reading of the text. Having said that, racism was not so clearly dismissed by the establishment as it is today. Although there is no room for the tolerance of racism, it could have been the only device the English had to promote a sense of protecting oneself from an otherwise, dangerous group of people. Subsequently, other novelists like Thomas Burke began publishing books based on opium dens that were appearing in London and everything that was influenced by this rise of drug abuse which was claimed to have been started by the migrants, dragging down “our” women with them.

Witchard said during the seminar that the media had claimed that an alarmingly high rate of white women in London were beginning to have a strong sexual attraction to the migrant workers and were opting to make them their husbands. Dope Girls by Marek Kohn (which was also touched on by Witchard) is a book that discusses the rise of drugs in Limehouse and how women began frequenting the Opium dens of the orient or as seen in the film Broken Blossoms by D. W. Griffith were called ‘A Scarlet House of Sin’. Witchard went on to say how it was further claimed that women who were interested in Chinese men could have been Britain’s downfall for imperial power, which lead to the Aliens Act 1914, which said that a white woman could lose their British nationality if they were married to a Chinese man. It bluntly states this, in the following quotation from the act:

PART III. GENERAL.National Status of Married Women and Infant Children. 10.-(1):

Subject to the provisions of this section, the wife of a British subject shall be deemed to be a British subject, and the wife of an alien shall be deemed to be an alien. (, click ‘Aliens Act 1914’ link)

This was the harsh reality the government were prepared to deal out in order to extinguish any chance of England losing their imperial power.

Witchard summarised her presentation with how England and China had inherited a little of each other’s culture. I was really glad to hear this as throughout the entirety of her presentation, I sat there engrossed in the history and literature combined about England and this era, not having any real sound knowledge of these events. Everyone in the room was enthralled about this fascinating event in history As she spoke of various ways England and China were combined through popular culture. For example; how we adapted these two country’s cuisines creating a fusion of Chinese and English food; how England were in need of lifting spirits during and after the war, leading to a musical comedy entitled: Chu Chin Chow, which ran for five years; various popular TV shows began surfacing on the subject of China and England; Chinoiserie (Chinese-esque) was a style of chinese art (pottery, paintings) that influenced a style of clothes released into the fashion world of England as a homage to China.

This was a very interesting topic to write on and it did broaden my view as to how, in history, the English and Chinese relate to one another. I suppose war can bring people closer together.



To see more of these beautiful examples of chinoiserie click here: the blog is all about chinoiserie.