The trip

These Chinese workers were essentially recruited in Shandong (a coastal province in Eastern China). Then they embarked in the ports of Tianjin, Shanghai, Pukou, Hong Kong, Weihai and Qingdao (Tsingtao) to Europe. Most of the workers embarked from Qingdao because it was also the terminus of a formerly German-controlled rail network. Once they arrived at the port, with little regard to their skill or social status, Chinese workers were loaded into the cargo holds of the transport ships.

Sometimes the ships travelled westward, via the Suez Canal; sometimes in an easterly direction, via North America. Because it was a neutral power, the United States Government officially preferred not to allow the transport of Chinese workers across its territory. So, when it did occur, their movement was shrouded in deepest secrecy. An alternative route traversed Canada, which involved the Chinese being summarily quarantined for a while after their ship had berthed and thereafter drafted onto trains. The workers were not allowed to set foot on the soil of the countries across which they passed.

En route, the workers remained confined in their ship’s hold. Only the interpreters were occasionally allowed to leave the vessel and explore ports of call. It was in this fashion that they were introduced to a new world.

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  • Chinese workers leaving the port of Weihai, 1918, photo, Municipal Archives of Weihai-Sir James Stewart-Lockhart Collection, Weihai

    I was told tonight in mess that the coolies do not know and do not question where they are going. Having been assured that they are not going into action on the Western front, they set out light-heartedly, as men on some fine adventure, not caring about their destination so long as they are decently fed and clothed.” Daryl Klein, 2nd Lieutenant in the CLC, January 1918.

  • Embarkation of coolies bound for Europe at Weihai, photo taken from Ellen N. LaMotte, "Peking Dust", New York, 1919

    Sometimes these Chinese workers, or coolies, were literally crammed together like sardines in a can.

  • Map describing the various routes to get to Europe, map taken from Xu Guoqi, " Convergence of Two Civilizations: Research on the Chinese Workers in France During the First World War”, Foreign Intercontinental Press, 2007, 151 p.

    Whereas many contingents travelled eastwards crossing the Atlantic Ocean via Canada, other Chinese contingents were transported via the Panama canal or travelled westwards via the Suez canal or around the Cape of Good Hope.

Chinese workers leaving the port of WeihaiChinese workers in the hold of a boatMap describing the various routes to get to Europe