There were one or two interpreters per 500 workers in the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). Like the other workers they were subjected to a medical examination. The French and British authorities, who recruited the men, made sure that they were not carrying any infectious diseases. Their fingerprints were also taken and they were given a numbered badge. The first interpreters that were recruited also passed language tests in the port of Qingdao (Shandong). For example, they were required to describe the landscape around them in English.

During the journey the interpreters were given the opportunity to visit the ports where they stopped while the workers were not allowed to leave the ship once docked. One of them, Gu Xingqing testified about his experience in a book. In it he marvels at the fact that Vancouver had as many cars as the major cities of China had rickshaws.

During the crossings it was inevitable that the workers and the interpreters experienced a certain lack of privacy. The interpreters in some cases had a difficult time living among hundreds of poorly educated men. Gu included a rather ironic description of one of the workers, one night, when the sea was particularly rough. Fearing a shipwreck the worker loudly promised that he would spend the rest of his life cultivating his land if he would make it off this ship alive.

At the same time, Gu was fully aware of his crucial role as an interpreter. Interpreters served as the intermediary between French and British officers and the workers to relay information and orders. They also served as arbitrators in case of conflict.

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  • British officer checking the badge of a worker, first quarter of the 20th century, photo, Tank Museum, Bovington

    The CLC workers and interpreters all wore numbered badges. British officers generally did not speak Chinese, but they did learn how to count in this language. They used their numbers to address the Chinese workers, instead of addressing them by their names.

  • Portrait of two Chinese workers, first quarter of the 20th century, photo, Archives de Dunkerque – Centre de la mémoire urbaine d’agglomération

British officer checking the badge of a workerportrait of two Chinese workers