Home > Politics, Society and Culture > The Little Chinatown That Could

The Little Chinatown That Could

There are few pleasures in life that come close to having a meal with Chinese people.  The beer, tea, cigarettes and conversation flow freely, and for a couple of hours on a snowy London afternoon, you can sit islanded from the rest of the world.

London’s Chinatown – which will be of particular interest to any fan of Pirates of the Caribbean in that it was originally founded by Chinese employees of the East India Trading Company – is like most other Chinatowns.  It offers a kind of Disneyfied version of China,  but it does offer to a pleasant stopgap to those who are suffering extreme MSG withdrawal.  In Kobe, Chinatown is rather distastefully known as Nakin-machi – literally Nanjing-town – where I was offered Chinese food – fried rice and chicken.  In my home city of Manchester (at one time the largest Chinese community in Europe before), Chinatown shares a street (and restaurants) with Korean and Thai entrepreneurs.  Well, foreigners I guess they all look the same.

Things hadn’t been going too well for China at the turn of the century during the Qing dynasty.  The country had suffered humiliation after humiliation – The Japanese had invaded and the only thing that had quelled the Boxer Rebellion was another war against the Eight Nation Alliance.

The Chinese were used extensively and abusively by both the French and the British.  The then Chinese government had forbidden Chinese nationals from fighting (it later declared war in 1917), so, especially for the French, they were a source of cheap, desperately needed labour.  Field-Marshall Haig requested an initial 21,000 men, but in an agreement engineered by the French war cabinet, 50,000 ended up being shipped to Dagu and Marseille.

The Chinese men, mostly between the age of 19 and 25 were put to work unloading ships and refueling bombers.  After the fighting ended they were used to clear the bodies of dead servicemen from the battlefields.  The young men that had been drafted from Jiangsu, Heibei  and Shandog soon had their ideals of western life shattered under the harsh, unforgiving work conditions they found themselves in.  By the end of 1917, 54,000 Chinese men were employed by the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) in France and Belgium, and by the time of the Armistice that number had ballooned to 96,000.

Eager to bolster their “common man” image during the formation of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese intellectuals looked back on their time in the CLC with a certain pride.  Chen Du Xiu, the first Chairman and General Secretary of the CCP, wrote that “while the sun does not set on the British Empire, neither does it set on Chinese workers abroad.”

The town of Montargis has been most kindly described as “an inconsequential backwater”, and it hides the secret of being the ultimate Chinatown.  Few Chinese actually live there, but this unremarkable town, about 100km south of Paris has a unique and revered place in modern Chinese history.  Deng Xiao Ping, then aged 16, worked in the Hutchinson rubber factory there (and was consequently fired for refusing to work) and he later found work in the Renault factory in Paris.  Such was his naivety that he Deng gave his birthday as calculated by the Chinese lunar calendar, rather than the western Gregorian calendar.  According to Wang Yi, the first secretary of the Chinese embassy in Paris, all Chinese know Montargis (or they should know Montargis), and it’s where a lot of the revolutionaries where “inspired” to revolutionize China

It all started with Li Shi Zen who was the son of an empirical councilor.  It was thanks to the connections he made while studying at an agricultural college that students would visit as part of the Work-Studies Movement in 1912.  Amongst these students were to go on to be the stars of the embryonic Chinese Communist Party.  Almost 2000 students made the three month journey by ship to France.  Zhou En Lai wrote a poem about the journey, reflecting his hopes of what the modern west could offer him: “Go abroad through the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Waves are surging forward, carrying you to the coast of France, the homeland of freedom.”

A series of plaques now mark points of historical interest in Montargis – a town of 15,000 inhabitants that now has to cope with a deluge of Chinese tourists every year.  The Chinese trail winds through the streets, over the bridges and along the canals.  A propaganda official from Guangdong says that the town was “our teacher, and a cradle of our revolution.”  It’s a testament to unpredictable nature of the country that I’ve made my second home in that, on a day trip in France, you can end up knee deep in Chinese history.

  1. Layla
    March 24, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Cashing in on history.

    I can’t help but wonder what will happen if we fail to understand ourselves and where we came from. After all, culture and history are important ways to understand who we are and how we view ourselves and the world. Without this kind of knowledge, in my opinion, we could be forced to repeat our mistakes of the past.


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