A major exhibition exploring the little-known story of more than 1,000 Chinese sailors repatriated from Liverpool opens at Birkenhead’s Williamson Art Gallery on 10 February.

In 1946, the Liverpool Constabulary carried out orders from the British government to deport Chinese sailors in Merseyside, many of whom had travelled to England as part of the war effort. A total of 1300 were forcibly repatriated to China. Their wives and children believed they had been deserted, until the release of declassified records 50 years later revealed the truth.

Edge Hill University’s Rosa Fong is behind the exhibition. She worked with local community group The Dragons of the Pool to document the stories of the surviving children of the seamen for the first time.

Rosa Fong

Rosa said: “Liverpool Chinese actor David Yip told me about the forced repatriation and introduced me to Yvonne Foley who has been instrumental in having the episode acknowledged. 

“Like many people, I was appalled by what had happened and wanted to bring the story to a wider audience – as a filmmaker I’m constantly exploring different ways to communicate and bring stories to wider and more diverse audiences.” 

Thanks to a £10,000 Heritage Lottery Funding grant, this year-long project has seen video interviews with the seamen’s descendants, now in their seventies, recorded to capture this important part of British Chinese history for future generations. The project’s research will be then be archived in Birkenhead Library.

The exhibition at the Williamson Art Gallery is the culmination of the project, inviting the local community to engage with the history of Merseyside’s Eurasian community. The exhibition will feature the iconic photographs taken by acclaimed documentary photography Bert Hardy.

It is hoped the project will help participants share their stories and educate the wider community about the shocking events of 1946.

Rosa said: “Many of the Dragons lament being cheated out of a relationship with their fathers, but the thing that struck me the most was their feeling of lost identity – not being able to connect with their Chinese roots.  These families lived most of their lives believing that they had been abandoned by their fathers only to find out when it was too late that they weren’t.’

“I have already had a lot of feedback from the local community saying that they are shocked that this happened in Merseyside. World War II experts have said they too are shocked that they did not know about the repatriations.  So there is truly a case of hidden history being uncovered in this exhibition.”

This project builds on Rosa’s previous academic research. She said: “The focus of my work is identity, migration and belonging and I have explored this through experimental film, documentaries, television programmes and academic papers.  This project is informed by and further articulates the underpinning research in my book chapter in Contesting British Chinese Culture (Eds. Diana Yeh and Ashley Thorpe, forthcoming 2018), and my documentary Deconstructing Zoe (2016).”  

The Dragons of the Pool will be on view at the Williamson Art Gallery from 10 February – 18 March 2018. Find out more here