Gemma Chan on the Truth About Her Father’s Life at Sea: “He Knew What It Was To Have Nothing” Family


“Take the rest of the noodles and pak choi and you can have it for your lunch tomorrow.” My dad pushed the take out containers and their remaining contents across the table towards me.

“I have plenty of food at my house, why don’t you and mom keep it?” I protested. I knew he would insist that I take the leftovers with me. This routine always recurred at the end of family dinners once I left the house, and this time it felt both familiar and oddly comforting – as it had been a while since our last dinner.

Well, more than a while. It was spring last year and the pandemic meant that for months like most families we only saw each other through our screens. It was the first time in a long time that we could get together for a meal. We were even legally allowed to kiss each other (if we used “care and common sense”!). I had brought champagne to celebrate, and we ordered local Chinese take out. I would like to say it was an offer to support an Asian company that had struggled, like many others, during the pandemic, but – in truth – it was sheer laziness. We had chatted and were stuffed with crispy pancake-flavored duck, sautéed prawns with peppers in a black bean sauce and bean sprout chow mein. My childhood favorites.

“Okay, I’ll take them,” I said, “but my bag is too small to carry the boxes. My father got up from the table and went down the hall to retrieve his backpack. He rummaged inside for a moment, then pulled out a neatly folded plastic bag. Opening it, he offered it to me. I grabbed it, then my hand came to a halt in the air as I stood speechless in disbelief.

“How long have you had this?” I asked in amazement. He shrugged his shoulders. It was no ordinary plastic bag. Indeed, the bag was not from this millennium.

It was an old Marks & Spencer, made from heavy white polyethylene emblazoned with St Michael QUALITY FOODS in blue lettering, the St Michael logo in a distinctive handwritten style. If you shopped at M&S ​​in the 90s, you might remember it. It’s a classic. I have since discovered that the The St Michael brand has been phased out in the year 2000, making this bag at least 20 years old.

Gemma Chan’s father in 1975, while in the Merchant Navy. Photography: courtesy of Gemma Chan

My father is not a man who talks a lot, but that evening he had drunk a few glasses of wine. He told us that he used the bag regularly, despite its impeccable appearance, and that the last time he had used it in the local M&S, the cashier had shouted, “Oh my lord, I don’t have one. saw one in yearAnd had the other staff gathered to take a look. This moment perfectly summed up what I would describe as Daddy’s Golden Rule # 1: Nothing goes to waste, which also applies to food, clothing, housewares, cars – everything really. Things will be used until they break, if they can be fixed, they will be fixed, but rarely will anything be thrown away. This was established in his childhood out of necessity, but even now, in relative comfort, he still treats everything with such care and hates waste.

A few weeks later, I came across an article written by reporter Dan Hancox in The Guardian. I thought I was quite familiar with the long history of anti-Asian racism and discrimination in the UK and elsewhere; shifting stereotypes, scapegoats, the yellow peril and others; and the erasure of the contributions of the 140,000 men of the Chinese Labor Corps who risked their lives doing essential work for the Allies in WWI. But it was a story I had never heard before.

In the aftermath of World War II, Britain forcibly expelled hundreds of Chinese sailors who had served in the merchant navy, seeing them as an “unwanted part” of British society. These men had helped feed the United Kingdom during very dangerous crossings of the Atlantic (approximately 3,500 merchant ships were sunk by German submarines, killing 72,000).

Many surviving men had married and started families with British women in Liverpool. However, they were secretly rounded up without warning and sent back to East Asia. Many of their wives never knew what happened to them, and their children grew up believing they had been abandoned.

The fact that this story is only revealed now, without official recognition or apologies, may not come as a surprise, but it is still heartbreaking and infuriating. By the time I finished reading the article, I was in tears. I realized it struck a chord because my own father had served for years in the Merchant Navy before moving to the UK.

Gemma Chan's father on a ship in 1975
Gemma Chan’s father in 1975: “He told me how hard and lonely those years at sea were, how much he missed her family and how dangerous it could be. Photography: courtesy of Gemma Chan

My father grew up as one of six children from a poor one-parent family in Hong Kong. He was the third child and the eldest son. My ah-ma (her mother: barely 5 feet tall, very fierce, could haggle over anyone) worked three jobs to support her children. One was a seamstress, with long hours spent on a sewing machine in a sweatshop, earning the equivalent of less than £ 1 a day. Initially, my father’s family lived in a cabin on the hillside with no running water. Then they moved into a block where they had one bedroom, sharing a bathroom with 30 other families on the same floor. At one point, they were left homeless when the apartment block burned down.

After leaving school, my father worked for years on ships – mostly tankers – at sea for months at a time, and sent money home to pay for his brothers’ school fees. and sisters. It was only after they had all finished school that he was able to save enough to pay for his own degree, coming to the UK to study engineering at the University of Strathclyde, where he would meet my mother. (her own family’s tumultuous trip to the UK is a story for another time).

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During my childhood, my father was the most selfless and diligent father. Her love for my sister and I was expressed not in words but in small acts of devotion: always cutting fresh fruit for us; making sure we drink two full glasses of milk every day to make our bones stronger (milk being a luxury they rarely had in Hong Kong); patiently teach us to swim (Golden rule # 2: learn to swim). However, when I was younger there were some things about him that I found it hard to understand: his obsession with education, his aversion to waste of all kinds, his insistence that we finish every song. of food on our plates; and his constant reminders not to take anything for granted. It was because he knew what it was like to have nothing.

After I sent him the article on Chinese sailors, we had a long conversation on the phone. He doesn’t often talk about his past, but we did talk about his time in the Merchant Navy. Some things I remember he told me a long time ago: how hard and lonely those years at sea were, how much he missed his family and how dangerous it could be. On her third voyage, her ship, a chemical tanker, was sailing between Taipei and Kobe when they were caught in the tail of a typhoon. The second stepped out onto the deck to help secure the cover of the anchor chain locker, which was filling with water, and was killed when a large wave knocked him against the ship. He was buried at sea.

But other details were new. I found that after seven consecutive months at sea on his first voyage, my father noticed that white British officers and crew spent a maximum of six months at sea, with some serving on four-month contracts before moving on. get tickets to go home to be with their families. This contrasted with the Chinese crew, which typically had to serve long periods of nine months.

While some of his fellow junior engineers feared he would be seen to be the source of problems, he represented other Chinese crew members on board and spoke with the shipping company’s superintendent. He discovered that the British crew were employed under Article A (better pay, shorter sea time, paid educational leave, etc.), while the Chinese crew were employed under article B (less pay, longer sea time, less benefits). The company told my dad he was the first person to complain. Dad told them he just wanted equal treatment. As a result, he and the others who protested were allowed to return home with vacation pay. They had landed in Trinidad, so he flew to Toronto, Vancouver, then Honolulu, then Tokyo. Finally, after three days of flight, he was reunited with his family in Hong Kong.

Gemma Chan, right, with her father and sister in 1987.
Gemma Chan, right, with her father and sister in 1987. Photography: courtesy of Gemma Chan

When I heard this story, it was impossible not to think again of the deported Chinese sailors. One of the reasons they were seen as ‘unwanted’ was because they had gone on strike to fight for an increase in their base salary (originally less than half that of their UK teammates) and for payment of the standard of £ 10 per year. month of “war risk” bonus.

It is a precarious business to just stand up for your rights, especially if you are poor or a person of color; and the fact remains, unfortunately, that those in power generally do not appreciate being held accountable. I hope that one day there will be official recognition of this terrible act of state sanctioned racism and the harm done to these men and their families. I hope that the surviving children get the answers and the justice they deserve and that they can find peace.

My relationship with my dad hasn’t always been easy – as it often is, it’s possible to get both pain and gratitude out of one place – but I know how lucky we are. lucky to have it. And I will be eternally grateful for the sacrifices he made for our family and for the things he taught me: the value of hard work, never looking down on those who have less, standing up for others, and that a bag for life really means life.

This essay appears in East Side Voices, edited by Helena Lee, published by Hodder & Stoughton on January 20 at £ 14.99. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


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