Forgotten 遗忘 is an original stage-play by Daniel York Loh
Perhaps nothing sums up East Asian invisibility in the West more than the long-forgotten story of the Chinese Labour Corps who worked behind the lines for the British and French armies towards the tail-end of World War One, contributing hugely to the outcome of this most devastating and brutal of conflicts, but who have simply vanished into the mists of time.
Forgotten 遗忘, an original stage-play by Daniel York Loh produced by Moongate and Yellow Earth, seeks to rectify this in bold, explosive fashion by placing this long-buried piece of Chinese and European history literally centre-stage for the next four weeks as the stories of these mainly poor, mainly illiterate men mainly from Northern China forms the basis of a visceral and exciting piece of theatre packed with thrills, comedy, tragedy and tenderness.
The Chinese title of the play is 遗忘 which means ‘Forgotten’. ‘Left behind’. ‘Erased’. And erased is what these approximately (there is no precise figures) 140,000 men where. Literally airbrushed out of history by Western colonial powers, who cared little for the plight of ‘coloured labour’ as it was described then, and various governments of China, who perhaps regarded the incident of the Chinese Labour Corps as something of an embarrassment from an era where the then Republic of China (in stark contrast to now) teetered on the point of collapse – milked by foreign colonialists and driven by internal strife, as well as being up to its neck in debts incurred from indemnities demanded from foreign powers.
The labourers were a desperate throw of the dice to gain China a seat at the post-war peace conference and hopefully regain some sovereignty and international parity. The gambit backfired disastrously however as the Europeans and Americans turned their backs on China – an incident that has reverberated all down the 20th Century to present day.
From copious research York Loh has created a story of three young and the woman they leave behind who make up an amateur Chinese theatre troupe. York Loh: “As I researched further, I also learned that many of the labourers were incredibly artistic. They carried musical instruments with them, they told stories, they sang songs, they performed for each other and their white officers, they made trinkets for sale, they painted wall and ceiling frescoes, they made engravings on bomb-shells. Only the other week Antiques Roadshow featured an elaborate and strikingly intricate folding painting which some labourers had presented to British officers.
“The characters in our play are an amateur Chinese theatre troupe. It often seems that we’re brought up with the idea that arts and culture are the preserve of rich educated people. But arts and stories belong as much, if not more, to less privileged people. Because art redeems us. All too often East Asians are regarded as silent workhorses with no emotions, no aspirations, no hopes, no dreams, no inner life at all. Our play is about East Asians who fight to leave their story behind.”
The play is directed by upcoming theatre director Kim Pearce and stars an all British East Asian cast- Rebecca Boey, Jon Chew, Camille Mallet De Chauny, Zachary Hing, Michael Phong Le and Leo Wan- with other British East Asians in the creative team-Jessica Hung Han Yung (lighting), Liz Chi Yen Liew (composer), Quang Kien Van (movement director), Mingyu Lin (assistant director), Zhen Lin (Moongate producer), Kumiko Mendl (Yellow Earth producer).
BEATS Org have organised a special evening for British East Asians and friends on October 27th performance with reduced price tickets for the show, a chance to mingle with the creatives plus a free panel discussion with Karen Soo (whose grandfather served with the Chinese Labour Corps) and renowned academic Frances Wood who has written copiously about the Chinese Labour Corps. You can ask questions and get signed copies of Frances’s book (Betrayed Ally) and the playtext of Forgotten 遗忘.
Details and bookings: http://wearebeats.org.uk/
Otherwise the play runs from October 23rd – November 17th at Arcola Theatre.
Tickets can be booked at https://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/forgotten/