Reflections on Dalian
Yvonne is the daughter of a British mother and one of the Chinese seamen who served in the British merchant navy during WW2, who was forcibly repatriated back to China at the end of the war. Many children grew up without knowing what had happened to their Chinese father. Their story is related in China Eye No. 13. She established the website Half and Half ➚ for people of similar background to obtain information and to communicate with each other. The story of the Shanghai sailors appeared in China Eye No. 13, Spring 2007.
In 2014 we were invited by Han Qing, Director of Maritime History & Culture Research Centre at Dalian Maritime University, to work with him in China. He had become aware of the research we had done on the history story of Chinese mariners sailing on British vessels during World War Two, a topic on which he himself was working.
Travelling via Hong Kong, where we lived for a number of years, we arrived late in the evening at Dalian’s vast new airport. But there was no sign of Qing. Fortunately, we came across a young Chinese women looking for her Australian husband who had arrived on the same flight as ourselves. She called Qing on her mobile and he came hurrying round to greet us. Knowing we were coming from Hong Kong and assuming it would be designated a domestic flight, he had gone to that terminal. We had arrived at the International terminal! Off we went to our new apartment on the university campus to begin our two month stay.
We had been interested in going to Dalian given its very chequered history. Located in what was then Manchuria, it had been taken by the Russians, captured from them in the Russo-Japanese War, taken back by the USSR at the end of World War Two and only finally handed over to China in 1955. Once the domain of the disgraced Bo Xi Lai, it sounded like a fascinating place to visit.
The University itself traces its origins back to 1909 when Nanyang Institute in Shanghai set up a Shipping Management Section. In 1953 the marine institute it had become was merged with two others to form Dalian Marine College becoming Dalian Maritime University in 1994. Much development has taken place since then and the campus is still expanding with more new buildings being completed and others being started in the two months we were there.
The University focuses primarily on the education and training of those who will become officers in China’s merchant marine. Under quasi military discipline they pay little in the way of tuition fees. Other students, who study a range of subjects in a variety of disciplines, pay much higher fees but have somewhat better accommodation on campus. We were fortunate enough to meet a number of students including a young lady who had just finished a PhD in marine engineering. But more of her later.
Our days started with a stroll across the campus, past the international students’ hostel with its Russian and African occupants, around the lake and in to our office. Then we would check out a new source of information, share our findings with Qing, write up our notes and add them to the growing pile of new information.
Lunch time saw us in the staff canteen trying out the assorted breads and vegetable dishes of that part of China. Sometimes wondering what we were eating but generally enjoying the food. Then a walk to one of the many shops in the university grounds to buy something for the evening meal or a beer to try out back in our apartment.
In the evenings we would explore the area. Opposite our block of apartments was a long row of flats up to twenty stories high. Mostly empty, as was the block in which we lived, it housed the people whose village had occupied the land now taken up by these buildings. Beyond them was a police station and a few shops. Every evening the police brought out huge loudspeakers and commenced to play pop music. Down came the women and girls from the housing around the area to practice their line dancing. This while the old ladies whose village had been demolished did their exercises, gossiped and played with their grandchildren.
We had arrived near the end of the academic year just in time to experience the annual sell off of surplus possessions by the graduating students. Everything from shoes to books and desk lights to sets of the fatigues they had worn for their compulsory military training. Tempted to buy a set of fatigues, we settled for a desk lamp.
We were extra fortunate in that the young lady who had just completed her PhD took pity on us and decided to be our guardian angel. She showed us where the local shopping centre was located, took us to restaurants and helped us buy items for the apartment. She even took us on a day trip to what we Westerners know as Port Arthur and the site of the battle between the Japanese and the Russians in 1905.
That was not our only ‘guided tour’. Qing and a number of his colleagues took us with them to Panjin to see a bird reserve and the spectacular coastal scenery around the area. The trip also gave us a further chance to see how China has managed to use more concrete in the last few years than the USA has used in the last 100. Row upon row of empty apartment blocks, roads that come to an abrupt end and cities completely demolished and rebuilt.
Dalian itself had also, in effect, been totally demolished and rebuilt. Little remained of the historic city. Few traces of the Russian and Japanese history of the place. This was lamented by a number of the students we talked to who pointed out the empty houses and luxury apartments that they knew they could never own.
Eventually our stay came to an end. We had made a new friend in Qing. One of the nicest guys we have had the pleasure to meet. It was time to head for the airport once more. But no airline ticket. Qing told us not to worry. He would text us the necessary information. All we had to do was show our phone to the girl at the airline desk. Amazingly it worked. And off we flew to Hong Kong. But life was not to be so simple when we tried to check in for our flight from Hong Kong back to the UK. Qing had paid for the flight with his credit card and Cathay Pacific needed to see it. Impossible, of course, so we had to pay for the flight, send our receipt to China and have the University refund the cost.
Since then we have kept in touch with Qing and our guardian angel. We have continued our research sending information to Dalian. Our work and that of Qing will now be incorporated in a new museum being built in Guangzhou. We learned much, made new friends and our efforts will quite literally have concrete results.
Note: There is an extensive exhibition on the early Chinese community in the Museum of Liverpool at Liverpool Pier Head. The exhibition includes the story of the WW2 Chinese sailors and there is a plaque to the memory of those who were forcibly sent back to China at the Pier Head, close to the river. The WW2 Chinese sailors were the subject of a talk at a joint SACU, UCLan, Peoples’ History Museum event at the Peoples’ History Museum in Manchester on 25th November. The event marked the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2 in the Far East, please see page 6.
© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2015 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Eye magazine Issue 48, 2015
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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