Thursday, July 7

Gemma Chan on the truth about her father’s life at sea: ‘I knew what it was like to have nothing’ | Family


“Have the rest of the noodles and the pak choi and you can have lunch tomorrow.” My dad pushed the takeout containers and their remaining contents across the table towards me.

“I have a lot of food in mine, why don’t you and mom keep it?” I protested. I knew he would insist that I take the leftovers. This routine always played out at the end of family dinners once I left home, and this time it was familiar and strangely comforting, because it had been a while since our last dinner.

Well, more than a time. It was spring, last year, and the pandemic had meant that for months, like most families, we had only seen each other through our screens. This was the first time in a long time that we were able to get together to eat. We were even legally allowed to hug each other (if we exercised “common sense and care”!). He had brought champagne to celebrate and we ordered Chinese take out. I would like to say that it was an attempt to support an Asian company that had been struggling, like many others, during the pandemic, but, in truth, it was sheer laziness. We talked and gorged ourselves on crispy aromatic duck with pancakes, prawns sautéed with peppers in a black bean sauce, and chow mein with bean sprouts. My childhood favorites.

“Okay, I’ll carry them,” I said, “but my bag is too small to carry the boxes.” My dad got up from the table and went into the hall to get his backpack. He rummaged inside for a moment and then pulled out a neatly folded plastic bag. Opening it, he offered it to me. I reached for it and then my hand stopped in midair as my jaw dropped in disbelief.

“How long have you had this?” I asked in amazement. He shrugged. This was no ordinary plastic bag. In fact, the bag was not from this millennium.

It was a vintage Marks & Spencer brand, made of thick white polyethylene embellished 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. Its a classic. Since then I discovered that the The St Michael brand was phased out in 2000, making this bag at least 20 years old.

Gemma Chan's father in 1975, during his time in the merchant marine.
Gemma Chan’s father in 1975, during his time in the merchant marine. Photograph: Courtesy of Gemma Chan

My dad is not a man of many words, but that night he had had a few glasses of wine. He told us that he used the bag regularly, despite its flawless appearance, and that the last time he used it at the local M&S, the cashier had yelled, “Oh my lord, I haven’t seen one of these in years, ”And had the other staff members gather to take a look. This moment perfectly encapsulated what I would describe as Golden Rule No. Dad’s # 1: Nothing goes to waste, which applies equally to food, clothing, household items, cars, everything really. Things will be used until broken, if they can be repaired they will be repaired, 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 couple of weeks later, I came across an article written by journalist Dan Hancox in The Guardian. I thought you were quite familiar with the long history of anti-Asian racism and discrimination in the UK and elsewhere; the shifting stereotypes, the scapegoat, Yellow Peril and the like; and the erasure of the contributions of the 140,000 men in the China Workers’ Corps who risked their lives doing essential work for the allies in WWI. But this was a story that he had never heard before.

After World War II, Britain forcibly deported hundreds of Chinese sailors who had served in the merchant marine, considering them an “undesirable element” of British society. These men had helped keep the UK fed and fed on highly dangerous Atlantic crossings (approximately 3,500 merchant marine vessels were sunk by German submarines, with the loss of 72,000 lives).

Many of the surviving men had married and raised families with British women in Liverpool. However, they were secretly detained without notice 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 now coming to light, without official acknowledgment or apology, may not be surprising, but it is still heartbreaking and infuriating. When I finished reading the article, I was crying. I realized that this had struck a chord because my own father had served for years in the merchant marine before settling in the UK.

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

My father grew up as one of six children in a poor, single-parent household in Hong Kong. He was the third son and the eldest son. My ah-ma (her mother: barely 5 feet tall, very fierce, could haggle anyone) had three jobs to support her children. One was a seamstress, with long hours bending over a sewing machine in a sweatshop, earning the equivalent of less than 1 pound a day. At first, my father’s family lived in a hut on the hillside, without running water. They then moved into a block where they had a room, sharing a bathroom with 30 other families on the same floor. At one point, they were left homeless when the tower block burned down.

After leaving school, my father worked for years on ships, mostly oil tankers, at sea for months, sending money home to pay for his siblings’ school fees. Only after everyone had finished school was he able to save enough to pay for his own degree, and came to the UK to study engineering at the University of Strathclyde, where he would meet my mother (his own family’s tumultuous journey to the UK is a story for him). another moment).

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During my childhood, my father was the most selfless and diligent father. His love for my sister and me was expressed not in words but in small acts of devotion: always cutting fresh fruit for us; making sure to drink two full glasses of milk every day so that our bones grow strong (milk is a luxury they rarely have in Hong Kong); patiently teaching us to swim (golden rule # 2: learn to swim). However, when I was younger, there were some things about him that were difficult for me to understand: his obsession with education, his aversion to waste of any kind, his insistence that we finish every last bit 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 usually talk about his past, but we do talk about his time in the merchant marine. Some things I remember him telling 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 his third voyage, his ship, a chemical tanker, was sailing between Taipei and Kobe when they were caught in the tail of a typhoon. The chief officer came out on deck to help secure the cover of the anchor chain locker, which was filling with water, and was killed when a large wave threw him against the ship. He was buried in the sea.

But other details were new. I found that after seven continuous months at sea on his first voyage, my father had noticed that white British officers and crew spent six months at sea at most, with some serving four-month contracts before getting tickets to fly. home to be with their families. This was in contrast to the Chinese crew, who generally had to serve long periods of nine months.

While some of his fellow junior engineers were concerned about being seen as causing problems, he represented other Chinese crew members on board and discussed it with the superintendent of the shipping company. It found that the British crew were employed under Article A (better pay, shorter sea time, paid study leave, etc.), while the Chinese crew were employed under Article B (less pay, longer sea time , less profit). The company told my dad that 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 fly home on vacation pay. They had docked in Trinidad, so he flew from there to Toronto, then Vancouver, then Honolulu, then Tokyo. Finally, after three days of flying, 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. Photograph: Courtesy of Gemma Chan

When I heard this story, it was impossible not to think again about the deported Chinese sailors. One of the reasons they were considered “undesirable” was because they had gone on strike to fight for an increase in their basic salary (originally less than half that of their British crewmates) and for the payment of the £ 10 standard. monthly “war risk” bonus.

It is a precarious business to simply stand up for your rights, especially if you are poor or a person of color; And sadly, it remains true that those in power generally do not appreciate being held to account. 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 the surviving children get the answers and justice they deserve, and that they can find peace.

My relationship with my father has not always been easy, as is often the case, it is possible to get pain and gratitude from the same place, but I know how lucky we are 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 putting down 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, request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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