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

“Take the rest of the noodles and the bok choy and you can have it for lunch tomorrow.” My father pushed the takeout containers and their remaining contents across the table towards me.

“I’ve got a lot of food with me, why don’t you and mommy keep it?” I protested. I knew he would insist that I take the leftovers with me. This routine used to play out at the end of family dinners as soon as I left the house and this time it felt both familiar and oddly comforting – because it had been a while since our last dinner.

Well, more than a while. It was spring last year, and the pandemic had left us, like most families, seeing each other only through our screens for months. This was the first time in a long time that we could get together for a meal. We were even legally allowed to cuddle (provided we exercise “care and common sense”!). I had brought champagne to celebrate, and we ordered from the local Chinese takeaway. I’d like to say it was an effort to support an Asian company that, like many others, was struggling during the pandemic, but – in reality – it was sheer laziness. We had talked and stuffed ourselves with crispy aromatic duck with pancakes, stir-fried king prawns with paprika in black bean sauce and chow mein with bean sprouts. My childhood favourites.

“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 into the hallway to get his backpack. He fumbled inside for a moment, then pulled out a neatly folded plastic bag. He opened it and offered it to me. I reached for it and then my hand stopped in the air as I stared in disbelief.

“How long have you had this?” I asked surprised. He raised his shoulders. This was no ordinary plastic bag. The bag was indeed not of this millennium.

It was vintage Marks & Spencer, made of thick white polyethylene, decorated with St Michael QUALITY FOODS in blue lettering, the St Michael logo in a signature handwritten style. If you shopped at M&S ​​in the 90’s, you might remember it. It’s a classic. I have since found out 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, during his time in the merchant navy. Photo: Courtesy of Gemma Chan

My father is not a man of many words, but that evening he had had a few glasses of wine. He told us he used the bag regularly, despite its pristine appearance, and that the last time he’d used it at the local M&S, the cashier yelled, “Oh my lord, I’ve never seen one in year”, and forced the other staff members to come take a look. This moment perfectly summed up what I’d describe as Papa’s Golden Rule No. 1: Nothing goes to waste, which applies equally to food, clothing, household items, cars—everything really. Things will be used until they break, if they can be repaired they will be repaired, but rarely will anything be thrown away. This was accomplished out of necessity in his youth, 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 journalist Dan Hancox in The Guardian. I would have thought I was fairly familiar with the long history of anti-Asian racism and discrimination in the UK and elsewhere; the changing stereotypes, the scapegoat, Yellow Peril and the like, and erasing the contributions of the 140,000 men of the Chinese Labor Corps who risked their lives performing essential work for the Allies in World War I. But this was a story I had never heard before.

In the aftermath of World War II, Britain forcibly deported hundreds of Chinese seamen who had served in the merchant navy, deeming them an “undesirable element” of British society. These men had helped keep the United Kingdom fed and nourished on very perilous crossings of the Atlantic (about 3,500 merchant ships were sunk by German U-boats, with the loss of 72,000 lives).

Many of the surviving men were married and started families with British women in Liverpool. However, they were secretly rounded up without notice and sent back to East Asia. Many of their wives never knew what was happening to them, and their children grew up feeling abandoned.

The fact that this story is only now coming to light, with no official acknowledgment or apology, may not be surprising, but it’s still heartbreaking and outrageous. When I finished the article I was in tears. I realized this had struck a chord as my own father had served in the merchant navy for many years before settling in 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 his family and how dangerous it could be. Photo: Courtesy of Gemma Chan

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

After graduating from school, my father worked for years on ships—mostly oil tankers—at sea, for months at a time, sending money home to pay for his siblings’ school fees. It was only after they had all finished school that he was able to save enough to pay for his own degree and come to the UK to study engineering at the University of Strathclyde, where he would meet my mother (her own family’s tumultuous journey 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. His love for my sister and me was not expressed in words, but in small acts of devotion: always cutting fresh fruit for us; making sure we drank two full glasses of milk every day so that our bones would grow strong (milk is a luxury they rarely had in Hong Kong); patiently teach us to swim (Golden Rule No. 2: Learn to Swim). When I was younger, however, there were some things about him that I found difficult to understand: his obsession with education, his aversion to waste of any kind, his insistence that we eat every morsel 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 about the Chinese seamen, we had a long phone conversation. He doesn’t often talk about his past, but we talked about his time in the merchant navy. I remembered some things he told me long 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 went on deck to help secure the cover of the anchor chain case, which was filling with water, and was killed when a large wave slammed him against the ship. He is buried at sea.

But other details were new. I learned that after seven consecutive months at sea on his maiden voyage, my father had noticed that the white British officers and crewmen had spent no more than six months at sea, some of whom were on four-month contracts before being given tickets to go home. to fly to with their families. This is in contrast to the Chinese crew, who usually had to serve long periods of nine months.

While some of his fellow junior engineers feared they would cause trouble, he represented other Chinese crew members on board and spoke to the shipping company’s Superintendent. He found out that the British crew worked under Article A (better pay, shorter sailing time, paid study leave, etc.), while the Chinese crew worked under Article B (less pay, longer sailing time, fewer benefits). The company told my father that he was the first to complain. Dad told them he just wanted equal treatment. As a result, he and the others who protested were allowed to fly back home with holiday pay. They were docked in Trinidad, so he flew from there to Toronto, on to 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. Photo: Courtesy of Gemma Chan

When I heard this story, it was impossible not to think 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 base pay (originally less than half that of their British crew members) and for payment of the standard £ 10-a-month “war risk” bonus.

It’s a tricky business to just stand up for your rights, especially if you’re poor or a person of color; and sadly, those in power usually don’t appreciate being held accountable. I hope that one day there will be official recognition of this horrific act of state-sanctioned racism and of the injustice done to these men and their families. I hope that the surviving children receive 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 both pain and gratitude from the same place – but I know how lucky we are to have him. And I will be eternally grateful for the sacrifices he made for our family and for the things he taught me: the value of working hard, never looking down on those who have less, standing up for others, and that a Bag for Life real life means.

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