A British scheme moved tens of thousands of Chinese labourers to war-torn France. They came through Canada on secret trains

An overlooked chapter of the First World War saw Canadian participation in the secret trains and perilous ocean crossings. For many labourers, their final resting place is in Canada.

His name was Chou Ming Shan and his final resting place will come as a surprise to most.

That’s because he was buried in an unmarked grave during the First World War at Camp Petawawa, northwest of Ottawa. A native of northeastern China, Chou Ming Shan was only 25 when he slipped into a coma and died of “chronic malaria” while on a secret train near Chapleau, Ont.

His death and what brought him to Canada is part of a much larger wartime story that has been mostly overlooked by Canadian historians. Indeed, avid readers of Canadian military history are usually shocked to learn how this country quietly participated in a massive British scheme to transport tens of thousands of Chinese labourers to war-torn France.

Approximately 81,000 members of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) passed through Canada on secret trains between early 1917 and the spring of 1918. Roughly 3,500 other members of the CLC, who had also landed on Canada’s West Coast after crossing the perilous North Pacific, boarded a steamship, the Empress of Asia, which, after passing through the Panama Canal, sailed to Liverpool via New York City.

From Britain, the men were transported across the Channel to northern France, where they were put to work behind the lines to keep the war machine in motion — digging trenches, stacking ammunition, hauling supplies, repairing military vehicles, and the grisly job of cleaning up the battlefields. The work continued well after the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918. When it was finally time for the men to go home in 1919 and 1920, more than 40,000 returned via Canada, transported once again on trains from East to West.

Chou Ming Shan begun his journey at a dusty recruitment depot in northeastern China, but he became one of nearly 50 men who died during their brief time in Canada.

The largest collection of CLC graves in Canada is found in a cemetery at William Head on Vancouver Island. The location, which is now within a federal minimum security prison, had been the site of a federal quarantine station and a camp where the Chinese labourers lived under canvas before they resumed their journey across Canada.
Chou Ming Shan’s CLC contingent arrived at Vancouver at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 17, 1917. From China, he had crossed the North Pacific on the Empress of Russia, which, like the Empress of Asia, belonged to the Canadian Pacific Ocean Service. Most of the men had never been on a ship before, let alone set foot in North America.

Meanwhile, the War Measures Act of 1914 and the waiving of a $500 head tax on Chinese immigration meant that the CLC’s time in Canada, especially the railway movements across Canada, were kept secret. Newspapers were forbidden to report on the scheme, but word did leak out occasionally.

By the summer of 1917 there was a lot of pressure on Canadian government and CPR authorities to ensure the trains left Vancouver on time in order to meet tight shipping schedules on the East Coast. Some relief came with the establishment of a temporary holding camp at Petawawa, which was surrounded by barbed wire and conveniently located not far from the CPR’s transcontinental route.

Fearful that some of the men might try to escape during their transcontinental journey, authorities assigned armed guards to every railway car and also ensured the bathroom windows were sealed shut.

Rare photographs of the CLC en route to Halifax show the men boarding the ubiquitous Colonist cars of the CPR, the same carriages that had transported immigrants to western provinces. As the CLC specials moved east with a minimum amount of time between each departure, railway station platforms were patrolled. Any labourer in need of hospital treatment had to be escorted by armed guard.

The railway cars were crowded and the men were responsible for cooking their own food after rations were carefully portioned out in the train’s commissary car.

Although all of the men were “non-combatants” who had signed on to earn a little money while contributing to the Allied war effort, the secrecy, security and tight railway schedules meant they were forbidden from getting off the trains for exercise during station stops.

When Chou Ming Shan and the Empress of Russia arrived at Vancouver, the steamship’s bill of health was listed as “Good” and the men soon boarded one of the special trains at Vancouver for the East Coast. Four days after leaving Vancouver, Chou Ming Shan, who in China had been assigned the registration number 39038, lapsed into a coma. He died on Sept. 22, 1917.

He had likely been bitten by a mosquito infected with the Plasmodium parasite not long before he arrived in Canada. The doctor on the train said the young man had been suffering for eight days.

At Petawawa, Chou Ming Shan’s body was carried from the train by fellow labourers and quietly buried in a grave his compatriots had dug. Before carrying on with their journey to the East Coast and then on to war-torn France, the Chinese labourers at Petawawa were kept busy repairing or adding to the camp’s infrastructure.

More than 100 years later, on Oct. 3, 2019, research into Chou Ming Shan’s death and the journey of the Chinese Labour Corps across Canada culminated with the unveiling of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone for the young labourer. The rectangular granite marker bearing his name, registration number, and the epitaph “Though Dead He Still Liveth” stands in a small, remote cemetery in the middle of one of the base’s massive gun ranges.

Access to and from the location is tightly controlled, but on the day of the dedication ceremony a small group of dignitaries and guests was escorted to the site where words and prayers were spoken, and wreaths placed for Chou Ming Shan.

I was there, too, and while sharing a few words on a young man who died more than a century ago, a cold, brisk wind swept across the gun range and reminded me again of the wastage of war and how the whole world can get caught in it.


The article was first published by The Toronto Star. 


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