Western Front - Eastern Promises

Key information

11:00 am to 5:00 pm
Brunei Gallery
Event type

About this event

Trench Art and the Story of the Chinese Labour Corps in the Great War

SOAS’s Brunei Gallery is pleased to host an exhibition to commemorate the remarkable but largely overlooked contribution and experiences of the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War, in this the centenary year of their disbandment, alongside their trench art legacy, made out of shell cases and decorated with a distinctly Chinese flavour.

140,000 Chinese men travelled 10,000 miles to war-torn Europe to assist the British and French armies after 1916. 100,000 of these volunteers formed the British Army’s Chinese Labour Corps (CLC), taking on all manner of work behind the lines and for almost two years after the war the CLC worked to clear the battlefields of debris and bodies.

The exhibition gives a fascinating insight into the people who made up the CLC. On display is material drawn from the unique collection of photographs taken by Lt W J Hawkings during his time as an officer with the CLC in China and France from 1917 to 1919, many previously unseen, alongside a ‘never before displayed’ collection of 80 museum-quality trench art pieces, sculpted and engraved shell cases, hand-made by the men. The ancient symbolism and iconography applied in these distinctively Chinese trench art designs is also explored.

As part of the exhibition, visitors can view ‘Forgotten Faces of the Great War: The Chinese Labour Corps’, a collection of oral histories by descendants of Chinese labourers and their Western commanding officers. The film was produced by documentary filmmaker Peng Wenlan for The Meridian Society for their project on the Chinese Labour Corps .

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Western Front, Eastern Promises – a curator's tour

Note on contemporary appelation

The exhibition includes contemporary quotes from memoirs, newspaper articles and interviews that include many terms now considered racially offensive or otherwise inappropriate. These are reproduced here in their original state and should be seen in the context of attitudes of the period.
No offence is intended by the exhibition's curator nor The Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Video from the Exhibition

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Forgotten Faces of the Great War: The Chinese Labour Corps

Images from the exhibition