VIFF 2015: Tricks on the Dead: The Story of the Chinese Labour Corps in WWI
Few people nowadays know about the role played by the Chinese Labour Corps in World War I. By 1916, World War I had settled into an effective stalemate, with Allied forces facing German forces all along the Western Front, both sides dug into their respective mazes of trenches as artillery pounded the lines. The loss of life was horrendous, and there was a constant need for fresh soldiers at the front to replace those killed and wounded in action. There was also an unquenchable thirst for non-combat manpower, able-bodied men to construct and maintain the trenches themselves. The Chinese Labour Corps was established to meet this need, and an astonishing 140,000 laborers were recruited from the farming communities of rural China and shipped thousands of miles by ship and train, a journey that took them halfway around the world to western Europe. Tricks on the Dead, directed by Jordan Paterson, examines this forgotten chapter of World War I, with a special emphasis on the 85,000 members of the Corps who were shipped from China to the west coast of Canada, then secretly transported in locked trains from Vancouver to Halifax, and from there across the Atlantic to the Western Front. At the time, the official policy of China was one of neutrality, but the Great Powers still had significant influence on the rather weak Chinese government, and used this influence to establish the Chinese Labour Corps. Because of the official Chinese position of neutrality, potential recruits to the Chinese Labour Corps were assured by recruiters that they would not be positioned too near the front itself.
For their part, the Chinese government was hoping to use this “concession” – an agreement to supply non-combat manpower from their rural villages – as a bargaining chip when the war ended; they were, in effect, siding with the Allies, in anticipation of receiving a generous reward at a post-war peace conference down the road. As the film shows us though: if this was in fact their hope, then they were ultimately disappointed, since the outcome of the Versailles conference was to reward the Japanese government instead; the Chinese came away empty-handed.
The title for director Jordan Paterson’s film makes reference to a quote from Voltaire, which goes: “History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead,” and as we see in this film, contemporary historians are often called upon to take the scant “facts” of the historic record and present them in such a way as to explain and justify present national policies. We see Chinese historians, for example, patiently explaining to the camera why this “betrayal” of the Chinese government at the Versailles conference might explain the present-day Chinese government’s reluctance to trust the West. In a sense, then, Tricks on the Dead attempts to do two things at once: it tries (very successfully) to excavate a forgotten part of the historic record, to shed light onto a piece of our past that has been neglected or overlooked; at the same time it asks us to think about the process by which historians construct the past. It asks: “How reliable is History itself, if present-day interpretations of the historic record can shift and mutate according to present expediencies?”