In 1917 the Canadian government transported more than 84,000 Chinese workers in secrecy across Canada from Victoria to Halifax; from there they were shipped to Europe to serve in the Great War as non-combatants. The British and French negotiated the deal with the Peking government to enlist the men, semi-skilled peasants, into the Chinese Labour Corps. Each worker was to be paid ten cents a day, and their families were to receive regular separation pay as well as a one-time twenty-dollar payment upon embarkation.
Some contingents of the Chinese Labour Corps were shipped through the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal and around South Africa, but Canada was the preferred route since much of the journey was made across land (which reduced the risk of losing ships to German U-boats), and it was faster. By using the CPR, the corps got access to fresh vegetables to prevent scurvy, and the workers could be taken off the trains for exercise marches to keep them healthy and ready for work. The Canadian immigration department agreed to waive the head tax of $500 otherwise required of Chinese nationals entering Canada, provided that Labour Corps members were supervised by armed guards as they crossed the country.
The first shipment of workers sailed from Wei-Hai-Wei, China, on January 18, 1917.
The few details that we know of these men come from military and naval logs and a couple of first-hand accounts by missionaries who travelled with the Chinese Labour Corps to Europe. These sources say that at some time the corps nearly rioted over food shortages at William Head in Victoria, and two Chinese caught stealing food were caned in front of the other men.
According to military accounts, the Chinese workers were treated well, and when rice became scarce there was discussion with them before their rice rations were changed to bread. At the end of the line in Halifax, the Chinese shook hands with and even embraced the soldiers who had guarded them with bayonets outside the trains. The British and French had agreed to pay $1,000 US to the Peking government for any man who did not return from the war, and all but a few thousand of the men who enlisted did return to China—a surprising number, considering their proximity to the front and the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918-19.
Jeremy Borsos, a visual artist, found this photo in a second-hand shop in Chinatown in Victoria in 1983. The inscription on the back reads: “Chinese Coolie Camp William(s) Head V.I. 1916-1918.” Nearly a decade after he found it, Borsos learned from an article published in The Beaver magazine that it was a photograph of a clandestine mission executed by the Canadian military with such secrecy that it did not even make it into the history books.
About four thousand men are pictured in this photograph. Most of them were probably recovering from seasickness after the twenty-one-day sailing from China, which for most would have been their first time at sea.
Sometime during the rigmarole of housing the men, organizing their rations and preparing them for a journey that would take them halfway around the world, someone thought of marching them into place and standing them at attention long enough for a military photographer to set up his banquet camera and create this souvenir of an enormous secret.