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Tricks on the Dead: Docudrama uncovers role of Chinese labourers in WWI

Tricks on the Dead: The Story of the Chinese Labour Corps in WW1 had its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Jordan Paterson was making a film about immigration between China and Canada when he came across an astounding story: During the First World War, 85,000 Chinese labourers had been secretly transported in locked trains across Canada before being shipped to Europe to help Britain and France on the battlefield.

"I thought that's very strange," the Richmond, B.C.-based filmmaker said. "What is this insane statistic? Basically it's the largest mass migration in Canadian history. What happened?"

That initial bit of curiosity would ultimately turn into Paterson's first feature film. Tricks on the Dead: The Story of the Chinese Labour Corps in WWI has its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival this week. (A shorter version airs on Omni Television on Nov. 11.)

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The film – which Paterson calls a docudrama-documentary hybrid – uses interviews, historical photographs and re-enactments. It follows Chinese student Zhang Yan as he travels three continents to reconnect Chinese families to their missing ancestors who died overseas.

The research was particularly challenging. Paterson had a hard time finding anyone who even knew about this.

"Most people, if not all, I talked to in the Chinese community locally, unless they were academics, had no idea about the story at all," Paterson said.

He learned that 140,000 men were recruited to do work such as dig trenches and clear the dead, so the Allies – who had suffered tremendous casualties – could focus on fighting.

Paterson explains that the members of the Chinese Labour Corps – from every walk of life but always "dirt poor" with few if any prospects – saw this as an opportunity to get work and earn money.

"They didn't see any difference between 'gold mountain' or other opportunities and this First World War opportunity because they didn't really know it was a war. … They basically thought they were going to Europe to work."

This is one of the tricks on the dead (taken from a Voltaire quote) – a list of deceptions around this story, as Paterson explains: deceptions about the nature of the war and the work the men were going to do; about not being placed in harm's way; about the pay they would receive; about fair and equal treatment; and about the racism they experienced. Not to mention the great deception of the Paris Peace Conference: The Chinese had hoped to benefit from the participation of their men in this war, but felt betrayed when foreign concessions in Shandong province were awarded to the Japanese.

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Under the subsequent Communist government, the story was kept quiet in China. "Chinese labourers after all this were basically used as political pawns. They were told they were terrible, they were part of a colonial war and China should not remember this," Paterson says. "So China didn't talk about it for generations."

That has changed over the past few years. China's drive to be recognized internationally has altered the narrative, Paterson explains, so those Chinese labourers have become models of truth and freedom. ("Those peasants knew nothing of truth and freedom. They were just working in a foreign land," he says.) There have been academic papers written about it in China, a documentary aired on national television.

"The story started to come out, but this is literally 100 years later before anything was said."

Not only was the story kept quiet publicly, but with a high rate of illiteracy, there were few written accounts to be found about the time. And some may have been lost during the Cultural Revolution. Paterson says there are only two existing full-length diaries from the Chinese perspective, one of which was sewn into a pillow for 30 years so it would not be found and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Meanwhile in Canada, military documents were declassified in the past decade, which helped in his research. Paterson also found non-Chinese descendants in Canada of two physicians who worked with the Chinese labourers and had kept diaries.

Paterson learned that some of these men – about 40 of them – are buried in Canada, most at the William Head Institution on Vancouver Island, which served as a quarantine station at the time for immigrants. The total death toll is in dispute. China believes as many as 10,000 to 20,000 people were killed; Western scholars say no more than 5,000 died performing these duties.

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In any case, it is astonishing that the story has been kept quiet for so long.

Paterson is exhausted. After years of working on the $600,000 film, he has been pulling near all-nighters this week trying to get the film – for which he wore many hats – finished. "I will never take on this many roles again. This is the end of do-it-yourself filmmaking for me," he says.

But the reaction from the descendants of the people whose story he is telling has been worth it. "The outpouring of respect and thanks from the Chinese community has been overwhelming. It's immense. I had no idea. I just knew it was a good story and we should tell it."

Tricks on the Dead screens at VIFF Sept. 30 at 6:45 pm at International Village andOct. 4 at 3:45 pm at FU Woodward's.

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