Speech by Karen Soo
Granddaughter of Chinese labourer Soo Yun Yi

These five gravestones are a silent testimony to the young men from a far-off land who never made it home. They and 140,000 other young Chinese labourers came to play a significant role in The Great War. They supported the Allied troops and, without them, the outcome of the war could have been very different.

My grandfather was one of these men and, in 1916, he stepped onto European soil for the very first time. It was the beginning of our family’s life in the West and it began with a war. His name was Soo Yun Yi, commonly known as Soo Yow. I knew him as Grampy.

Soo Yun Yi left his tiny home village of Tien Boon Gong, Toi Shan, in Guangdong a fearless, optimistic young man. He knew little of faraway lands. There was no television, internet or telephone. Imagine that! The other side of the world was a mystery, as alien as the moon.

My Grandfather undertook the long sea voyage from Hong Kong to France. He made it; hundreds didn’t. Grampy’s job was to keep an active airfield operational and repair planes, sometimes in direct fire of enemy bombs. Terrifying. But there was no choice – it was impossible to leave or return. He was 19 years old: almost a child, barely a man.

Along with his fellow labourers, my Grandfather risked his life and fought to survive in perilous conditions. My heart breaks when I imagine their fear, but it swells when I realize their courage.

For two years after the war had ended, Grampy was given the dangerous and often gruesome task of clearing landmines to make the land safe again for civilians.

In 1920, he decided to find his fortune in the West and boarded a ship to America. When the ship docked, he disembarked and found himself in Liverpool! There is some debate in the family whether this was intentional, but I believe the magnificent sight of The Three Graces seduced him to stay in this wonderful city.

He went on to open the first Chinese laundry in Birkenhead at number 90 Oxton Road. It was bombed in WW2 and the family were moved to number 66 Oxton Road. My grandfather also helped to re-establish the See Yep Association, from where we have representatives here today - a very important part of the Chinese community in Chinatown. He married twice and boosted the Chinese community by having eleven children!

So, our family owes a great debt to Liverpool, who welcomed my grandfather and gave him the opportunity to establish a successful business and family life in the UK. I, and my family, will always be grateful to the City of Liverpool and it’s people.

We are here to remember these men, buried here, and all the others who perished. And those that survived. They are the Chinese Heroes of the Great War.