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The Curious Disappearance of Mr Foo/Unity Theatre

Tina Malone and Simon Wan as compelling as the tale which deserves a much wider audience

Written by . Published on June 23rd 2014.

The Curious Disappearance of Mr Foo/Unity Theatre

IT is arguably one of the most callous contemporary acts perpetrated by the British government and even nearly 70 years on,  the forcible repatriation of Chinese seamen in Liverpool, who had helped crew the vital merchant fleets on the dangerous Second World War Atlantic convoys, remains a shameful undertaking; and with no official apology. 

Hundreds lost their lives in the bitterly cold waters after their ships were torpedoed. Then at the end of the war – in reality from October 1945 until July 19946 - the Home Office introduced a cruel policy that saw huge numbers of the Chinese seamen rounded up by crack squads of police led by Special Branch, and, without a by your leave, returned to a China that was in turmoil due to civil war. Some estimates are that between 2,500 and perhaps 5,000 people were affected. 

It remains an ongoing tale of sadness and yet, for some, there is revelation and resolution.

Many of these sailors had settled in Liverpool, had married local women and had families. It was believed they had simply deserted their wives and lovers. Large numbers of the children of these relationships – at least 450 – were told nothing or little about their fathers, or that they were dead. Rumours about the arrests circulated for decades amongst the community in Liverpool’s Chinatown but no one knew the truth and the early lives of these children were cloaked in mystery and confusion. 

The story came to light about 15 years ago after historian Maria Lin Wong, author of Chinese Liverpudlians, discovered files in the National Public Records Office in Kew proving that the "rumours" were true. In fact part of the unearthing of the Liverpool story is also down to the work of Chinese sociologist Li Ling who was collecting stories on old Shanghai seafarers for Shanghai University. 

A BBC Radio Merseyside documentary in 2002 hinted at the incredible tale which was actually recorded briefly in 1999 in The Encylopedia of the Chinese Overseas. The baton was taken up by Keith Cocklin, the Liverpool-born son of a repatriated Shanghai sailor, and then the daughter of another Chinese sailor, Yvonne Foley, who gathered together many of the "children" – now many elderly themselves – who shared their own tales and continued the research into the story. 

John Campbell And Moira KennyJohn Campbell And Moira Kenny

It has been further enhanced by the work of Liverpool urban historians Moira Kenny and John Campbell, founders of The Sound Agents, a social enterprise specialising in visual arts and the recording, collecting and archiving oral histories.

In recent years they have created and curated a fascinating audio visual history of the city’s Chinese community through a series of face-to-face interviews and using much material loaned by local Chinese people and the descendants of some of the deported sailors. Last year they were instrumental in organising a special blue plaque in Nelson Street to mark the role Chinese seafarers played in the history of Liverpool. 

In 2006, an earlier plaque was unveiled at the Pier Head by the surviving "children of the lost dragons". Endorsed by Liverpool City Council,  it commemorated the part the Chinese merchant seamen had played in the Second World War, and acknowledged the disgraceful Home Office decision to deport them. 

It remains an ongoing tale of sadness and yet, for some, there is revelation and resolution.

Recently The Sound Agents have been responsible for installing giant images called Opera for Chinatown on former derelict buildings opposite East Village in Duke Street. Selected from their digital archive, the images depict the journey, settlement, lives, loves and families of the Blue Funnel sailors. 

Tina MaloneTina Malone

And a fascinating part of that overall story is now also told in a powerful and passionate play written by Moira and John based on the interviews they conducted with the families of the repatriated and those few sailors who managed to evade the round-ups and remained in Liverpool all their lives.

The Verbatim Theatre work, The Curious Disappearance of Mr Foo, is oten a bruising experience featuring Shameless actress Tina Malone as Kathleen, a Liverpool-Irish girl, and the Shanghai sailor Mr Foo played by London-born Chinese actor Simon Wan. Each alternates to tell their own story: Kathleen’s as a girl who falls for Mr Foo’s charms and falls foul of the social mores of the time, Mr Foo as the seaman landed in a different culture – and with a wife and family back home in China.

The dialogue is emotionally charged and yet at times hugely humorous, certainly on Kathleen’s side as she wittily yet ruefully relates the difficulties of holding down a relationship with a Chinese man whilst facing opposition and rebuke – to the point of exclusion – by her family, imbued with the prejudices thus fashioned.

It is an acutely written piece, which captures the historical relevance and references of Liverpool back in the earlier decades following the Second World War. It unfolds in a Chinese restaurant setting as Kathleen recalls her early life, and reveals how she met Mr Foo, fell crazily in love, became pregnant and confesses how she was hoping for a more formal relationship. Then abruptly one night he disappears. She is distraught and eventually sent packing by her own family.

Meanwhile, we hear Mr Foo’s side of the story as he talks about his life in China, and as a sailor in Liverpool. Again the dialogue is forged from a series of personal interviews and Simon Wan conveys the tale with a particularly striking, and believable, mannerism with certain vocal inflections that are both infectious and touching; a kind of nervous repetition of the term "you know" followed by an expressive "huff".

For sure this is a demanding two hander for the performers with the pace relentless as it bounces between them,  never actually interacting in the piece; sitting at separate tables as their narrative evolves through different time spans to the present day.

As the true story of their lost love and lives is divulged it is by turns tragic, sensitive, shocking and ultimately very sad; Kathleen finally discovering, too late, the reality of his disappearance; he recounting how he managed eventually to return to Liverpool in search of his lover and son, to find her married – amusingly to another Mr Foo – and how both their lives evolved along separate paths with him marrying someone else in Liverpool.

Certainly Tina Malone and Simon Wan deserve accolades for tackling their roles with such enthusiasm and professionalism, considering the short time they had to put it all together. This was a premiere performance, and for only one night, but it surely deserves a longer and wider exposure. And with an extra half an hour’s script, perhaps fleshing out the overall story, it has the potential to be a tour de force.


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