In the First World War Poperinge was a hub of the logistics sector. Many camps were set up in the outskirts of the city. Regiments stayed there for periods of rest and training. In July 1917 the first Chinese arrive in Poperinge. A company consists of 500 men. They are housed in separate labour camps.
The Chinese are a specific group in the British Labour Corps. They are deployed for the loading of ammunition and goods trains in the sorting station, for the building of roads and in ammunition depots. Their contract does not terminate at the end of the war. The Chinese remain active in the Westhoek until 1919. They help clearing the battlefields. Railway lines are dismantled again and bodies are dug up and removed.
"China in Poperinge" is based on three concrete points: the cemeteries (now), the camps (then) and the perception (then and now).
85 Chinese in total are buried in the Flemish WWI Commonwealth cemeteries. 60 of those 85 are buried in Poperinge. There is a separate plot for the Chinese at Lijssenthoek Military Hospital: Plot 34.
35 Chinese of the Chinese Labour Corps are buried there. That is the largest concentration of Chinese graves in Flanders. The explanation can be found in the hospital activity at Remy Siding (located next to the cemetery). Chinese were also treated in the hospitals. Their numbers increased in the spring of 1919. At certain times the numbers of Chinese patients peaked at 150. Most of them were brought down by the Spanish flu.
- Reninghelst New Military Cemetery: 7 graves
- Mendighem Military Cemetery: 8
- Haringhe (Bandaghem) Military Cemetery: 4
- Gwalia Cemetery: 4
- Poperinghe New Military Cemetery: 1
- Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery: 1
From August 1917 there was a Chinese camp in Reningelst, located in the hamlet of Busseboom. In Proven the Chinese were deployed to work on the railways and in the ammunition depot. Their camp was located near the Krombeke Wood, near the railway.
The Thirteen of Busseboom
One interesting story is that of "The Thirteen of Busseboom". On 15 November 1917 thirteen Chinese lost their lives in a direct grenade hit on the camp in Busseboom. They were buried near the Roobaertbeek, later exhumed and transferred to Bailleul. Research about those thirteen Chinese has provided not only their names, but also connections with the families in China. It led to the creation of a bronze souvenir plate and a statue of a Chinese labourer. Philippe Vanhaelemeersch, director of the Confuciusinstituut, is the driving force behind these Dertien van Busseboom. The statue has already visited Beijing, but has since returned to Poperinge.
The arrival of the Chinese labourers was a culture shock for the inhabitants of Poperinge. The Chinese stayed in the camps but also came into town to do their shopping. The perception was negative. The Chinese were considered uncouth, dirty and loud. They were thieves and even murderers. The testimonials of the time are coloured by that perception:
'The Chinks were nasty and dirty. You had to make sure to stay well away from them or the lice would jump on you. They were full of lice, as big as peas, like pigs' lice. We were scared of the Chinks. When we mocked them they chased us.’ (André Room, Poperinge local in the book De Allerlaatste Getuigen, Philip Vanoutrive, 2010)
'They are strange and very childish, not better than our 10-11 year-old boys. Their favourite activity is to stare at the shop windows, preferably sweet and fruit shops and when they see something they like, they go into the shop at least ten of them at the same time, ask the price of everything and if they feel like buying something, they are very suspicious that they would be taken advantage of.' (Diary Van Walleghem, August 1917)
'The Chinese came after the war, to collect everything and to dismantle the railway. We called them the Chinks. When they had to lift a rail one could not stand more than the other. Shouting. Making noise. You could hear them a mile away. They went through the region to collect anything they could get. There was a big Chink camp at the Busseboom. There even was a bloody female with them. They didn't know. A female who came along to be with her bloke maybe. They still found it'. (Theofiel Boudry in Volksboek, p. 316)
The past perception is linked to today's perception. What would happen if a Chinese would suddenly appear in Poperinge? And what if a rural hamlet like Busseboom would suddenly be installed with a camp for 500 Chinese? What does the public actually know about China? It is a Western perception of an Eastern reality. Was that not also formed by the connotations made with made in China, the chip shop Chinese, ...? And are there not economists or political scientists making analyses again and again about the 'Chinese threat'?
Exhibition and festival
1 July 2017- 3 September 2017
The perception is the point of departure of the exhibition “Ming, Chink, chip shop Chinese”. A photographer/author/artist investigates the Chinese presence in the Westhoek. He is led by the perception, the (pre)conceptions, the openness or mistrust towards a foreign culture.
The exhibition is held in the Hospital Chapel. The visitor obtains historical information in the Hospital Chapel, linked to a contemporary exhibition. It is the ideal starting base for active exploration of the region.
A mobile application will be created. It brings the tourist to places that are connected with the Chinese story: Busseboom, Lijssenthoek, Proven, De Lovie, …
In the context of the China project the City of Poperinge has also commissioned the creation of a Chinese shadow theatre. The shadow theatre will take place twenty times in the summer season 2017.
In the first weekend of September 2017 Poperinge will be completely immersed in a Chinese atmosphere. 'Chinks back in town' is a festival where the positive perception is mainly boosted: dragons in the streets of Poperinge, a real Chinese buffet, lanterns and tea houses, music, song and dance, calligraphy workshops, .... Poperinge co-operates with the Howest Confuciusinstituut, the Centre for Chinese Language and Culture (located in Bruges) for the programme.
The City of Poperinge has purchased a plot of land near the former camp at Busseboom. A Chinese memorial will be unveiled there in late 2017. The memorial consists of a Chinese garden, with a statue of a Chinese labourer and a bronze memorial plaque with the names of the Thirteen of Busseboom. That is the first Chinese memorial on Belgian territory.
The unveiling of the memorial is the finale of "China in Poperinge". Ideally this will happen on 15 November 2017, the day The Thirteen lost their lives.
Source of the article: City of Poperinge