Soo Yow: Chinese businessman, restaurant-owner, and Pittville resident

Cheltenham honours the forgotten 140,000 Chinese Labour Corps workers,
and the owner of town’s first Chinese restaurant

He made a ‘trailblazing’ contribution to Gloucestershire history and now he is being rightly remembered
Phillip Thompson (Gloucestershire Live)

The historic contributions and sacrifices made by the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) during the First World War have been memorialised in Cheltenham in a UK-first. Some 140,000 Chinese workers were recruited by Allied forces, including ‘trailblazer’ and ‘pioneer’ Mr Soo Yow, who settled in Cheltenham after the war ended and opened the town’s first Chinese restaurant.

Karen Soo on the bench at Pittville Gates with a photograph of her grandfather Soo Yow (image – Mark Watkins)
A bench was unveiled on Monday December 3 [2018] near Pittville Gates by his family, to show their respects and honour the memory of the 20,000 workers who died cleaning up live ammunitions in Western Europe after the war ended.

Karen, his granddaughter, said: “CLC were seen as expendable and are not thought of.  It would have been very hurtful for my grandfather to have witnessed this.  He went through 62 Remembrance Days and paid his respects like everyone else.  And it breaks my heart that my grandfather and his friends and the CLC were not recognised for their sacrifice.”

‘An incredible life’

Soo Yow and members of the Chinese Labour Corps (image – Mark Watkins)
Mr Soo Yow was born in 1897, in the small rural village of Tien Boon Gong in Guangdong, formerly Canton Province, in southern China. The First World War broke out in 1914 when Mr Soo Yow was in his late teens, and the French military looked to China for labour and help with the war effort as they faced the threat from the East. Approximately 140,000 were recruited after the Battle of the Somme when British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George ‘thought they would lose the war’ as a result of the heavy losses they sustained. China offered 200,000 recruits to Britain and France to provide industrial and agricultural services to help their war efforts. Between 1916 and 1918,140,000 were recruited.

Mr Soo Yow was part of the first to leave from Hong Kong, “enduring a dangerous three to five-month ship journey to France”. Despite being told the Chinese recruits would never see action and have ‘no military contact’, Karen said: “my grandfather worked on the front line”. “He was positioned on an active airfield in France. He helped to fix the planes, fill in bomb craters and began to pick up the language a little bit. Because it was an active airfield it was a target and my grandfather had to dodge bombs and witnessed his friends being blown up.”

Mr Soo Yow survived the First World War, however when the Allied troops left to go home, the Chinese Labour Corps remained to clear the land for a further two years. Karen said: “My grandfather cleared land mines, buried the dead, tasks that nobody wanted to do; it would have been gruesome. “Many of them died, they were dealing with live ammunition.”

‘Thought Liverpool was America’

By 1920, the work was finishing and Mr Soo Yow decided he wanted to start a new life in the United States of America. Karen said: “My grandfather took passage on a ship from France bound for the USA. He only spoke Chinese and a little bit of French, so it would have been daunting. He boarded in France but got off the ship when it docked in Liverpool. We’re not sure if he thought it was America.”

“He would have seen The Three Graces on the banks of the Mersey, which had just been built and would have seemed so impressive. There would have been nothing like this in China, my grandfather would only have been used to one storey buildings, so it would have been phenomenal to see. Maybe he thought it was America, or possibly he thought forget America, this looks like the land of opportunity.”

Mr Soo Yow settled in Liverpool, married a local English girl and had two daughters. He established a laundry in Birkenhead. However, they divorced after 15 years and Mr Soo Yow returned to China. He married Karen’s grandmother, Mrs Soo Yung, in China in 1937 and they returned to his laundry in Birkenhead. Together they had 8 children; Karen’s dad was the oldest.

Soo Yow (left) with his son Frank, Karen’s father (image – Mark Watkins)
But Mr Soo Yow had a travelling itch and after the end of the Second World War in 1945 he began to explore the country. Karen said: “He settled in Cheltenham, and moved the entire family. I think my grandfather liked the feel of it.

‘Opened Cheltenham’s first Chinese restaurant’

“They opened the very first Chinese restaurant in Cheltenham, Ah Chow, in 1958. The mayor of Cheltenham attended an opening ceremony.”

Soo Yow and his family outside the Ah Chow restaurant, now The Mayflower (image – Mark Watkins)
Karen said they still own two-thirds of the building, which has been in the family for over 60 years, and is now the site of popular Chinese restaurant ‘The Mayflower.’ She said her grandfather played an integral role in helping repatriate and supporting the growing Chinese community in Cheltenham.

However, her grandfather was subject to “initial prejudice and experienced a lot of hostility. “They were at one point the only Chinese family. My grandfather would sometimes get into fights, usually five against one, which is why he thought it was vital that the family were taught Kung-fu. It no doubt saved his life.” Karen adds that in 2018, “it’s not so bad now, however things have worsened recently.”

Karen’s grandfather, Mr Soo Yow, died in 1980 aged 83. She said the erection of the bench in Pittville is in memory of both her grandparents, but particularly her grandfather. “My grandmother, his wife, would have supported him so much, but we wanted to show our respects to him especially.”

Karen Soo with the photograph of her grandfather Soo Yow (image – Mark Watkins)

‘Erased from history’

Karen said: “The Chinese Labour Corps are always forgotten. It was the centenary of the end of World War 1 this year, they need to be remembered. We say ‘never forget’ but nobody talks about the 20,000 Chinese recruits who died, purely for an opportunity to work.”

Karen said there is a plaque inside a building in China Exchange, London, recognising the contributions made by the Chinese Labour Corps. She said: “It was only installed last year, after a documentary from Channel 4 and support from Joanna Lumley. There are 60,000 war memorials across the country. Dogs and horses have memorials, but there was not one for the Chinese Labour Corps. “The memorial bench in Cheltenham is the first in the country that specifically names a member of CLC.”

The plaque on the bench at Pittville Gates (image – Mark Watkins)
The bench means a lot to Karen and her family. She said: “The family wanted to demonstrate our respect and gratitude to our grandparents, particularly my grandfather, who never spoke about his life during the War. He only ever spoke briefly about it to my father, which is how I know a few of the details now. It’s really important to us now, even more so after his death, that his story is told.”

The bench is situated in a spot on Pittville Lawn so that you can see Mr Soo Yow’s house from the seat.

‘Never forget’

Karen said: “His spirit would be pleased by this.” Describing her grandfather, Karen said: “He was a pioneer, a forward thinker. He was brave enough to take the steps he did to leave poverty; the only work in his village was farming or fishing. “He was a trailblazer in his own right. He knew nothing about England and France but still travelled to the West to help during the War.”

Karen said her grandfather witnessed his friends being killed and blown up. “It would have been pretty tough but would have made him unbelievably strong, both physically and spiritually.” Karen hopes the people of Cheltenham will take his story into their hearts and recognise the sacrifice and contribution the Chinese Labour Corps made. She hopes the 140,000 Chinese recruits will be remembered in future Remembrance events and not forgotten.

Karen said: “There was a painting from 1916 and 1917 that included members of the CLC, however once the USA joined the war effort they wanted to be included in the painting and so figures from the US Army were painted over the Chinese recruits. “The CLC were literally erased from history.”

Karen said she would like to thank Frank Soo David Soo, who paid for the bench. She would also like to thank Bayliss Engineering who worked on its construction.

Karen Soo and her aunt Carole Soo at the bench at Pittville Gates (image – Mark Watkins)

This article first appeared in Gloucestershire Live on 10 December 2018 and is reproduced with permission