Reminders – An online exhibition about Chinese labour corps

By Pei heng  Zhao


“Race does not exist as a matter of biological fact, but only as a consequence of a process of racialisation… But racialisation is often more insidious. It means that we see things that don’t exist, and fail to recognise things that do.

– Gregory Smithsimon


Project Description:

Reminders is an online exhibition about Chinese Labour Corps ( abbreviation CLC ), which was a force of workers recruited by the British and France government in World War I.


Visitors have to complete three blank-filling-questions to drag random words on the web page into blank (gap) to complete the whole sentence. All three sentences are negative racism comments about the Chinese Labour corps. After completing the three, visitors will receive a positive comment from a newspaper at that time about the contribution of the Chinese Labour corps. Finally, visitors will enter a page, which is about the Chinese cemetery of the British Army at noyelles-sur-mer and Gravestone in noyelles-sur-mer. By this online exhibition, visitors can explore this history and these labours by themselves. Through the understanding of different comments on the same historical event, visitors can have a deeper understanding and reflection of racism, historical truth and collective memory.




Process journey:


I come from China, and there is very little mention of China’s role in the first world war in Chinese history lessons. Near the Remembrance day, I noticed that many passers-by started wearing poppy. I had known about it before, but I still went online and looked up the origin of the custom. By accident, I found that China sent up to 140,000 labourers served for both British and French forces in Europe during the first world war, which filled the gap of British and French wartime labor force and contributed a lot to the victory of the Allies in the first world war. But I, as a Chinese, cannot see this mass of people in Chinese history textbooks or in western memorial ceremonies. At the same time, I have seen many positive and negative comments about the Chinese people who contributed to this issue in the newspaper. What makes people so polarizing about the people who helped them win the war?So I decided to take the opportunity of project 3 to build an online exhibition about them.


2,  brainstorming

When the theme was decided, I began to think about how to present it. My original idea was to draw a map of Europe, and when visitors click on different parts of the map, they could see the casualties of the CLC in various places, as well as the comparison of the battlefields where they worked in those days through pictures. The plan is not difficult to implement, but the problem is that it is difficult to find accurate information to support the idea.

And then, when I did my research on the CLC, I found that a lot of the British and French newspapers at that time, many of them were positive, For example, “The Chinese labourers were recruited by careful selection… In addition, The results of the medical examinations show that most Chinese labourers are in good health, which is good news for our country to continue to recruit labourers there. ” describes how the CLC is strong here, how to help the French. But in other newspapers at the same time, there were many comments of the CLC bringing pestilence and drugs. I was fascinated by this polarizing assessment. This explains why, after the war, most CLCS were paid very little and were immediately repatriated under the pressure of public opinion, even though the postwar British and French Labour force was relatively short, and the lives of these rural men did not change materially.
So I started thinking about how to incorporate those comments into this online exhibition.
I thought about showing blurry historical photos of the CLC, and then visitors would have to draw the outline of the entire historical photo to show the comments. But the experience is unimpressive and requires patience.



Making painting function with potentiometers

Finally, I came up with the blank-filling-questions. The game requires people to focus on the disordered words and then arrange them into a normal sentence to learn the meaning. So I decided to use this form to mix up the negative reviews.

When visitors open a web page, they have no idea what the words mean, but as they drag them to try to form a sentence, they come to understand that they are discriminatory. But until they complete all the sentence combinations, they don’t know who the words are describing, but they already have a certain impression of the words. After completing the combination, they can get a positive description of the contributions made byCLC. They will suddenly understand why people have such discriminatory descriptions of those who have contributed so much and even given their lives. Finally, they can choose to enter the last page and see the Chinese cemetery of the British Army at noyelles-sur-mer, where many CLC members are buried.



3, Implement



In the early stages of implementing the idea, I spent most of my time studying how to move words from one place to another and fix in a specific location. The initial plan was to divide the site into two sections, one with the words scattered, and one with the designated areas to fill in at the top. Set an x and y coordinates for each word. When the word is dragged to the specified x and y coordinates in the top area, it will be fixed, then drag the next word to the specified position, and finally go to the next page.


In the early stages of implementing the idea, I spent most of my time studying how to move words from one place to another. The initial plan was to divide the site into two sections, one with the words scattered, and one with the designated areas to do the blank-filling-questions in the top. Set an x and y  location number for each word. When the word is dragged to the specified x and y location in the top area, it will be fixed, then drag the next word to the specified position, and finally go to the next page.

But with this approach, long sentences can be a bit of a hassle, and I had some difficulty in dragging one word and fixing the location. At the suggestion of classmates, I simplified the blank-filling-questions: visitors need to move a word on the page to the designated position in the sentence to make the sentence complete. I use the map feature to convert the two potentiometer data into  x y coordinate position with a screen size range that allows it to drag the specified word.

In the original plan, the visitor would drag all the words to the designated location and the page would automatically jump to the next page. But in implementation, I added a button in the Arduino because of achievable. When user dragged the word to the specified position to get a complete sentence,  the button can be pressed to the next page.


In visual design. When users are still in the blank-filling-questions phase, the background is a blurry historical images. Users have no way of knowing who these sentences describe. When they finish all the blank-filling-questions, users can enter a very clear historical picture of members of CLC facing the camera smiling. The images are as vivid as they are today. Such contrast and vividness make people think more about why people who made such great contributions and just looks like all of us today, will be forgotten or even blackened.

On The last page of The exhibition is a picture of the entrance to The Chinese cemetery of The British Army at noyelles-sur-mer. Next, I’ll try to convert it to Google street view, where visitors can see what this cemetery of 842 Chinese labourers looks like today.



I have always been fascinated by how to convey boring art or historical knowledge to users through interactive experience. The Reminder project is the first step for me to officially embark on this exploration. Reminds me of my visit theCanadian history museum in Ottawa, there is a exhibition about many discriminations to various ethnic group in the  Canadian history, but only words and pictures on display in the window, it is hard to trigger empathy of most visitors. If these black history can be transfer into a more profound experience of digital method to the younger generation, maybe also a small change in this world of rising nationalism and the far right.