Commemorating ANZAC Day – a Chinese Australian perspective

Apr 25, 2023
Anzac Day Banner with silhouette of soldier paying tribute and poppy flower.

ANZAC Day, 25th April, is perhaps one of the most important national days in the Australian Calendar. Initially it commemorated the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought in World War One. In Australia now, on this day, it honours Australian men and women who served in all overseas conflicts and in peacekeeping.

What has this to do with Australians of Chinese ancestry, one may ask. To answers this question one should reflect on the history of Chinese Australians who have served in both World Wars.

When Britain declared war against Germany in 1914, Australia, as part of the then British Empire, responded with enthusiastic participation in this war. Australians of Chinese ancestry, born and raised in Australia, saw themselves as Australians, volunteered into the First Australian Imperial Force (1AIF) to “fight for King and Country”. Over 200 young Chinese Australian men enlisted. They fought in all theatres of this war, at Gallipoli, Middle East and the Western Front. At least 34 served in Gallipoli. Over 50 gave their lives in this war, buried in foreign soil. Twenty-four of these men received 29 bravery awards, including Distinguish Conduct Medal (DCM) and Bar for Caleb Shang of Cairns; and DCM and the Belgian Croix de Guerre for the famed Gallipoli Sniper Billy Sing of Clermont.

When Benjamin Moyling, an alumnus of Wesley College in Melbourne, was asked why he enlisted, he replied, ”If Australia is good enough to live in, it is good enough for me to fight for.”

While in the AIF they were treated and valued as equals. However, on return to civilian life they suffered the discrimination of the White Australian Policy. Billy Sing died in poverty and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Many, despite of this policy, succeeded in business and in community life contributing to a country they called home. Some were to serve again in the next war.

From China to the Western Front, 94000 Chinese men served with the British Army in the Chinese Labour Corps, 40,000 served with the French Army. Around 3,000 died from injuries sustained during bombing, shelling, and from infectious diseases. Some 700 perished at sea from German Submarine attacks on their way to Europe.

When Prime Minister Robert Menzies declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, Chinese Australians again volunteered. Some 1200 men and women of Chinese ancestry enlisted in the Army, Air Force and Navy to help defend Australia from the Axis forces, initially in Europe and the Middle East , later in the Pacific and in northern Australia.

Refugees of Chinese ancestry who escaped to Australia from Japanese occupied territories and Chinese sailors who were stranded in Australia were interned as “potential enemy aliens”. Some were recruited into the 7th Employment Company of the Army, granted Army service numbers as serving members of the Second AIF. They served loyally in non-combatant roles supporting soldiers in the front line. Four of them died in service, three were buried in Adelaide River War Cemetery and one in Perth War Cemetery. At the end of Second World War, shamefully, Australia deported these refugees and sailors even though some had served Australia, married Australian women and had Australian born children.

Within Australia, in line with the anti-Chinese sentiments of the White Australia Policy, the Security Service considered the Chinese as potential “enemy agents’ to be placed under surveillance even though their sons and daughters were active serving members of the armed services.

After the war, many Chinese Australian veterans, such as Wellington Lee of Melbourne, were leaders in the Returned Services League (RSL).

In subsequent conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and in peacekeeping Chinese Australians ”did their bit” for their country.

To honour Chinese ANZACs and those who served in World War Two, The Museum of Chinese Australian History (The Chinese Museum) in Melbourne has posted their names in the WWI and WWII Honour Rolls on its website. (

As Australia commemorate ANZAC Day, Australians of Chinese ancestry has much to be proud of as they join with fellow Australians to honour the loyal and brave service given freely and loyally by Chinese Australians to the country they called home.

“I think it is good to make Australians of other descent aware that we Chinese also serve, that quite a number of Chinese were willing to put their lives at risk, volunteer for service to defend Australia. Make them aware that some of us did care, did want to fight for Australia.” Hamilton Chan; in “Courage and Service – Chinese Australians and World War II” by Diana Giese.

Lest we forget.

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