Image by Arcola Theatre, London: Forgotten

Daniel Nelson

Do you know about the 140,000 Chinese who worked for the British, French and US armies in World War 1? Or the 200,000 who worked for the Russians?

Probably not. They are Forgotten. Well, not quite: Daniel York Loh knew about them and his play at the Arcola helps put them back into history. Our history, as well as theirs. The erasure is encapsulated in an angry scene when the Chinese figures in a huge war memorial in Paris the Pantheon de la Guerre, "the largest painting in the world"  – are painted over to make way for US characters.

In Horse Shoe Village, northern China, in 1917, Old Six, Second Moon, Big Dog and Eunuch Ling perform in a amateur theatre troupe (delightful echoes of Bottom and fellow would-be thesps in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and eke out a precarious existence, barely aware of the world outside – whether Beijing or Berlin.

But the world barges its way into their village, in the form of news that foreign devil armies are recruiting labourers. Harworking and capable but unaware of the dangers, of the working conditions they will have to endure and of the insufferable condescension of their new boss' racial attitudes, they leave China on the cusp of change and march into the blood and guts of Europe.

This disparate band of adventurers is joined by a nationalist, outward-looking teacher, through whom Daniel Loh channels the information that gives the play a historical and political context ("the shaping of modern China and its often troubled relationship with the West can be traced directly back to the labourers' involvement in the war"). The scene in which he explains who's fighting who is amusing and subtly staged.

Loose ends are left trailing and, in the end, the message ("They say history is written by the victims, but the Chinese labourers were on the side of the victors and yet still managed to get airbrushed") takes precedence over the characters, but overall this is an entertaining, humane and informative evening – with a nice line in Chinese insults.

  • Forgotten is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8, until 17 November. Info:
     7503 1646

  • 6 November, Facilitating a conversation about the legacy of British East Asian theatre, workhop, 4pm-6pm. Info: with ‘Moongate’ as the subject title

  • 11 November, Armistice Day panel discussion, Styeve Lau, Peng Wenlan, York Loh, Diana Yeh, 1-3pm. Info: www.yellowearth/forgotten

  • Remember the Chinese Labour Corps



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