On June 23rd 1925, a hundred thousand Cantonese labourers and students had taken to the streets to show support for the May Thirtieth Movement (Mandarin: Wusa Yundong 五卅运动) and outrage at the subsequent Shanghai Massacre, in which the British Shanghai Municipal Police opened fire on the protesters. In an unsettling kind of parallelism, the British would enforce the same colonial justice in Guangzhou as they did in Shanghai. The British, French and Portuguese opened fire on the Chinese protesters and killed 52 and wounded over 170 people.
The British reports on the incident blame the Chinese fully for the massacre that occurred during the protests -even though they could have called for the ceasefire at any time. Indeed, the European powers remain adamant that it was the Chinese who opened fire on the foreign concessions in China, which caused the Europeans to retaliate with Lewis gun fire and sharp ammunition (a type of light machine gun used in the first world war instead of rubber bullets and tear gas as is the case in the current Hong Kong protests.) In light of this, it is perhaps good to learn about why these protests were taking place in the first place, and what the British, French and Portuguese were doing inside Canton (henceforth to be referred to as Guangzhou).
The 20’s in China were characterised by the inhumane conditions the people had to work under, especially under supervision of the colonisers; extremely low wages (in Shanghai it was reported that a labourer in a Japanese cotton mill would make 15 cents a day, a pound of rice cost 6.2 cents), child labour (children under 12 had to work to support the family), work days exceeding 12 hours a day, just to make ends meet. This era was also marked by the remarkable resilience of the people as they rose up en masse, as they yearned to be free of the yoke of western imperialism and rampant capitalism.
The tension between the Chinese people, the Chinese warlords and the colonial powers was mounting. While the exploitation of the Chinese people continued, the colonial powers sought to safeguard their enterprises by tightening down their laws. On the 19th of June 1924 in Guangzhou in the foreign concession Shameen (Mandarin: Shamian 沙面) the Vietnamese activist and revolutionary, member of the Đông Du Movement, known as Phạm Hồng Thái attempted to assassinate the governor-general of French Indochina, Martial Merlin. His attempt failed, and he drowned himself in the Pearl River (Mandarin: Zhujiang 珠江). While his assassination had little to do with the Chinese government, and more to do with the horrible conditions in Vietnam, the colonists were spooked. They imposed new regulations on the Chinese population. All Chinese servant entering and exiting the foreign concession were required to carry with them their official papers. After 9 o’clock in the evening, any Chinese not carrying a pass would not be allowed to enter the concession territory twice. However, all Europeans, Japanese, Indians or Vietnamese were free to go as they pleased. Indeed, the Chinese were restricted movement in what should be their own land and own territory.
The outrage of the Cantonese people at British Imperialism manifest itself in strikes. With the support of Sun Yat-Sen and the Chinese Communists the 3000 or so Chinese servants frequenting the foreign concessions went on strike. Indeed, the perseverance of the strikers was such that the British concession asked the Guangzhou government to put an end to it. The Cantonese government did not acquiesce to their request.
By the end of 1924, a hundred labourer’s unions had joined in on the movement. The numbers had then swelled to 150.000 people, the majority of all unionised labourers of Guangzhou. In 1925 the movement spread to Hong Kong. The Cantonese government offered free passage to those Hongkongers who wished to return to China to escape the oppressive conditions under British rule. Many chose to move to Guangzhou. Within a very short period Hong Kong was depopulated. The movement grew… millions of hearts yearned for one word in unison: Freedom.
This entire movement came to be known as the Canton-Hong Kong Strike (省港大罷工). A moment in history where Chinese, no matter a subject of the Queen or a citizen of the Republic, clasped their hands together, united against injustice and oppression.
The Day of the Massacre
Many of the protesters during the movements were labourers from the unions, but also present were students of various Cantonese colleges, middle schools and elementary schools and cadets from the Whampoa Military Academy. The protesters carried banners with slogans such as “打倒帝国主义” (dadao diguozhuyi – overthrow Imperialism), “取消一切不平等条约” (quxiao yiqie bu pingdeng tiaoyue – annul all unequal treaties), “协助上海五卅惨案” (xiezhu Shanghai wusa canan – show support for the Shanghai Massacre). The protest would proceed in an orderly fashion as the marching route was planned beforehand. There however was one road the protest would march through that spelled trouble, it was the road that faced the Shameen concession directly: Shakee (present day Liu Er San Road 六二三路 – literally 623 road, named after the incident which occurred on June 23rd).
The Europeans on Shameen had already prepared for battle, as if expecting an assault. The ships were readied, the perimeter of the island of Shameen was barricaded and the French even went as far as moving their valuables onto a ship, for fear of their headquarters being looted. By 2 p.m. the protesters had reached Shakee, when the Lingnan Students and the soldiers of the Xiang army reached the middle of the street, the European troops suddenly opened fire on the protesters.
This is where the reports differ, according to the English reports, it was the Chinese who had premeditated this assault and opened fire on the British (personally, I find this unlikely, as none of the Chinese positions were fortified, Guangzhou was in no position in terms of military strength to challenge the concession on Shameen, and there was little resistance from the armed forces present among the protesters when the massacre commenced). Regardless of who shot first, upon hearing gunfire, all of the other European troops opened fire on the unarmed crowd with support from the nearby battleships. The panicked crowd attempted to disperse, and many were forced into the water. It is said that on this day, the canal between Shameen and Shakee ran red. The barrage of bullets continued until 3:15 p.m., the European troops had seen little resistance from the Chinese troops and therefore ceased to fire.
The first responders came from the Guangzhou Guanghua Hospital. They reported arriving to a nightmarish sight. About 40 corpses riddled with bullets were strewn across the street. Some with torn open bellies, others with holes in their heads. Some had exit wound greater than the entrance wounds and others vice versa. In the end the official report claimed a total death toll of 52 people and 170 wounded, it is very likely that more were killed and even more died from their wounds later.
Indeed, the Shakee Massacre is a true massacre, quite different from the one that unfolded at Tiananmen and, luckily, very different from how the Hong Kong government is currently handling the large scale protests in Hong Kong. Indeed, through this incident we can see how Europeans deal with peaceful protests. It is yet another example among many others of the horrors of Western Imperialism in Asia and indeed the world. The blood of the innocents that stains the hands of these colonisers proves their evil and inhumanity. This is the result of not strengthening the people, this is the result of disregarding threats and treating foe as friend and friend as foe.
A memorial stele was erected on the site of the massacre with the inscription: never forget this day. That too is the message I would like to impart upon the reader today. This atrocity occurred not even a hundred years ago, yet many people have forgotten about this incident. How can we face the victims of these crimes when they ask us what we did to make sure something like this will never happen again? What will we say when they ask us if they died for nothing? Well, did they? Did we rid the world of exploitation, of Colonialism, of Imperialism? No, instead, we forget they ever marched, and we forgot they ever died for our liberties.
No longer. Today we remember.
Jia Qianjun 贾仟军. “Shaji canan yanjiu” 沙基惨案研究. Master’s thesis. Shandong shifan daxue 山东师范大学 (2016).
June twenty-third : the report of the Shakee massacre, June 23, 1925, Canton, China. Canton: The Commission, 1925.
Wang Fuchang 王付昌. “Shaji canan shangwang renshu dingzheng” 沙基惨案伤亡人数订正. Zhongshan daxue xuebao 中山大学学报 no. 1 (1994).