Eugene Chen: a forgotten Trinidadian

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 06, 2023


Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeBetween 1921 and 1925, the year of Sun Yat-sen’s death, Eugene Chen was on top of his game. He was described as “Sun Yat-sen’s personal representative and spokesman in Shanghai” while the US Consul General in Shanghai described him as “one of the ablest, if not the most able, of Chinese political writers”. (Look Lai, West Meets East.)

In 1923, Sun Yat-sen and Adolph Joffe, a representative of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, worked out a major agreement, the Sun-Joffe Manifesto, which provided a basis for the cooperation between the Kuomintang (KMT) and their Russian allies. Joffe agreed “the Soviets would support Sun’s programme to unify China and would renegotiate the unequal treaties forced on China by imperialist Russia”. (Encyclopedia Britannica.) Look Lai claims this manifesto was drafted by Chen.

In 1926 Chen served as an acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Nationalist Government and assumed the substantial post in 1927. In February 1927 he negotiated the Hankow agreement, better known as the Chen-O’Malley Agreement, with Owen O’Malley, the British Charge d’Affaires, which dissolved the British concessions they held in Hankow, China, in favour of a new Chinese administration.

Chien Chiao, the Chinese journal in Trinidad, wrote that this “marked the first real Chinese diplomatic triumph over the Western powers”. (December 1944.) Si-lan Chen, taking pride in her father’s achievement, gushed in her autobiography: “Everyone regarded this as magnificent proof of Father’s diplomatic skills.” (Footnote to History).

When the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek repudiated the Communist influence in China in 1927 and staged a bloody coup that purged the leftists out of the KMT, Chen was forced to flee to Moscow to save his life.

Agatha Ganteaume, Chen’s first wife, died of cancer in Trinidad in 1926. In 1930, Chen met Chang Li Ying (Georgette), a young Paris-based Chinese student who later became a pioneer of modern Singaporean art, whom he married. She was 24 years old, a year older than Si-lan, and Eugene was 54 years of age.

Eugene was reluctant to tell his children about his marriage which, it was rumoured, was arranged by Madame Sun Yat-sen. Si-lan wrote to her father to find out the truth surrounding his marriage. Eugene assured her that Madame Sun Yat-sen had nothing to do with his decision and told her that his marriage “will leave quite unaltered all family relations and, in the future as in the past, you and others may count on my assistance whenever needed”.

When Eugene and Georgette returned to China in May 1931, there were many conflicts within the Nationalist party. Several members resented Chiang Kai-shek’s growing authoritarianism and his undermining of the party’s democracy. Chen joined the forces on the left who opposed Chiang Kai-shek and was named Foreign Minister a short-lived Canton Nationalist Government.

This set off a storm of racism against Eugene from the KMT right wing. The Shanghai branch of the Nationalist party attacked him in a nasty way. They described him as “a foreigner posing as a Chinese”, a mulatto scribe who had been “a mere echo of Borodin”, still “in the pay of the Soviets”. They added: “Having acquired a Chinese mate after discarding your coloured partner, you are trying to win yourself back into the graces of the Canton rebels by the violence of your drivel pen.

“But think not that the insolent, bizarre, colourful Negro phraseology which attracted notice in 1926 and 1927, because your blood and temperament were then unknown, would again serve today when your antecedents are so well established.”

They advised him to “go back to his native Trinidad, return to the hearth of your black wife and children, and think no more of imposing yourself on the people of China, or interfering with their domestic politics”.

Chen remained in the short-lived Canton opposition government until it collapsed in 1931. Three years later, he participated in another leftist military opposition government in the province of Fukien, but that was crushed by Chiang’s military in short order. Chen was expelled from the party for this act of rebellion in 1934 and a warrant was issued for his arrest. To evade his being arrested, he and Georgette returned to Europe where they lived until 1938. In July 1937 Japan invaded China, thereby initiating the Sino-Japanese war (1937–45). The Japanese forces massacred more than 300,000 civilians within two weeks.

Chen appealed publicly to President Theodore Roosevelt to come to Chinese aid. He ended his appeal: “Even though China’s faith in the pledged words of the white races of Europe and America may seem to have been mistaken, I persist in believing that betrayal is not yet a creed, and honour is still prized in the United States, in England, and in France.” His idealism had not left him.

Eugene and Georgette returned to Hong Kong in April 1938. Eugene spent the next three years “as a private figure, commenting publicly and frequently in the press and lecturing at university campuses in Hong Kong on the progress of the war and foreign policy”. In December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and invaded Hong Kong. They placed Eugene and Georgette under house arrest from 1942 to 1944 and moved them to Shanghai. Georgette revealed later: “Much as the Japanese disagreed with his views, the majority seemed to admire his independent attitude, and the more expressive ones even went so far as to declare their approval.”

Eugene died on May 20, 1944, while he was working on a document of what he thought post-war Asia should look like. After he died, Georgette “spent ten minutes tearfully making her last sketch of Eugene, then his body was removed to the Wan Guo funeral home of the Jing’an temple.” (West Meets East.)