From New York Chinatown to Spain: Wen-Rao Chen

May 2, 2020
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Wen-Rao Chen (aka Dong Hong Yick) in Spain, 1937. Source: Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA.PHOTO.011; B173).

Twenty-five years ago, Len and Nancy Tsou made a ten-day trip to Spain tracing some of the battlefields where Chinese brigadistas had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Among other sites, they followed the trail of a Lincoln vet, Wen-Rao Chen of the XVth International Brigade, who lost his life in the battle of Gandesa in 1938.

Wen-Rao Chen was first brought to our attention by Lincoln vet Kenneth Graeber. Back in 1988, Graeber invited us to his home in Manhattan, showing us a photo of “Yick” that he took during their hospitalization in Benicàssim, Spain in 1937. We found later that [Dong Hong] Yick was the alias of Wen-Rao Chen. Looking at the photo, we saw a young man with features of southern Chinese. He stood in front of a villa shaded by palm trees, resting his left arm on a statue, as if to lessen his weight on the right. We were excited. It was the first photo that we saw of a Chinese brigadista.

Graeber remembered Chen as “a very likable guy” from New York’s Chinatown. They stayed in the same hospital ward in Benicàssim, where Chen was recuperating from his battle wound and Graeber from jaundice. As young men, they kidded each other a lot. “He used to call me yellow parrot. It sounds silly because I had jaundice. He had a sense of humor.” In the 30s, “yellow parrot” was a racist term referring specifically to Asians. Graeber said, “He must have been born in this country, because his English was as good as mine.” They were pretty close, always talking about “events, world, Spain and local things”, however, not about personal matters.

Before we left his home, Graeber showed us a clip of “The Good Fight,” a 1984 documentary about the American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. It was amazing to see Chen sit on a sea wall against the Mediterranean Sea in Benicàssim, smiling and chatting with his wounded comrade. His right foot was wrapped with a large bulge of white gauze, which was why he leaned his body to the left in Graeber’s photo. This segment of the film originally came from With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, a documentary filmed by a French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson from late August to early November 1937.

We wondered who Chen was and why he went to Spain. Perhaps there were other Chinese volunteers in the International Brigades as well. Thus, we began our journey to search for information about Chen and possible other Chinese volunteers. Over years of research, we were able to trace Chen and 11 other Chinese volunteers and piece together the puzzles of their lives. Comparing Chen’s letters sent from Spain to New York with the archival information about Yick in the XVth International Brigade, we were able to conclude that Dong Hong Yick was his assumed name in Spain. Here is the story of Wen-Rao Chen.

From New York Chinatown to Spain

Wen-Rao Chen was born in Taishan District of Canton province, China on November 13, 1913. He was proficient in both Chinese and English. It is not clear when he immigrated to the US, but most likely when he was a teenager. His real American name was Maurice Chen. He attended public school in the US for a year and a half, had a high school education and began working at age 18. Mostly he worked in restaurants in Manhattan as cashier and waiter. He was quite active in the “Chinese Workers’ Center” in New York Chinatown. On October 1, 1933, he joined the US Communist Party. His address was listed as 258 W. 55th St., New York City. He also served as secretary of the Anti-imperialist League.

Wen-Rao Chen’s photo next to Kenneth Nelson’s plaque in the municipal cemetery of Gandesa, Spain in 2019. Photo L. Tsou

On June 12, 1937, Chen and 16 other Americans boarded the S.S. Georgic to Le Havre, en route to Spain. One of the passengers, Saul Birnbaum, remembered Chen as a merry fellow, who liked to play tricks on him. Together they crossed the Pyrenees on a dark night and reached Setcases, a border town in Spain on June 30. They left the next day and arrived at Albacete on July 3.

They were sent to Tarrazona de la Mancha for military training on July 18, 1937. Chen was assigned to Group 3 in Section 2 of Company 1, while Birnbaum was in Section 3. We were elated to see Chen stand at the training site smiling, in a film shot by Harry Randall, Chief Photographer of the XVth International Brigade.

Wounded in Belchite

Chen sent letters from Benicàssim to the Chinese Vanguard, a New York-based newspaper. In a letter of December 1, he wrote:

In early August, I was assigned to the Lincoln Battalion, and two weeks later was transferred to 24th battalion, which was mostly composed of Spaniards with the exception of one American Company. Two days after I joined the 24th battalion, we marched and were deployed to a hill in a forest. After preparing for three days, we started our offensive against Quinto.

Chen described in detail the battle of Quinto. While the 24th battalion and three other battalions participated in the fighting, the American Company that he belonged to waited on a hilltop as reserve. The next day, they occupied the entire city except for one church that was held firmly by the rebel forces even after several hours of artillery shelling.

After several volunteers from the American Company firebombed the church with hand grenades, the rebels walked out and surrendered. Early the next morning, Chen with his American Company fought against the remaining rebel forces on a hilltop, and by noon they declared victory.

“After three days of rest in the forest, we were asked to attack Belchite. This time, the battle was more difficult than the Quinto offensive,” he continued in his letter. Again, the rebels had a stronghold in two churches, spraying bullets from machine guns through the bell towers, causing lots of casualties to the advancing soldiers. Trenches were not safe enough for cover. Lincoln volunteer Samuel Schiff ducked in a trench talking with his friend. Suddenly a bullet whistled into his friend’s chest and killed him. Schiff was wounded in his left knee. Chen was hit on his right foot by a dumdum bullet, which pierced his foot and exited from his big toe. It was September 4, 1937. Chen and Schiff were transferred to Benicàssim hospital.

Organizing refugee relief in Benicàssim hospital

Chen received surgery on his big toe in Benicàssim. He described his life in the hospital in his letter of December 1:

I am doing well in the hospital. We have organized ourselves and meet once a week. Those who can walk spend several hours each day in the field to help Spanish farmers. Sometimes we also take care of farmers’ livestock. A few weeks ago, we organized an activity that drew the attention of local residents.

The activity was about Asturias refugees. In October, Asturias was about to fall to rebel forces which obtained support from Hitler’s Condor Legion for carpet bombing. “A local union was raising funds to help Asturias refugees whom the Republican government wants to relocate to safe places. The Americans organized a committee to solicit donations,” Chen explained.

The idea was to ask for brigadistas to purchase relief stamps bought from the local union. Those stamps were then pasted on the newspapers in various languages that hung on the wall. “In a few days, with the enthusiastic help from my American friends, the Chinese Vanguard was fully covered with the stamps. Within a week, in a gathering where everyone showed up, we collected about 7,000 pesetas. This is the kind of life I have in the hospital,” Chen concluded proudly.

In Benicàssim, Chen was delighted to meet two other Chinese brigadistas. In the same letter of December 1, he wrote: “One came from Paris, currently working here as a nurse. His name is Hua-Feng Liu, originally from Shangdong province, China. The other is Ching-Siu Ling from Switzerland. Since Ling’s wound was serious, he was transferred to another hospital for surgery.”

While in Spain, Chen was very concerned about the war in China. “Right here I think about the war against Japanese aggression in our homeland. Although our weapons were inferior to the Japanese, China must find a way to overcome our shortcomings and to win,” he wrote to the Chinese Vanguard on September 28, 1937. Clearly, while Chen was fighting fascism in Spain, he was equally, if not more, passionate about defeating Japanese fascism in China.

Return to fight to his death

In the evening of December 17, 1937, Chen left Benicàssim for the headquarters of Lincoln Battalion. On December 22, he wrote to his comrade Ling: “For the time being, we stay in a village. We don’t know what our future task will be. I’ll inform you later.”

Around this time, the battle of Teruel was taking place. Did Chen participate in this battle, which lasted until February 22, 1938? It seems likely, since on January 1, 1938 Lincolns and MacPaps started taking part in the Teruel offensive. While doing research in the Salamanca archives, we found his name on a roster of patients from the XVth International Brigade, issued on March 5, 1938 in Albacete. He came down with a cold and was sent to Benicàssim hospital on February 17, 1938.

The last battle Chen fought was in Gandesa in April, 1938. Both the Lincoln-Washington Battalion and British battalion had been surrounded by Franco’s fascist troops. While retreating, some cut their way through the encirclement; however, many were captured as prisoners. Lincoln vet Carl Geiser tabulated a list of brigadistas who went missing in Gandesa retreat on April 3, 1938. Chen was among the missing.

No one heard from Chen again. But ever since Kenneth Graeber told us about him in 1988, Chen has been in our hearts. A quarter of century ago we came to Gandesa for the first time, trying to understand how Chen and his comrades retreated and fell in that battle. On that trip, we also paid tribute to another Lincoln vet, John Cookson, at his grave near Marçà in Catalunya. But unlike Cookson, Chen’s body was probably dumped in some unmarked mass grave in Gandesa. Every time we came to Gandesa, we wished we could erect a memorial gravestone or a plaque for Chen in Gandesa.

Homage to two Lincoln vets

Our most recent trip to Gandesa was in October 2019, bringing with us two photos of Chen. We went straight to a flower shop, Floristeria el Trèvol, to look for Teresa, the owner. Years ago, she was asked by a customer to lay flowers once every year at a memorial plaque for a Lincoln vet Kenneth Nelson, according to an article from the Volunteer in 2012. But she did not consider it a job. She wrote to her customer, “We left the bouquet there with emotion and gratitude for his struggle for freedom… As you can imagine we feel closer to the Republican cause.”

Teresa was not in the flower shop when we arrived. We asked to purchase two bouquets of fresh flowers in red, yellow and purple, the flag colors of the Spanish Republic. After the clerk made a call mentioning Kenneth Nelson, Teresa and her sister rushed to the shop. We embraced each other, overjoyed, even though we had never met before. After briefing Chen’s story, we gave her a large photo of Chen. “Nelson and Chen went missing in the same battle on the same day,” we added. To our surprise, Teresa volunteered to bring us to the municipal cemetery where Nelson’s plaque had been erected.

Walking to the very end of the cemetery, we put Chen’s large photo right next to Nelson’s black granite plaque. The two Lincoln comrades, Chen, 24, and Nelson, 22, were then united side by side. We and Teresa laid flower bouquets there. The cemetery was quiet with only whispers from the wind comforting the dead. In the future, when Teresa comes to the cemetery, she will bring Chen’s photo and lay flowers to both Nelson and Chen. She will honor them every year. They are not and will not be forgotten.

Nancy Tsou and Len Tsou are the authors of Los brigadistas chinos en la Guerra Civil: La llamada de España (1936-1939) (Madrid, 2013).

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