NEWCASTLE, Britain, June 14 (Xinhua) -- The once neglected graves of five Chinese sailors who died in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the 1880s have been restored and rededicated at a special ceremony.
The five graves, which had been lying unmarked over the past decades in St John's Cemetery contain the remains of Yuan Peifu, Gu Shizhong, Lian Jinyuan, Chen Shoufu and Chen Chengkui, members of the first two naval delegations that China sent to Europe.
Experts believe the five sailors were part of the entourage that went to the city to bring the Tyne-built cruisers back to China to form Beiyang, the most powerful navy in Asia at that time. They died from unknown diseases.
The project of restoring the graves, half sunken into the ground, started in 2016 when media reports threw them into spotlight.
In 2016, China Foundation for Cultural Heritage Conservation launched its first global crowdfunding campaign and raised money to pay for the restoration work.
Minister Ma Hui from the Chinese Embassy in Britain said at the rededication ceremony held Friday that the Chinese students and the Chinese community in Britain had called for the restoration of the graves.
"This project is of great significance because it is a successful practice in which the Chinese government, enterprises, non-governmental organizations and individuals worked together, and China and the UK worked together to preserve Chinese cultural relics overseas," he said.
"As we honor the memory of the five Beiyang Fleet sailors who have sacrificed their lives for their country, we are reminded of what happened to China more than 100 years ago and the tragic but heroic history of the Beiyang Fleet," Ma said. "We are also reminded of the deep friendship between the Beiyang Fleet officers and sailors and the people of Newcastle, which was established when the Chinese sailors came for the cruisers."
Deputy Lord Lieutenant Ann Clouston of the Tyne and Wear said that in the North East, with its strong maritime and industrial heritage, the records of the first Chinese community go back at least 138 years to 1881 when visiting Chinese sailors were treated like rock stars.
"Today the Chinese community in the North East is around 20,000 strong... it's a bustling and colorful asset to the city," she added.
Newcastle City Councilor Teresa Cairns said she is willing to tell the story of the Chinese sailors to more local people.
Royal Navy Warrant Officer Scott Hill, who was invited to attend the ceremony, said it is universal to respect the heroes and restore their graves.
Wu Shanxiong, president of UK Association for Promotion of Chinese Education, told Xinhua that for the Chinese people, the pursuit of prosperity and strength has never stopped.
"The restoration of the Chinese sailors' graves show that they have not been forgotten," he said. "Long gone are the days when the Chinese were bullied."
Qi Yongqiang, president of the Northern Britain Chinese Entrepreneurs Association who oversees the restoration project, told Xinhua that local archives show that the burial plots for the five sailors had been purchased by the Chinese government.
"They are of great value for the Chinese, a great symbol of the Chinese patriotism," he said. "I hope more people would know the history and understand China's way of development."
The Beiyang Fleet was defeated by Imperial Japan during the first Sino-Japanese War, marking the end of a modernization movement under the Qing Dynasty and the start of Japanese colonialism across northeast Asia.
It is believed that the shipyard under the Armstrong Whitworth company located in Britain's famous Tyneside shipbuilding area, designed and built four military cruisers for the then Chinese navy.