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How a musical about Morecambe Bay’s tragic Chinese cockle-pickers has split the British seaside town

IT sounds like a plot to rival The Producers, but a musical based on the Morecambe Bay cockle-picking disaster has struck the wrong note with relatives of those who lost their lives.

On the night of 5 February 2004, 23 illegal Chinese immigrants perished in the treacherous waters of the bay in northwest England.

The unlikely folk musical Sinking Water, written by Craig Adams and Daniel York Loh, has been in development for more than a year.

But after fierce opposition from Morecambe residents, who lived through the events of that night, the writers are now working without the co-operation of those closest to the victims. The majority of the families of the dead have made it clear to the writers they are not interested in the controversial project. So far it has been supported by a £12,000 prize from production company Perfect Pitch and London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East.

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The musical will focus on the events before and after the deaths of the cocklers, who drowned in the bay as they worked in the dark facing an incoming tide. The Chinese had been trafficked illegally in containers into Liverpool and were hired out through local criminal agents of international triad gangsters, who paid them just £5 for every 25kg of cockles.

The workers had to collect the shellfish at low tide on sand flats. But they were unfamiliar with local geography and language. As they worked, the incoming tide in the bay cut them off at around 9.30pm.

Emergency services launched a rescue operation after one cockler, Guo Bing Long, called 999 and told police: “Sinking water, many many, sinking water… Sinking water, sinking water.”

Rescuers made it to the bay, but only one worker was saved from the rising waters.

A total of 21 bodies, of men and women between the ages of 18 and 45, were recovered from the bay. It’s thought two others died, but remain lost at sea.

York Loh said he used that phrase from Guo’s final call as the musical’s title in an attempt to “humanise” the tragedy. He said he first became involved with the concept because of his Chinese heritage.

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“Most of the victims were from Fujian Province, which is where my lineage is from,” he said.

“My father is from Singapore, but a lot of the Chinese in Singapore are from Fujian originally.

“You can’t help looking at that and thinking if my family had taken different decisions three or four generations back, that could have possibly been me out there.”

The actor and writer said the musical would not be inappropriate or distasteful in any way.

“We’ve no intention whatsoever of dramatising the events of that night,” he said. “The production will be heavily fictionalised. It will be small-scale, it will be folk music, and it will be stories of migrant journeys. We are not going to show people drowning on stage, there’s no interest in that at all. I just think that’s horrible.”

That has not placated some residents of the seaside town. One of them, Robert Nelson, claimed the musical would “trivialise” the deaths of the Chinese migrants.

He said: “I hope the people of Morecambe rise up to condemn this idea in the same manner that the people of Liverpool would if a musical about the Hillsborough disaster was proposed.”

Nelson set up an online petition in an attempt to stop the production going ahead. By this week it had almost 150 signatures, and some local politicians have supported the campaign.

But York Loh said: “There was a certain reaction, but seeing as there have been films, songs, art exhibitions and books on the subject in the past I think it was more to do with the genre of musical theatre, which in Britain is toxic.

“Ironically, one of the comments on the petition was ‘What next? 9/11 the musical?’ 9/11: The Musical is in fact currently being developed in New York.”

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He admitted that relatives of those who died have made it clear they wanted no part in the production.

“The families of the victims aren’t too keen on being contacted any more,” he said.

“A friend of mine who worked with them at the time did manage to get through to one of them who said they had no objection.

“I can only stress again that the drama we’re creating is about events surrounding what happened rather than the event itself. It’s about community, migration and the value of life. What kind of economic pressures led them to a place where their lives are at risk?”

After the disaster David Eden and his son David Jr, who unlawfully hired the group of Chinese workers, were cleared of helping them break immigration law.

Gangmaster Lin Liang Ren was found guilty of the manslaughter of at least 21 people. His girlfriend Zhao Xiao Qing and cousin Lin Mu Yong were also convicted of breaking immigration laws. Lin Liang Ren was sentenced to 12 years for manslaughter, Lin Mu Yong was jailed for four years and nine months. Zhao got two years and nine months for facilitation of illegal immigration and perverting the course of justice.

Eugene Henderson is based in Manchester, UK