Campaign to stop Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy musical

The Chinese cocklers who died in Morecambe Bay. Photo by Lancashire Police /PA.  / victims
The Chinese cocklers who died in Morecambe Bay. Photo by Lancashire Police /PA. / victims
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A petition has been set up to stop a musical being made about the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy.

The online campaign began after it was revealed a musical theatre show is being planned about the deaths of 23 Chinese cocklers in February 2004.

Rescue workers in the aftermath of the cockling tragedy. PA photo: Phil Noble.

Rescue workers in the aftermath of the cockling tragedy. PA photo: Phil Noble.

The Change.org petition calls the idea “a horrible display of crass insensitivity”.

But a supporter of the musical said it would be “a beautifully thoughtful piece”.

The production will be called ‘Sinking Water’ which takes its name from a dying cockler’s 999 call.

The Chinese people drowned after they were trapped by rising tides in the dark while picking shellfish in the bay off the coast of Bolton-le-Sands on February 5 2004.

Emergency services raced to the scene after cockler Guo Bing Long dialled emergency services and said: “Sinking water, many many, sinking water...sinking water, sinking water.”

The musical has been co-created by British Chinese actor and writer Daniel York Loh.

Mr York Loh is a longtime campaigner for equal rights for East Asians in the arts. He has appeared in the films Rogue Trader, starring Ewan McGregor and The Beach opposite Leonardo Di Caprio.

Mr York Loh, who created the piece with Craig Adams, said the story “resonated with me”.

“Most of the people who drowned were from where my lineage comes from.

“If my ancestors had taken a different path, I could have been on that beach.

“Our intentions are to create something that humanises the whole thing and makes us think ‘that could be any one of us in a situation like that, given different circumstances’.”

The team behind the musical recently beat 200 other hopefuls to win a £12,000 grant in a ‘Dragons Den’ style competition held in London.

A panel of experts, including singer Michael Ball and writer and comedian David Baddiel, chose ‘Sinking Water’ as winner of the Perfect Pitch Musical Theatre Writing Award.

Kerry Michael, artistic director at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, said “there could only be one winner”.

“Their piece Sinking Water takes place in the midst of events surrounding the tragic drowning of 23 illegal migrant Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay. York Loh and Adams have used those terrible events as the framework while exploring other characters around the tragedy, the local councillors, journalists and economic pressures that were brought to bear on the Chinese protagonists.

“This is a stirring and emotive piece of theatre which asks bigger questions of the British psyche, our attitude to cheap labour, migrants and foreign deaths. A beautifully thoughtful piece.”

The online petition at Change.org says: “We believe a musical will trivialise and sensationalise what happened and will be an insult the the memory of the victims, the many rescue workers and support workers and the people of the Morecambe Bay area who clearly remember that fateful and horrific night.

“We urge Perfect Pitch and The Theatre Royal Stratford East to withdraw the award and reconsider what subject is suitable to be given the West End treatment.”

After signing the e-petition, Josh Brandwood, a Morecambe town councillor, said: “I find it incredibly tasteless and insensitive that someone has gone to the length of creating a musical about the 2004 tragedy.

“I wholeheartedly agree there should be awareness of this tragic event. However, this is still very raw for the friends and families of the victims and also the residents of Morecambe. I believe it would have been more appropriate for the director to explore new ideas to highlight the tragedy rather than a musical.

“I completely support the e-petition that has been set up by a member of the public and would advise anyone who agrees to sign.”

Lancaster city councillor Margaret Pattison also signed the e-petition, writing “who would think of making a musical out of people’s awful deaths”.

‘Sinking Water’ will not be the first time the arts world has reflected on the cockling tragedy.

‘Ghosts’, a 2006 film by Nick Broomfield based on the events in Morecambe Bay of February 2004, aired on Channel 4.

In 2014, Morecambe-based music organisation More Music held an event on the seafront called ‘The Sigh of the Sea’ to mark the 10th anniversary.

More Music, who started working with the local Chinese community in 2005 and has carried out 16 cultural exchange visits with Hong Kong and South China since the tragedy, also created The Long Walk, a large scale performance featuring music and stories in response to the tragic event.

Pete Moser, artistic director of More Music, said: “I think anything that highlights the issues of the exploitation of migrant workers in this country can only be a good thing.

“I would be very pleased to be connected with it and support it in any way as long as it’s telling a truthful story and is done in sympathy, and highlights the kind of exploitation of workers that goes on regularly in the UK, be it migrant workers or junior doctors.”

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