Morecambe Bay cockler disaster musical called insensitive by locals

Daniel York Loh has won a £12,000 grant to create his tragedy Sinking Water, but Lancashire residents say it is in bad taste

Twelve years ago, 23 men and women lost their lives searching for cockles in Morecambe Bay. Unable to read the warning signs on the beach, the victims were trapped by fast-moving tides while picking cockles on the notoriously treacherous sands.

The gangmaster responsible for their deaths was sent to prison and memories of the disaster still resonate strongly within the local community, with flowers frequently laid at the scene.

But now a Chinese writer and actor has stirred up emotions once more with a musical about the tragedy. Sinking Water has been heralded by the musical theatre star Michael Ball as “stirring, thoughtful and beautiful” and was chosen from 200 other hopefuls as the winner of the Perfect Pitch musical theatre writing award.

The team behind the production were given a platform and a £12,000 grant by a panel of experts that included Ball and the writer and comedian David Baddiel.

But some locals in the seaside town are campaigning for the musical to be shelved, claiming that it is insensitive and disrespectful to the memories of those who perished in the tragedy.

The Chinese writer and actor Daniel York Loh defended his work and said the musical, which takes its name from a dying cockler’s 999 call, would “humanise” the 2004 disaster.

York Loh, who has campaigned for better representation of British east Asians in the arts, believes that it will challenge the perception of Chinese people and migrant workers. “The general feeling in the media was that this was a horrible thing, but it happened mainly between Chinese people,” he said.

“White western people seem to matter more because we see them represented all the time on television, so we relate to them. The further you get into the non-western world, we don’t relate in the same way.

Writer Daniel York Loh
Writer Daniel York Loh has campaigned for better representation of British east Asians in the arts. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

“I also think there is a perception, unfortunately, that immigrants come over here to claim benefits and it’s an easy life. But it’s anything but. It’s perilous and you have to be desperate to do it. Every single person who was there, was there to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones. This will be about community and love.”

But others have taken a grim view of the production and an online campaign has gained momentum, with at least three Lancashire councillors throwing their weight behind the campaign, describing the musical as an “insult to the memories of the victims”.

Criticisms have been levelled at its makers, with calls for the production to be halted as it is deemed to be crass and breathtakingly insensitive to dramatise a tragedy.

Morecambe resident Robert Nelson, who said the musical would trivialise the deaths of the Chinese migrants, set up the petition and has received support from the Labour councillors Margaret Pattison, David Whitaker and Joshua Brandwood.

Nelson 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.”

His online petition at reads: “In 2004, a group of cockle pickers were caught out by the treacherous tides of Morecambe Bay. 23 of them lost their lives, many others lost their livelihoods and their families in China lost their children and breadwinners.

“In a horrible display of crass insensitivity, a writer, Daniel York, applied for and won a £12,000 prize to write a musical about the tragic event.

“Mr York said the musical would ‘humanise’ what happened. Well, the people of Morecambe who spent that awful night listening to helicopters flying above and sirens screaming all night don’t need any help to ‘humanise’ what happened. Indeed, flowers and dedications are still laid regularly at the points people were brought ashore – both dead and barely alive.

“We believe a musical will trivialise and sensationalise what happened and will be an insult to 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.”

Campaigners have called for the award to be withdrawn, claiming that comparisons with Les Misérables, set in 1832, are a farce as it is far too recent a tragedy.

After signing the e-petition, Brandwood, a Morecambe town councillor, said the night the migrants died was still too raw in people’s memories.

“I find it incredibly tasteless and insensitive that someone has gone to the length of creating a musical about the 2004 tragedy,” he said.

“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.”

The Chinese migrant workers 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 5 February 2004.

The victims had been forced to work in the driving rain and the dark by Triad gangs that trafficked them to Britain.

Emergency services raced to the scene after the cockler Guo Bing Long, who subsequently died in the tragedy, dialled emergency services and said: “Sinking water, many many, sinking water ... sinking water, sinking water.” Out of the 34 migrants who went out to sea that day, only 11 survived.

After their deaths, the gangmaster Lin Liang Ren was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Kerry Michael, the artistic director at Theatre Royal Stratford East, said Sinking Water was “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”.

York Loh, who created the piece with Lancashire composer Craig Adams, defended his work, giving examples of other theatre productions where the subject matter focused on a tragic historical event.

“I am disappointed that councillors have signed the petition. I would have thought they would have taken more time to investigate what we’re all about,” he said.

“People are seeing the word ‘musical’, I think, as quite toxic. The musical theatre genre has explored difficult subject matter on many occasions. Oh What A Lovely War is about what went on in the Great War.

“I want to talk to local people and hear their concerns. I would like to try to make contact with some of the victims’ families.”

York Loh, who is also an actor and has starred alongside Ewan McGregor in Rogue Trader and opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, said the musical is not being performed publicly for at least a year and will focus on events leading up to the tragedy rather than the night itself.

“We’re not going to portray anything that happened that night. There will not be people drowning on stage. It will be a musical examination of events leading up to the tragedy and the aftermath,” he said.

“It’s about what happened to the victims at home, what drives them to want to make the journey, what puts them in that position to lose their lives.”

York Loh said he was deeply moved by the tragedy, citing his “working-class migrant stock” heritage and his family links to the Fujian province, where many of the cocklers were from.

“With a different situation four or five generations ago, that could have been me out there in the bay,” he said. “It’s not my aim to make something exploitative and trivialise these people, and I don’t see how it will. I would hate to work on something that was insensitive.”


Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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