China and UK

China Days; First and Last Times

China and UK

This is a reprinted article from an issue of China in Focus magazine. Tony Reynolds recalls the work of the Friends' Ambulance Unit in China, 1941-1952. Retracing his earlier route in 1996 he notes the transformation of the countryside.

We experienced China as truck drivers and front line medics at a time of national and civil war and saw the beginning of reconstruction and recovery.

This article is a series of reminiscences and reflections about my first coming to China in November 1941 and a return visit in 1996 - Fifty five years later - with reflections on the experience and comments on some of the differences. I hope it may be of some interest to those who only know at first hand the post-Liberation phases of Party rule.

Establishing The China Convoy between July and November 1941 small parties of the Friends Ambulance Unit (China Convoy) set out from England for Rangoon where they were to meet trucks and equipment coming from the USA. We were all destined to be the transporters of medical supplies and service, as medical teams, with the Chinese Red Cross (CRC) and British Red Cross (BRCS) in hospitals in the GuoMinDang governed areas of China. The plan was to transport medical supplies by rail from Rangoon up to the railhead at Laishio and then by truck up the Burma road to Kunming, thence by rail to Qujing (Kutsing) and from there distributed to the Wei Sheng Xu (Ministry of Health), the CRC and the Mission hospitals. The medical teams would work in casualty stations and military hospitals.

December 8th 1941 and the extension of the anti-Japanese war to include the USA and the Western Allies did not effect our aims but the means of accomplishing them were a steep learning curve for the 40 original members of the teams. The shambles of the defence of Burma in early 1941 resulted in some of the Unit walking out of Burma to Assam as part of General Stilwell's party, the loss of much of our petrol stocks as well as some trucks.

By the end of 1942 we had a transport system operation with trucks running on charcoal-generated methane gas, alcohol and rape seed oil for the diesel engines installed in worn-out Ford chassis. The medical teams were in place, one in the south east in Waichow in support of a planned Australian commando attack on Hong Kong, a scheme wisely abandoned. Others were at work in Yunnan and an established Mission hospital in Qujing had been taken over as a medical training base.

Friends Ambulance Unit
F.A.U. attending a patient
photograph by Jack Skeel

Behind The Lines in 'Free China'

A widely accepted picture of 'Free China' in the years of the anti-Japanese War is one of military stalemate, corruption and incompetence at the top and we certainly met evidence of this. But we also met idealism and devotion to service in the New Life Movement, the Chinese Red Cross, the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives (CIC) led by Rewi Alley and the staff of the refugee universities and hospitals. There was also the determination and skill of engineering managers and staff who had set up factories in Sichuan and Yunnan to supply the needs of the army and people. It was not only the intellectuals who came west, many skilled craftsmen from Shanghai and the other coastal ports came lending their skills, especially in metal work, to the western provinces.

In our Guiyang garage we had Shanghai tinsmiths who produced pipework for our charcoal burner trucks, from salvaged petrol drums. Their crowning achievement was to make, from these petrol drums a new front wing for the Provincial governors' official car - a pre-war Chevrolet with long sweeping lines. I think that we charged for the work but it certainly gave the unit 'face'. The Governor himself bridged the transition from old China to the new having both an Imperial Han Lin degree and one in engineering from Cornell University.

There was also the labour, some of it unpaid, of the women by the roadside cracking stones with hand hammers to fill the potholes of the roads hacked out of the hillsides with hoes and baskets to give that tenuous network of roads from Burma to the rest of Free China. The engineering and grades of those roads were very good and their construction must have cost many lives.

There was also the bitter memory of passing regiments of GMD soldiers, many sick with dysentery and malnutrition. As they died, they were rolled into the roadside ditches, their badges taken so that the meagre rice rations could be drawn by the survivors. Though our trucks were loaded with medicines, there was often no hospital to which we could take them. In the hospitals where our medical teams were working, decisions had to be made on which patients had guts so inflamed and bodies so emaciated that nothing could be done and those who, with care, could be saved. The transport and medical work went on in the same pattern until 1946 when, with the end of the Pacific War in 1945, the needs and work changed to that of rural relief in Henan and the reconstruction and re-equipping of hospitals in Hankou, Zhengzhou and Changde. There was also medical work to be done in the Liberated areas from 1946. All this came to an end in 1951-52.

What Had Been Achieved?

So what had been achieved in those ten years; what difference had we made to China and what difference had China made to us? We had shown that mixed teams of British, Canadian, New Zealand and American pacifists, together with Chinese members of the Unit, could work together reasonably harmoniously and that Westerners could use manual skills, crawl under trucks and live the life of their Chinese counterparts rather than being people who were the givers of instructions for those to carry out. One of our Chinese members said that what he learned in the Unit was self-confidence and not to be afraid of arguing with his Western colleagues. No doubt also that many lived who would have died without our efforts and some members of the Unit died also in making them.

But what did China teach us, what difference did it make to the Unit members being there? This has varied with individuals; some could not stand the food, the poverty and the smells. Most, though, gained a respect and love for China and her people and an understanding that Western culture and methods have viable alternatives. A number of members moved into international work with UNRRA, Oxfam, UNFAO, British Council while others made career choices influenced by the China experience.

Fifty-five Years On

In May 1966 some of us went back to test our memories against the realities of change. A group of ex-truck drivers and medics plus some spouses arranged to be driven over the main trucking routes of half a century before. The round trip covered Kunming, Qujing, Xuanwei, Weining, Bijie, Luzhou, Chengdu, Santai, Suining, Chongqing, Zunyi, Guiyang, Anshun, Qujing and back to Kunming on a CITS coach with drivers and a luggage van with spare tyres etc. This was a three week trip with some stopovers covering about 3,000 km mainly off the tourist routes.

This trip was the testing of memories and experience against the present reality of West China. The roads followed he same routes through the mountains and we remembered the sites of breakdowns and adventures. The hills, once bare, now many with trees and bushes but others were terraced to dangerous slopes, fruit trees grew on some rocky slopes. But the transformation of communities was the most striking change; what had been a filthy hamlet like Magu was now a town with concrete apartment blocks. The towns had turned into cities and cities expanded outward and upward with 15 storey office blocks. There was a little evidence of original Chinese influence in the design of buildings; most were copyings of Western styles which distressed the architects among us. But we did see some new traditional style buildings in the Guizhou and Sichuan countryside. There were few people, even in the remote parts of Guizhou and Yunnan, dressed in blue cotton; most women wore bright colours, men in zip-up bomberjackets. The epidemiologist among us confirmed that there were no signs of the goitre so prevalent in the past in Guizhou.

There were changes in crops and cultivation; cash crops of fruit and vegetables for the markets, inter-cropping of wheat, maize and beans but the wheat and barley still cut by hand, (the only method if you are inter-cropping with beans and maize) and the harvest still laid out on the swept road for passing traffic to thrash. Another new sight was power lines leaping and looping over mountain valleys meant that there was power and light in factory and home in the hills of southern Guizhou. There was piped water in homes but lack of plumbing maintenance skills, especially on toilet flushing systems, was very evident in one or two hotels. We saw the equipment trappings of the West but without the essential maintenance disciplines, another learning process to be undertaken. What made us sad was to see the good rice paddies covered in speculative building, the industrial pollution of rivers and streams, the signs of present progress and pending disaster.

Changes in the roads themselves were of great interest; once off the tourist track some roads were worse, many the same and some better than those we remembered. There had been realignment of hairpin bends to allow larger trucks to get round without backing as well as widening. But where tourism is important, like the road from Kunming to the Stone Forest, there are new arterial roads and from Chongqing to Chengdu the road is now a dual carriage motorway so that what was two days journey (if all was well) had become eight hours.

In Chengdu and Chongqing we were able to meet and visit friends and families of 50 and more years ago and in my case to lay flowers on the traditional grave of one who had died in prison and been rehabilitated. In Chongqing we made visit to a school and hospital where the tradition of service of the British and Canadian founders was carried on and their history warmly acknowledged. In Chengdu, after the official welcome by the Vice President of the West China University of Medical Sciences (WCUMS), we went on a visit to the garage where the FAU had a truck based for some time. It is now a bath-house, so still a 'service' building. There was some reverse culture shock for our CITS guide; he had been misinformed about the group and was led to believe that we were old members of Chennault's 'Flying Tigers'! Towards the end of the trip he confessed that he had never led a group who actually knew something about China and who did not complain about late arrivals, suspect beds, bad roads and breakdowns for it was those very things that we had come to re-experience.

There is continuing interest in the work of the Friends Ambulance Unit in China during the nineteen forties. Andrew Hicks, a Bangkok based researcher, is working on a biography of an FAU member, Emrys Reynolds Jones who as 'Jack Reynolds' later became known world-wide as the author of a 'Suzy Wong' style novel called, “A Woman of Bangkok”. Details can be found on Andrew's blog and he welcomes any further information on the work of the FAU. You can also use our contact form to get in touch with him.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 : an extract from SACU's magazine China in Focus 9, Page 17, September 2000

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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