China and UK

Friend's Ambulance Unit

China and UK
A true friend of China - history of FAU

A True Friend to China: Jack Jones - The Lost Writings of a Heroic Nobody

SACU member, Andrew Hicks, has recently completed a book on the work of the Friends Ambulance Unit 'China Convoy' which has now been published under the above title.

The FAU was almost unique in travelling to China in the turmoil of the nineteen forties, not with guns or bibles or seeking commercial gain, but with a message of peace and reconciliation. It was a major project but apart from a book in 1947 only a scattering of memoirs have since been published. Andrew has found a small China-based publisher who is very keen to make the FAU story wider known but who is unable to carry the inevitable financial loss on publication.

The story of how the Friends Ambulance Unit ‘China Convoy’ brought medical supplies and services to a devastated China in the dark years of the 1940s. This large-format book includes the recently-discovered contemporary writings in China of the FAU’s Chungking based Transport Director, Jack Jones. Lavishly illustrated with over 500 photo images. Jack Jones was an obsessive writer and with a bottle always to hand he tirelessly beat the keys of his battered typewriter in the heat and humidity of the Chungking transport depot. Published in the FAU’s regular newsletter for a tiny audience of staff scattered across China, his articles were lost and forgotten until Andrew Hicks rediscovered them in the Quaker archives in London and Philadelphia. This book tells of a feudal China wracked by civil war, of Jack’s personal story of his Quaker unit’s contribution to the Chinese people that toted neither guns, drugs nor bibles.

ISBN: 978-988-82730-1-0 Language: English Paperback: 414 pages Published: February 2015

Information and Sales

www.earnshawbooks.com info@earnshawbooks.com

Contact the publisher Earnshaw Books, 1501 Shanghai Plaza, 138 Huaihai Middle Rd, Shanghai 200021 China, Office: +86 21 5187 9633, Fax: +86 21 5385 8953

Also available in North America from www.quakerbooks.org .

Read more about the book : www.fauchinaconvoy.blogspot.com .

You can buy a copy of the book or request further information by contacting the author Andrew Hicks at arhicks56@hotmail.com or write to him at 18 North Road, Petersfield GU32 2AX.


A sample of Jack's writing in the book called, 'Never Again the Road' appears below.


In the first piece about the work of the FAU a piece by Jack Jones is reprinted.

About Jack Jones, the Author

Jack Jones was a passionate and committed creative writer and left a scattering of writings about his experiences in China, published in the ephemeral FAU news letter and now languishing forgotten in the Quaker archives. In 1956, using the pseudonym, 'Jack Reynolds', his seminal novel was published in New York as, 'A Woman of Bangkok,' and in London as, 'A Sort of Beauty'. About a naive Englishman's affair with a Bangkok lady of the night, it was a worldwide sensation. More than half a century later, 'A Woman of Bangkok' is still in print. In 1951, working for Unicef, Jack settled in Thailand where he married a Thai. Together they produced seven children in ten years but there were to be no more novels. Jack died in 1984 in Bangkok and his China writings have not been read for more than sixty years.

Closing Down the 'China Convoy'

The Friends Ambulance Unit 'China Convoy' was present in China for ten years from 1941 distributing medical supplies and services and doing relief and rehabilitation work. With up to forty trucks and 200 employees, their main transport depot was at Sigonli on the south bank at Chongqing. Following the communist Liberation the transport operation was closed and on 7 April 1950 a big party was held for all the Chinese drivers and mechanics. Jack Jones, who had been the transport director for nearly five years, wrote recalling the joys and challenges of being a 'roadman', driving a battered and overloaded Dodge truck delivering medical supplies to hospitals scattered across vast reaches of China over appalling roads and in all extremes of weather. In 'Never Again the Road', the piece that follows, he wallows in nostalgia and strong spirits. Rich memories of life on the road come back to him, as he sits among his friends of the last few hectic years amidst the heat and hubbub of this, their very last feast together, recalling 'the fever of departure', the chaotic moments before a convoy of trucks leaves the depot for a delivery trip of many weeks.

Never Again the Road

convoy truck

“Under the grease and mud and less mentionable kinds of shit that covered the roadman there always beat a soft heart; in spite of his stern eyes and uncouth blundering ways he loved little children, trucks, his own pup, his boy, the other boys in his convoy, and some of the employees' wives: he could, and often did, weep like a girl ? usually when the tou-perh [presumably a strong spirit] went down the wrong way... Unashamedly I give rein to my sentiment...
Never more, I think to myself, the fever of departure... have the tyre pressures been checked, did I load that spare front spring? What? One of the drums is leaking already? Shall I put the female missionary in the front truck out of the dust and risk her life with So-and-so or have her in the last truck with me? God forbid! Have I got my money, my cross-river papers, my loading slips, my cargo manifests, my customs free papers, my military passes, my driving licenses, my truck licenses, my passport, my residence certificate, that letter for the Catholics at Pingpong? Why won't the idiot's truck start, has my p'u kai [cotton quilt or bed roll] been put aboard? Then you will have to push the bugger - and that reminds me I need a tow chain; and how about some extra loading boards? They say the road's washed out at Pongping. Well goodbye.....I'll be seeing you in a month with any luck.... God damn it, there's a bloody tyre gone already, before we're even out of the ****yard...’

Never again the road. How many roadmen have felt with Edward Thomas, even if they haven't been able to quote him:

I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods....
town

Of course there were times when we hated them ? those times when soldiers more dangerous than bandits held you up with guns, times when synthetic tyres were popping like corks the livelong summer's day, times when with freezing hands you were affixing chains to wheels half buried in slush, times when your brakes failed on the mountainside.... when the man in the teashop did you down over a return cargo or the official in the checking station held you up over a technicality, when the short couldn't be found or when you rounded a bend and there in the glare of the headlights were the wheels of Yeh Wei Wen's truck cocked to the skies ? twenty miles and a large mountain from Sunk'an, and midnight already on you because his first gear had gone and you had been pushing him up all the steep bits since nightfall.... Yeh Wei Wen played football for China in the 1936 Olympic Games but that was the last time he drove a truck for the Unit... And yet I loved him...

And there were the good days also, many, many of them: days when after hours of refreshing slumber under the open tent of the canvas you squirmed out of your sleeping bag to dress on the bed board over the cab in the grey light of dawn; rolled up your p'u kai, descended via bonnet and wing to the road, and checked oil and fuel and tyres and springs and water; wandered off and found a stall where tou-chang [tofu] with eggs and yu-t'iao [fried fish] were to be had and gobbled down same, returned to trucks, unlocked and entered cab, handed crankshaft to Scarface, pumped accelerator the correct number of times and pulled out choke the right number of inches, so that at the first turn the engine woke up and began to hum, (a little roughly to begin with but as the oil pressure settled back from sixty towards forty and he got the phlegm off his chest, he would find his true voice, that rich baritone in which were mingled the hearty manliness of Chaliapin [the Russian opera singer], the warm humidity of Bing [Crosby] and the South Pacific friendliness of Izal toilet paper), found that all the other trucks had started too, waved to the lead man, "OK pal, take off", saw first one truck, then the next, then the next.

I obey with two puffs of blue smoke, and not a Goddamned soldier to be seen... Your moment has come; you put her into first, push down your left foot an inch and gingerly raise the other; take off the handbrake, and your truck, the best truck in the Unit, nay in the world, comes to life and rolls forward down the Road. Next second you hit the first pothole of the day just as you are about to make the first gear-change of the day and this, coupled with the fact that the engine is still being fed on colostrum [the choke's still out], results in the first bad gear-change of the day.....

truck

Never mind, in a few minutes you will be free of the town; there will be millions of paddy fields sparkling under a sky now turned from grey to pearl, huddles of trees and crooked houses on knolls, mountains wreathed in mist in the distance; and pacing you down the white ribbon of road, with a cloud of dust pursuing it, the arse-end of [truck number] 104, eating up kilos....the kilos roll under your wheels; there is a real aesthetic pleasure in driving, in taking the hairpin bends, in listening to the engine and banging through the gate - the hours fly by like kilo-stones. Thirty, forty kilos, hunger is gnawing at the bowels; not far to the next town now; more and more coolies shuffle along the sides of the road; temples and houses grow more frequent; soon you slide into the evils of ribbon development; you meander cautiously through dense crowds in tortuous streets; suddenly you see the rest of your convoy drawn up before a fan tien; you pull up behind them, shouts greet your arrival, bowls of steaming water are placed before you, tea is poured out for you; if it is cold a ha-plau [a glowing brazier] is placed at your feet; you wash then sit down, you gulp tea; you order food. "Today", you say, "we should reach Annan," or Chenyuan or Lungch'ang or Suining, according to the road ? and you bang the table with your fist, because this place is 200 kilos away, and you are tempting Providence by mentioning its name.

The boys demur; they think we can reach it too but it is unwise to say so aloud, in a world so full of devils....

"Ch'ang chang, Tsai-chien" [goodbye boss]. With a start I realise that the room is almost empty. And I meant to shake hands with everyone as at Kweiyang! I rush out, (after trying three doors that aren't there), but though the verandah seems full of people, they all turn out to be Wei Fu Lin. The oldest employee ? I shake his hand, I say "It's all over, Kung I Chou Hu Tuei cheng-wen-la" [the FAU is finished], and Lao Wei turns away, blinking; the fat bugger's in tears. I can't see him weep so I rush off to toast the blokes in the kitchen who are now having their own feast ? the Cook, P'eng Pei Pei, the Happy Dragon, Lao Li, Charlie, and the rest; I go the round of the table; might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb... It's all over, I say, it's finished, and there'll never be anything like it again. And no one understands ---"

People to People democracy

This is the second article about the Friends Ambulance Service written by Andrew Hicks who is a member of SACU and has already written articles for China Eye in connection with the Friends Ambulance Service which operated in wartime China.
John Peter

There is no better example of 'people to people diplomacy', as advocated by the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, than the work of the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in China in the nineteen forties. My research about the FAU for my book, A True Friend to China: Jack Jones, the Lost Writings of a Heroic Nobody, assures me that this is so.

The self-sacrifice of Dr Norman Bethune who died in China has been widely celebrated, yet two doctors serving there with the FAU died in similar circumstances and a further six young men died from illness and accidents, all of them unsung heroes forgotten by all but their grieving families. Hundreds of others in the FAU gave years of their lives to the relief of suffering in China and it has been my aim to discover something of their stories.

One of these men is distinctive as he was of Indian origin and was not recruited in the UK or USA and he was the longest serving FAU member of all with ten years service in China. When John Peter was unceremoniously ejected from China in 1951 he left no address and effectively disappeared and I have struggled to find out what happened to him and to make contact with his family. At last I learned that he had settled in Hong Kong so I wrote an article about him for Hong Kong's South China Morning Post in the hope of learning more. The article was never in fact published and it now appears below for the first time. The reason why it wasn't published and the outcome of my search for his family appears in a tailpiece which follows the article below.

My Quest for John Peter

The daughters of the late John Peter must still be living somewhere in Hong Kong but despite my considerable efforts I have totally failed to trace them.

Born in Cape Town on 25 November 1908, the son of Francis Murray Peter, John Francis Peter was a Catholic Tamil whose family was perhaps from Sri Lanka, Kerala or Pondicherry who moved to Hong Kong in 1951 having worked in China with the Friends Ambulance Unit throughout the turbulent nineteen forties. Sometime following his arrival in Hong Kong he met and married Maria and had two daughters, the younger one born in about June 1955 being called Mary Magdalene or Magdalena for short. A month after the baby‘s birth he began doing relief work on Sunshine Island, Kung Chau near Lantau, with the Quaker philanthropist, Gus Borgeest, a winner of the Magsaysay Prize. The Peter family left there in about 1963 and John died in 1974 when Magdalena, apparently still unmarried, was living in Rennie‘s Mill, possibly with her mother and older sister. These uncertain scraps of information come from various sources and that‘s about all I know about the broad pattern of his life.

John Peter

My quest to find John Peter‘s wife and daughters and to learn more about his origins and life arises from my research into the work of the Friends Ambulance Unit in China during the nineteen forties. The Quakers or ‘Friends‘, an English non-conformist church, are strict pacifists and the Friends Ambulance Unit was set up to allow Quakers and others who registered as conscientious objectors to perform humanitarian service as an alternative to military call-up. During the Second World War one of the FAU‘s biggest operations was distributing medical supplies in China, which became widely and affectionately known as the ‘China Convoy‘.

In the early forties, with its coasts blockaded by the invading Japanese, China was suffering a desperate shortage of medicines and medical supplies. Following the invasion of Hong Kong and Burma the only way to bring them in was by air from India over the Himalayas into Kunming, an impossibly dangerous route the pilots called ‘the Hump‘. Once landed in China, it became the daunting task of the FAU to distribute these supplies to hospitals all over ‘free China‘. In addition to running a fleet of trucks the FAU also ran a series of medical projects such as field hospitals on the Salween front. Later on, following the defeat of the Japanese, relief and rehabilitation work became the main focus with a series of major projects in devastated areas of Henan province.

But what of John Peter and why is he so significant for me? Most FAU members served in China for relatively short periods but one man served throughout the whole history of the China Convoy for almost ten years and that was John Peter.

As the Japanese attacked Rangoon early in 1942, the first FAU recruits freshly disembarked from England, were desperately trying to recover the crates of knocked down trucks from the docks and to put them on the road. Salvaging what supplies they could, they drove them up to Mandalay and, via the railhead at Lashio, over the recently constructed Burma Road into Yunnan, China. When the Japanese gained control of Burma, this gateway was closed for the duration and, with no more imported fuel, they had to convert and ran their trucks on charcoal gas.

So how was it that John got involved with the FAU? Was he a seaman who had settled in Rangoon? Was he working there as a mechanic or in a truck business of some sort? These suggestions come from the distant memories of two elderly FAU men I have met, though more surprising is a mention of him in a book published in Hong Kong in 1974.

My current research into the China Convoy is primarily about the work of its transport director, Jack Jones, who was later to become world famous as author of a single best selling novel. In 1956, writing in the name ‘Jack Reynolds‘, he published his novel in New York and London called, ‘A Woman of Bangkok‘, which is still in print today. About a naive Englishman who becomes hopelessly entangled with a dance hostess in the bars of Bangkok, it anticipated by one year the well-known story in Richard Mason‘s ‘The World of Suzie Wong‘. By chance I discovered that in 1973, Leon Comber, the former husband of writer Han Suyin, [a founder member of SACU] was in Bangkok as publisher for Heinemann Asia and was visiting the offices of the Bangkok Post where fortuitously he met journalist, Jack Jones. Jack told Leon about his China experiences with the FAU and promised him a book of short stories about those times. Published in Hong Kong in 1974 again in the name of Jack Reynolds, this book, ‘Daughters of an Ancient Race‘, features John Peter as a supporting character at work in the Chungking clinic, though it calls him only John.

John Peter and Jimmy

One story begins with Jack describing his colleagues at the FAU‘s Chungking transport depot and clinic. Robert Reuman, he wrote, was a towering American, while ‘John‘ was ‘... a second giant, this time from South Africa, and like the lab technician, black. Under the name of Daredevil Cyrillo he had been looping the loop in a rocket car at Burmese fairs when the Japanese took and burned Rangoon; grabbing one of our trucks as a means of escape, he had driven it up the Burma Road into China and into membership of the Unit (after all he‘d saved that truck for us)‘.

This story is partly corroborated by Jack earlier telling the story in one of the FAU newsletters and more importantly by an article in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser of 3 January 1931. ‘A gold medal was presented to Dare Devil “Cirillo”, the daring parachutist who thrilled Singapore when Churchill and Tait‘s Show was here. The medal, which was subscribed for by a few members of the Ceylonese community of Singapore, was pinned on the breast of the recipient by Mr AR Wijeyekoon in the presence of a large crowd on Saturday night, at the Social Hall of Tamil Methodist Episcopal Church, Short Street.‘ This church is still thriving but my email enquiry to them was not answered. This snippet of history might however suggest that John was indeed a Tamil and his family possibly originating in Sri Lanka before moving to South Africa.

Being thus recruited in China in the chaos of battle, there are no formal records of John Peter in the London FAU archives, though John‘s name crops up from time to time in various FAU newsletters and reports. These reveal a remarkable versatility, with John serving as a driver, convoy leader and skilled mechanic, later rising to garage manager at the Chungking depot, where he even kept a monkey called Jimmy. He was an electrician who could rewire a whole derelict hospital and he was a medical mechanic with responsibility for the X-ray machines and all hospital equipment. He also worked as a male nurse, working in a clinic and attending to large numbers of patients daily. Later in Hong Kong Gus Borgeest described him as, ‘a wonderful mechanic and medical clinic attendant, a veritable artist with his hands‘.

In December 1949, John saw the communist armies ‘liberate‘ Chungking, probably huddling in the vehicle inspection pit as explosions shook the garage buildings and watching as the communist troops marched by down the dusty road. Soon when the garage and clinic in Chungking were closed down by the new regime, John hoped to move along with its Chinese employees to work at the vocational school in Sandan, Gansu province, to which all the garage‘s men and equipment were being transferred. After ten years in China, even with a South African passport, he had nowhere else to go. Predictably however, permission was not forthcoming and though foreigners were persona not grata, they were not automatically permitted to leave China. There then began a terrifying process by which all foreigners had to apply for exit permits during which time they were effectively detained under surveillance, contesting any outstanding complaints and allegations and trying to find a local guarantor of any personal liability that might arise.

This process typically took many months. Once a permit was granted, those in Chungking had to wait to be allocated a passage down the Yangtse River, when missionaries and other foreigners were herded together onto the boats under armed guard. There was a further wait to transfer to a larger vessel at Ichang and then at Hankow a struggle to get seats on the train to Canton. Trains finally left Canton for the border at Lowu where the refugees were thoroughly searched and questioned before they were allowed to cross into Hong Kong.

John Peter

By this tortuous route John arrived in Hong Kong together with Jack Jones on 31 May 1951, effectively a stateless refugee with nowhere to go. South Africa or Burma would be on nobody's list of chosen countries for a man of his race. Suffering severe renal problems, he obtained a visa for Macao and left for treatment at a Catholic hospital there. A Quaker newsletter indicates that he left soon after for Singapore to join a project making artificial limbs. When this fell through he returned to Hong Kong and was staying with the Catholic fathers at Béthanie, the French missionary sanatorium in Pokfulam, a fine Gothic building built in 1875 and today occupied by the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. After looking for work making artificial limbs or as a motor mechanic, by July 1955 John had married Maria and moved to Sunshine Island with their toddler and the tiny Magdalena aged only one month. It seems that he stayed working with this refugee project for about seven years, perhaps until its final closure.

Apart from a report suggesting that John might move on to work at the Trappist monastery on Lantau, here the trail runs cold, except for one final chance discovery. Jack Reynolds‘ book, Daughters of an Ancient Race describes both John and another six foot three ‘giant‘, Robert Reuman, who were working together at the FAU‘s transport depot in Chungking. Robert sadly died in 1997, an Emeritus Professor of Colby College, Maine, USA, but I have recently managed to trace his widow, Dorothy, and have enjoyed a long correspondence with her. She has sent me many fine pictures, among them one of North Point Relief Camp where new recruits worked while waiting for permission to enter Nationalist China and also one of a group of friends at Queen Mary Hospital, including Han Suyin.

Remarkably Dorothy gave me an airmail letter written to her and Robert in 1975 by none other than Mary Magdalene Peter and sent from 72, Section 11, Rennie‘s Mill. It briefly tells them that the Peter family had left Sunshine Island twelve years previously and that John had died the year before. However, all my subsequent enquiries have come to nothing.

As so many pieces of this jigsaw puzzle have thus fallen into my hands, I would now love to be able complete a picture of John Peter‘s life and most importantly to contact those he left behind. A striking looking man, in China he was photographed more often than most and I have discovered pictures of him with Jimmy the monkey on his shoulder, playing his guitar, feeding the dogs at the garage and painting an FAU logo onto the side of an ambulance. I am sure Magdalena has never seen these pictures and I would love to give her a glimpse of her father as a young man. Knowing so much about the tough life and work of the FAU in China, I feel an affinity and admiration for John, affection even, and do hope that readers will be able to put me in contact with the family or to tell me more about him and them.

Tailpiece: The South China Morning Post didn't in fact publish this article because remarkably a reporter quickly found John's daughters and his son for me. He made a few phone calls to some contacts and within a few days I had an email message from Magdalene Peter. We have since had a long and warm email conversation and have exchanged the photos we have of her father. Magdalena has told me that John‘s father had died when he was young and, thus orphaned, John was apparently sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Rangoon who sent him to St Paul‘s High School, Rangoon, ‘the prestigious Catholic boys school for the Burmese, Anglo-Burmese and Anglo-Indian elite‘. It was then that his life was destroyed by the Japanese invasion of Rangoon and he escaped over the Burma Road into China and his long commitment to the FAU. Later raising a family in Hong Kong proved to be a hard struggle at a time when the territory was overwhelmed with refugees from China offering cheap labour. His daughters now know little of his origins or story and they long to learn something more about him and his family by research in Cape Town and Rangoon if anyone could help them with this. John Peter's service in China as a 'people to people' diplomat was exceptional, yet he is not remembered or celebrated today and he has no memorial, except perhaps this brief article.


Revisiting the Convoy route

In the third piece about the FAU, Anthony Reynolds tells of a return to the regions where the Friend's Ambulance Unit supplied vital aid to China in the Second World War.

The Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) was originally set up in World War I to provide a channel of service for Conscientious Objectors (C.O.), mainly Quakers . It was resurrected in 1939 for the same purpose; to provide opportunities for COs to take part in the relief of suffering brought on by war. One of these opportunities was the China Convoy.

The only available land route into 'Free China', the part controlled by the Guomindang under Chiang Kaishek, was via Burma and the new Burma Road over the mountains from the railhead at Lashio in north Burma to Kunming. The original plan for the China Convoy was to carry out two tasks; to transport medical and relief supplies into 'Free China' via Rangoon and the Burma Road and to provide medical teams to work with the Chinese Red Cross in military hospitals.

During the summer and autumn of 1941, members of the original team of 40 arrived in Rangoon and set about assembling their trucks, mobile operating theatre and mobile workshop, all of which had come from The States. Then came December 8th 1941 and by early 1942 the Unit was desperately engaged in getting trucks and supplies off the Rangoon docks and into China. By the end of 1942 a transport system was in operation; having no supplies of petrol some trucks were converted to run on charcoal-fuelled producer gas, others had diesel engines running on rapeseed oil installed and some were run on alcohol and 'petrol' distilled from tung oil. Depots were established at Qujing, the end of the old railway line from Kunming. Guiyang, Luzhoul Chengdu, Chongqing and Guiyang. Medical supplies came over 'The Hump' from India to Kunming and were delivered by the FAU to the Wei Sheng Bu (Ministry of Health). The Chinese Red Cross and also the various mission hospitals. Meanwhile the medical teams worked both in the SE and the Salween fronts. All this developed and continued until 1946 when the focus of the work shifted to rural rehabilitation in Honan where it finally ended in 1950. By that time the China Convoy had become international with members from the USA, Canada, New Zealand as well as China and Britain, some 170 in all over the nine years.

Burma Road
F.A.U. convoy on the Burma Road
photograph by Jack Skeel

In 1995 a proposal began circulating among ex-China Convoy members that they should re-visit the roads they used to drive over and the towns they had lived in to observe the changes in places which had been so familiar 50 and more years ago. I was responsible for organising the UK end of the project. So on May 6th 1996 and courtesy of Regent Travel and the China International Travel Service (CITS) a party of 21 flew from Heathrow to Kunming. Nine were Britain based and 11 came from the States including spouses; all except one well over 70. We travelled by CITS bus some 1800 miles; Kunming, Qujing, north via Bijie to Luzhou, Chengdu, Santai, Chongqing, Tsunyi, Guiyang, and back Huang Guo Shu to Qujing and Kunming. We spent two days in Chengdu including visits to old friends, a day in Chongqing and a day in Guiyang. There were largely fruitless searches to places where we had lived and worked, all was swallowed up in new buildings. But the mountains and the roads remained and we identified places where we had fallen off the road or broken down.

What were our expectations, what did we go to see, what were our personal agendas in coming? So what were the physical changes, from big things to little that I noted? First, perhaps, the great increase in building - what had been dirty little villages on the Luxian road were now towns with gleaming new five storey blocks; what were towns full of narrow streets with secretive doorways to courtyard houses were now cities with multi-storey buildings and the old style walled provincial capitals now metropolises with all the modcons and disadvantages of Western city life style. Then the countryside; we saw a greater variety of crops and new methods of cultivation with inter-cropping and the use of plastic sheet. There was more tree cover on the hills but much terracing on steep slopes spelling possible disaster in times of heavy rain. But no one has found a better way of growing rice in small fields than cultivation with the long-bladed hoe, the wet ploughing with the water buffalo and planting the seedlings by hand.

Of course there were the roads themselves; the good motorways, the bad, very bad and indifferent roads; some were worse than 50 years ago. There was the unsolved mystery of why those in many towns and villages resembled the slough of a pot-holed English cart-track. There were adventures on the road; one day's journey lasted over 20 hours due to a puncture, bad roads and a hold-up while the police demanded a RMB400 'fine' for an imaginary and unspecified offence by our driver. But much to the surprise of our guide, we did not complain. We had come to re-live the experiences of being a truck driver 50 years ago and this was part of it. I thought that road behaviour was more ordered than 10 years ago but the horn is still a major component of driving practice. We saw the great increase of cars and motorised transport in private hands, a token of Chinese ingenuity was the sight I had of pigs being taken to market strapped to bamboos and laid athwart the frame of a motor bike instead of being slung under a shoulder pole.

Other things of note were the large scale 'modern' factories in the countryside and the great increase in traditional small-scale mining, smelting and coking furnaces. The people - the old still dressed in traditional blue but the young in colours and western style clothes. But underneath the outward, how changed is the inward? What are the values of those born 30, 40 and 50 years ago? We did not have that sort of contact but one of our number, from his recent experience of teaching in China, told us of disillusionment with the Party and Marx-Lenin-Mao philosophies and practice and a search for new gods; Buddhist, Daoist, Christian and, of course, the enrichment of No 1. The energy of people, the desire to run one's own business and call no man master shows so clearly in the stalls, the small shops and the use of every yard of ground. But long term care for the earth and environment in city and country? That is another matter. The hygiene standards were up - very few flies, single-use chopsticks in sealed wrappers, little spitting and hawking, much road sweeping in cities (but raising clouds of dust), all signs of great improvement.

Paths of history

But what about the roads we've travelled in the past 50 years? Those roads of career, family, beliefs have all changed the eyes of the mind as we looked at those hills, plains and people that we passed. Just as 50 years ago we kept our eyes on the road lest we fall off it but now could look at the land around us and its people, so our interpretation of what we see has changed. But some things do not. Some of us were meeting each other for the first time; others have been in touch for 50 years. Some have tried to keep 'in touch' with China; for others it was a new experience. But all of us, directly or indirectly, had been a part of the China Convoy team and had that shared ethos of service in the basics of transport and medicine. Perhaps the travelling together, both then and now, was more important than the arriving at this place or that.

The way in which there was at once unity, tolerance and understanding among us, in essence the same but greatly enriched, of those past adventures that we shared in the bus. Masefield wrote:-

“We travel the dusty road till the light of the day is dim,
And sunset shows us spires away on the world's rim.”

The spires we saw then; young, inexperienced, intent on doing a task; how have they changed or how has our vision of them changed? Like the roads we travelled and the China we saw, the visions are more complex and varied with more intractable problems and fewer illusions of easy answers.


There is continuing interest in the work of the Friends Ambulance Unit in China during the 1940s. Please see the box about 'China Convoy' about a newly published book on this subject at the top of this page

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 1997, reprinted from SACU's China in Focus magazine Issue 2, Page 16, 1997; China Eye magazine Issue 40, Page 6, 2013 and China Eye magazine Issue 43, Page 12, 2014

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