Thursday, March 9, 2017

ASIAN DREAMS

Anyone who reads Jack Jones' accounts of his work with the Friends Ambulance in China in my book, A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA, will recognise a truly talented writer. It then comes as no surprise that as 'Jack Reynolds' he later in 1956 published in New York and London his best selling novel called A WOMAN OF BANGKOK, which is still in print today.

Strangely this was one of three novels published at that time having a related cautionary theme, namely that if you fall hopelessly for your Asian dream, you'll probably lose her to an American. The other two novels are Graham Greene's, THE QUIET AMERICAN (1955)and Richard Mason's, THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1957).

The core to Greene's story, so well represented in the movie, is that sweet young Vietnamese girl, Phuong, leaves his protagonist, an English journalist, for the arms of a younger and of course wealthier American. The narrative, not much more than a novella, tells how this 'quiet American', in the nature of a CIA fixer, ends up dead, face down in the mud of the Saigon river.

Much of the story is set in Saigon and on my recent visit there I re-read the book yet again. Fowler, the English journalist tells his story in the first person, leading us through the labyrinth of the plot and the streets of Saigon. Important to the story is his flat in the Rue Catinat, now Dong Khoi, a fashionable street of designer clothes shops which is right in the centre.


I visited there at Happy Hour and imagined the ghosts of those earlier times strolling the street in front of me as I sampled the local beer in an open fronted café.


Fowler also patronised the Majestic Hotel and I strolled through its cool, spacious lobby, imagining Greene staying here and plotting the twists and turns of a great story.


Though much of the heat and vibrancy of Asian cities is unchanging, new prosperity has changed Saigon since Greene's day, though many fine French colonial buildings would be totally recognisable to him. As a Catholic, Greene would find the cathedral familiar.


Next to it is the Post Office building, always a key communications centre in colonial cities of that time.


Not far away is the City Hall, now the backdrop for a statue of Ho Chi Min, Vietnam's revered national hero.


The city is booming and there are few hints of its communist identity, just the occasional poster and heroic statue, though these stand alongside the ubiquitous symbols of global culture such as McDonalds' golden arch.



In a remarkable way, Vietnam has put the horrors of the past behind it, while for the Americans the hamburger has proved to be mightier than the sword. The irresistible popular culture of Hollywood and fast food and cars, together with close trading relations, is so very seductive... just as the lure of the Dollar proved a strong challenge for the impecunious Englishman in each of the three novels I've mentioned.

Greene's novel of 1955 came first, the Englishman, as sole survivor, triumphantly keeping his girl. In Jack's novel of 1956, Reggie loses Vilai, his 'woman of Bangkok' to Dan, the American who to a degree resembles the 'quiet American'... he likewise wears his naïve and annoying principles on his sleeve. Published a year later, Suzie Wong goes off with her American but goes back to her Englishman, this being the most anodyne and commercial of the three novels. In the very first sentence of the book he sees his Asian dream, making it inevitable that they'll ultimately sail off into the sunset together and that Mason will get rich on the royalties.

While Greene's novel must be judged the best of the three, Phuong, his depiction of the Asian dream again is not much more than a shadowy, simpering stereotype. She is of course as described by Fowler who sees her as an ingénue interested only in silk scarves and magazines about London and the English royal family, perhaps suggesting a shallow judgment. Yet I find her blandness hard to believe, especially against the steely character of an elder sister who negotiates her marriage prospects with Fowler almost like a pimp.

Most powerful of the three and the finest characterisation, however, is Jack's 'woman of Bangkok', Vilai, the predatory bar hostess known to all as the White Leopard. His book is in three parts, the first and third from the perspective of Reggie, the inexperienced Englishman. The middle part enters Vilai's own personal world and follows her as an intimate portrait for almost a hundred pages. For a European author to so vividly capture an Asian character is rare indeed.

In three successive years of the fifties we thus see three parallel stories set in Saigon, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Jack alleged that Mason had copied some of his story but this seems unlikely as the publication dates were too close together, bearing in mind the slow book production of the time. In such a context it was perhaps very likely that Brits would lose their pretty girl to an American, though it's striking that in Jack's story Vilai's son was killed in an accident, while in Suzie's story published a year later so was hers.

Thus in these three novels, hearts are broken, British resentment over American money creates a common theme, and three books about exotic eastern women become best sellers for their authors.

But which author did their local research best and got under the skin of an Asia woman brought up with a gnawing fear of poverty?

Clearly it was Jack with his portrait of Vila, the Black Leopard. It is she who is the powerful figure battling for empowerment, as we would say today, who is the memorable woman that emerges from these stories. Nonetheless, my brief taste of Saigon reminds me that 'The Quiet American' is high on my list of favourite novels.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Hanoi, the Old Doorway to China

It was absolutely magic for me staying recently in Hanoi; Vietnam is such a wonderful country. And chance had me staying in the hotel La Gare, the railway hotel, the station even being visible from my hotel window.


Severely bombed during the Vietnam war and with its centre portion now rebuilt, it is hardly a building you'd remember, though at night the bright lights and energy of the place make it sparkle.


For me though it has special romantic associations as it was the southern gateway to Kunming in China along the remarkable mountain railway built by the French to give them access to the riches of China from their colonies in Indo-China. This penetration had long been a patriotic obsession for them, disappointed when the heroic explorations of Garnier and others discovered that the Mekong, a possible route, was blocked by the spectacular Khone Falls, and later triumphally realised by this audacious engineering feat of railway building through impossible mountainous country.




Because of this railway, the utter remoteness of Yunnan province was changed forever and Kunming, its terminus, became an important city, developing with a distinct French flavour in the official quarter. Thus the station in Hanoi became the jumping off point for so many roving characters such as Somerset Maugham and Carl Crow who found their way into this hidden region of China, after almost certainly staying in my own station hotel. Their accounts tell how difficult it was to get a seat on the Michelin railcar, thus leading to a long wait at the hotel, the luggage following later or even being flown up by air when possible.

'The Michelin' is preserved in the superb railway museum in Kunming, as is one of the fine locomotives imported from Philadelphia in 1923 that was in service for an improbably long time until 1991.



When the Japanese invaded Burma and took control of Indo-China through the Vichy French, the railway was closed for the duration but Kunming increasingly became a boom town as the terminus of the Burma Road. This was built to bring essential supplies to Nationalist China and to support them in their desperate struggle against the Japanese. When this too was cut, air supply from Assam in India and over The Hump into Kunming, made its airfields among the busiest in the world in what was history's first massive strategic airlift of military supplies.

It was into that hectic scenario that the men of the Friends Ambulance Unit first arrived and touched down on Chinese soil and into which the medical supplies that they distributed throughout the country were imported. Jack Jones, the 'heroic nobody' of my book, A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA, knew it well, landing there in 1945.

He also knew the Hanoi railway too as in 1948 he took a ride on it, changing trains onto the branch line, stopping at the terminus at Shihping. This delightful French styled station I discovered and photographed in 2010.


Jack's long account of his ride on the train is one of my favourite passages in my book and is Jack at his best as writer and story teller. It is also a unique description of the bustle of life on this railway.

He was on his way to Shihping to do a feasibility study for an anti-malaria project there, which was subsequently set up and saved many lives. Hanoi was not much than a day down the line, to the luxuries of the colonial city and the hotel La Gare, but Shihping was still centuries back in time, a place of immense personal wealth built on the child slavery that provided miners for the tin mines. But that's another story and it's there all in the book.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

JACK'S QUEST FOR BUTTERFLIES AND POO

The first news is that A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA, my book of Jack Jones' writings in China about his medical aid work with the Friends Ambulance Unit during the forties is sold out and will be reprinted in the UK where I am taking orders (arhicks56@hotmail.com) at a very special price. (It is still available from Quaker Books in Philadelphia, from the St John's Cathedral Bookstore, Hong Kong and from Earnshaw Books in Shanghai.)

Secondly, a good friend in Hong Kong has just sent me a photocopy of THE HEAD MAN OF NA ANG, by Jack Reynolds (his writer's pseudonym), sourced from the library of the Northern Illinois University. I'd seen reference to this, guessing it to be a wry fictional story about villagers having to build privies, then still using the bush, but it turns out to be exactly what it says on the tin, 'An Exploratory Study of Environmental Health and Sanitation, Behaviour and Attitudes in a Northeastern Thai Village'.


So why was Jack, poet and novelist, writing a technical report of this sort?

A densely written paper of nearly sixty pages of text and statistical findings, it is a sociological study of a single Thai village assessing the success of a Village Health and Sanitation Project, launched country-wide and fully implemented over a five year period in this specimen village. In addition to monitoring the single safe water source for the village and the new privies built for each home, Jack's key role was to discover whether the crucial health education programme conducted at the grass roots by the project leader, the Royal Thai Ministry of Public Health, had been successful. Had it given the villagers a reasonable comprehension of the fundamentals of disease transformation and had it stimulated a positive change of attitude and behaviour towards sanitation and hygiene?

Over half a century later, the report stands as a fascinating historical study of a typical remote village west of Udon Thani near Nong Bua Lamphu with eighty households and about 550 inhabitants. It had no electricity, newspapers, postal services, market, proper shop or health centre and with only limited literacy especially among the women, a poor excuse for a school. It also provides another insight into the extraordinary man that was its author, Jack Jones.

In his early fifties, a Jack of all trades, a transport officer or glorified mechanic with no formal qualifications of any sort, how did Jack manage to produce a fine research report requiring considerable anthropological, sociological and scientific skills of sufficient standard at least for a masters thesis in these disciplines if not more. And what's more, why on earth was he of all people chosen to do a complex research project that required three months' field work in the village, supported by a Thai translator?

This wider national public health project was part-financed by the United States Operations Mission to Thailand which also provided expertise through American personnel, including twenty five Peace Corps volunteers. These men and perhaps women, having served their three score years and ten, must now look back nostalgically to those halcyon days of rural Thailand, privies and parasites.

Jack's report itself was financed by the East-West Centre based in Hawaii and it has an introduction by the Bangkok based Chief Sanitarian, John H. Brandt, MPH (Master of Public Health), presumably also an American. It was Brandt & Brandt of New York who had been the literary agents that placed Jack's novel, A WOMAN OF BANGKOK, with the publishers, Ballantines, though it is unlikely that there was a tie-up there. More probably Jack was well-known and repected in Bangkok as a man of many parts in the world of NGOs and development aid. As a former transport director with Unicef based in Bangkok from 1951 to 1959 he certainly knew his way around. Having run a clinic for the FAU in Chungking, he was also familiar with all the devastating bowel and other parasites that were endemic throughout rural Thailand.

Yet appointing a transport specialist to undertake this very technical research project is still a little bizarre. One might think it more obvious to appoint a Thai than an unqualified foreigner with limited language skills. Yet perhaps no educated Bangkok Thai, the only probably source of educated specialists, would be prepared to head off into the blue for three months in 1965. Jack had to live in a rough wooden house on a very limited diet of rice with no meat, only fermented fish, topped up from time to time with inedible American combat rations.

If the current condescending attitude of privileged Thais to the primitive clod hoppers of the North East that remains one of the symptoms of Thailand's political instability is anything to go by, their likely condescension might have made them very unsuitable as local researchers. Nor could they communicate much better than Jack as the villagers spoke no Thai, only a local variety of Lao which are not mutually comprehensible.

In contrast, Jack, with his warm empathy with rural people and his social skills with them learned over his years in China and in Thailand with Unicef, was in fact the perfect candidate for the job. And I guess they knew it too.

I can imagine him arriving in the village with his jeep and translator, getting to know the head man first, sitting up late into the night, proving his fine brotherhood as a serious drinker and immediately becoming an honoured guest. With his gentle demeanour and modesty he would have been immensely liked. It would have been solitary and tough but Jack had the capacity to enjoy that.


His key to discovering the success of the health project, was that he mustn't arrive as a lord high representative of government, as an official checking up on the villagers; that would ensure he'd only hear what they thought he wanted to hear. He had to be more subtle than that. So he dreamed up the wizard wheeze that he was an English entomologist interested in insects, bugs and parasites. 'By posing as a butterfly collector I was allowed to roam in and out of compounds at will, not unnoticed, but not classified as a health inspector either.'

Jack's conclusions in the report are detailed and technical but underlying them are many ironies that he would have much enjoyed. The little people of the rural backwoods were not going to be pushed around by big officials set above them, nor be told how they must live their lives. Thus, he reported, they had successfully absorbed and were able to parrot many of the public health messages that the education programme had fed to them, but they were resistant to changing their habits and pleasures of many generations. They adored the rare luxury of eating laab, a bloody and fiery concoction of diced uncooked meat that has confronted me to my regret on many occasions. They'd never actually seen any of these alleged parasites in the food, so why should they give up on eating laab. Why must they wash hands after defecation and before eating? They couldn't afford soap and there was no clean water accessible anyway. And if they kept shitting in the privy, that would make it awfully dirty whereas the vast countryside is capable of absorbing anything.

Jack reports that many of the bamboo and wood privies that had been constructed five years previously were rotted and collapsing and the habit of using the bush was proving hard to break. In truth, much had been achieved towards better sanitation but it was going to take increased prosperity and at least a generation or two really to move things forward. And so, in my experience in the region, it has proved.

This is a fine report, Jack made an insightful contribution to public health in the villages, and he earned a useful fee to help him feed his family. Presumably not long returned from his posting as transport officer with UNWRA in Jordan, he was (not atypically) between jobs and he just had to take on this very demanding project to keep the wolf from the door.

Giving me a new insight into Jack and his life experiences, I genuinely enjoyed reading the long report for this reason, but also because I can relate so very closely to the particular place and to its people. Having myself lived in a Thai village in the North East for some years (qv MY THAI GIRL AND I), while much has changed over the last half century and huge progress has been made, things also stay pretty much the same in so many respects.

One of the objectives for the national sanitation project Jack reports on was that all villages should have at least one source of safe water, namely a well with a pump. Yet so very recently my village in Surin province still had none. Exactly as described by Jack, the first choice of the villagers for drinking water was rain water collected from the roofs. This is the house of my next door neighbour, the dragon pots being carefully placed to catch the water.


I myself was unable to use bottled water, though it was available some seven kilometres away, because the many tens of locals who wandered through my house daily would all first go to the fridge and help themselves, so this just wasn't possible for me. Refusing my family or neighbours a mere sip of water or hiding bottles in the bed would have brought down odium on my head and branded me as truly kee nieo, as mean as sticky shit. Thus I too had massive water casks sited at the guttering downpipes of the house and drank this water daily without filter or boiling. (Again, putting boiled bottled water in the fridge was a lost cause.) Nonetheless my bowels remained serene, though when I later learned how clogged with dirt the gutters were when 'gutter man' climber his bamboo ladder in bare feet to clean them out, I did feel a little queasy.



Inevitably it only took a naughty kid to open the tap on the water storage cask during the long dry season and our supply would be lost, though usually we just ran out. The next option was then to get water from the local pond, a particular favourite that was everyone's second choice for drinking water. The procedure was either to take a push cart with a dragon pot on it and fill it up with scoops, or, plutocrat that I was, to pay a farmer to get it for me behind his rot tai and to pump it into my big casks.



That local pond was important for the village as a primary water source, for which the unusually high water table was crucial. The next village was not so fortunate and when their pond tended to dry up during the dry season, they would come and steal water from ours. Our pu yai ban, the village head, then went over to demand reparations but he did not succeed. One morning it was discovered that our pond had been deliberately contaminated with some generous quantities of shit.


Our own pond on our land was not suitable as potable water as we had built our pig sty over the water; all the pig excrement would drop into the water and feed our fish. Like drinking from a somewhat robust water supply, the fish were delicious so long as one didn't think too much when eating.

Yes, those were the days and in comparison today the supermarket check-out does now seem a little dull. At least though, I can still travel with Jack Jones to China and Thailand as his writings never fail to remind me that there are exciting worlds out there other than mine.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

AN INTERVIEW WITH XINHUA

When in Beijing recently, I met with an American journalist who interviewed me on how I came to write my book about the Friends Ambulance Unit, China Convoy. She did a remarkable job of distilling a huge amount of information and her article now appears on the website of Xinhua, China's official news agency.

I and Jack are very honoured, so please click on the following link.

http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-12/01/c_135874065.htm

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A RARE FIRST EDITION



A substantial coffee table book makes a wonderful gift and, from a small print run, this one is pretty unique.

The story of a unique Anglo-American medical aid project to China in the dark years of the nineteen forties, it is both a rattlingly good yarn and also an important history. China today is anxious to ground its current place within the world community of nations upon special moments of shared friendship in the past, and there is no better example than this one.

The book is available in North America from Quaker Books at Pendle Hill (www.quakerbooks.org),in the UK from Friends House, Euston Road, London or direct from me (arhicks56@hotmail.com), in Hong Kong from the St John's Cathedral Bookstore and in Shanghai from the publisher, Earnshaw Books.

Nearly four hundred young idealists crossed the world risking their lives to try to make a difference and, in these troubled times, I want their example and commitment to be remembered.



Jack Jones and the transport unit at Chungking, 1947.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Celebrating Seventy Extraordinary Years

I've just returned from China having enjoyed a very stimulating three week tour with SACU, the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (www.sacu.org). We visited Beijing, Xian and Shanghai and made many visits to schools and universities where we were received and welcomed most warmly.

One side trip was to Fengxian, formerly Shuangshuipu, a nerve jangling trip across serpentine roads over mist-shrouded mountains by mini-bus. The purpose was to visit and see the restored cave dwelling of an Englishman called George Hogg and to pay tribute to his memory.



Hogg, a nephew of Muriel Lester, a prominent left-wing pacifist, visited China with her in the thirties and, moved by the struggle of the people there, committed his life to working in China. He was to be made head of the so-called Bailie School in Shuangshuipu whose aim was to give a vocational education to orphans and war refugees, thus staffing the burgeoning small cooperative factories that were supplementing China's war ravaged industrial sector. Tragically in 1945 Hogg contracted tetanus and died aged only thirty.

SACU is currently promoting fund raising for a George Hogg Fund which is to assist in the training of people to work in cooperatives in the region, hence the reason for our visit to Fengxian.

My own special interest is that the Friends Ambulance Unit, the subject of my book, A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA, was closely associated with the Bailie Schools and the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives. Thus it was that when the FAU closed down in 1951 all of its remaining assets and personnel, consisting of a convoy of sixteen heavily loaded trucks, were donated and transferred to them.

While there we were warmly received by officials and staff at the museum of the Fengxian County Tourism Office, consisting mainly of post-war monochrome photos of people and workers in the town. There were no pictures I could see of the place itself. They were therefore bowled over when I was able to produce for them several photos of camels in the dry river bed in what was then a tiny village, taken in 1947. In the pictures is a very distinctive hill that is perfectly conical and with a temple at its summit that is immediately recognisable. While in the forties the hill was stripped of vegetation, it was amazing to compare it today, now well covered with greenery. The change in the ensuing seventy years is remarkable and struck me very strongly as I photographed the hill from my lofty hotel bedroom.











I should now perhaps explain how these black and white photos came to be taken almost seven decades ago. At that time the FAU was distributing much needed medical supplies in China, much as Medecins Sans Frontieres does today. Being an apolitical pacifist organisation it was anxious to take medical aid to communist areas as well as to those controlled by the Nationalist government in which they chiefly had to operate. However, the Nationalists energetically resisted this aid to their communist enemies and only after considerable diplomatic pressure and much negotiation was a convoy of three trucks given papers to travel from the base in Chungking to the communist base in Yenan.

Appointed to lead the convoy was an experienced FAU member, Tony Reynolds and their long and arduous route took them through Shuangshuipu (now Fengxian). As told in Reynold's full article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Hong Kong Branch (Vol 17, 1977),they left Chungking on 23 January 1946 and arrived in Shuangshipu on 30 January. By chance they met there another FAU convoy heading in the opposite direction, on its way back from the oil wells at Yumen in Kansu province, a round trip of thousands of miles to the petrol pumps. As Reynolds describes, the town 'was a transport centre with truck depots and inns catering to every need. We put up at the China Industrial Cooperatives Guest House where we had five rooms. [See photos below]. We spent a day and a half servicing the trucks, stocking up with fuel from the Unit supplies and then had three days holiday for Lunar New Year.'

All of which this explains when and why Tony Reynolds was there to take these photos which have now been returned to the town, just short of seventy years later.

That is my immediate story about my SACU tour to China, but may I now digress a little. People often ask me why I have immersed myself in the story of the FAU and devoted myself for years to writing a book about Jack Jones and his FAU friends. Perhaps the following may suggest how I became inexorably drawn in and fascinated by these events in China that have no direct relevance to my own family story.

Back with the Reynolds convoy in Shuangshipu after their Chinese New Year celebrations, the three trucks then drove on over the mountain roads towards Xian that are still, as we found, quite challenging today.



They safely arrived in Yenan on 13 February 1946 to offload the gift of medical supplies and there they met Chairman Mao himself. This date has special significance for me too... precisely one year later I was born on the other side of the world. I don't exactly remember being taken home from the hospital, but I was to live in a Warwickshire village called Tanworth-in-Arden.

Tony Reynolds and his convoy drove back to Chungking and not long after he left China and with his wife settled in this very same village of Tanworth-in-Arden, living within a mile of my home. His son Peter, and I have recently compared notes and in so small a community are sure we must have gone to the same childrens' parties. And he has of course generously shared his father's photos with me.

But my story of coincidences doesn't stop there. In 1976 I took up a lectureship in Law at the University of Hong Kong where I was allocated a comfortable flat in university accommodation. Living in one of these very same flats was Tony Reynolds, then head of the Department of Industrial Engineering. Twice in our lives therefore we lived close by one another.

At this time I was doing voluntary fund raising in Hong Kong for Oxfam and two of their overseas directors, Michael Harris and Bernard Llewellyn, who used to stay with me in my flat on their visits to Hong Kong were former FAU members. They freely reminisced about their time in China, of which I knew nothing, though I became intrigued.

Perhaps thirty years later when living in Thailand I became fascinated to learn the identity of one 'Jack Reynolds', the writer of a world-wide bestseller called A WOMAN OF BANGOK but had then totally disappeared from view. It turned out that Jack Jones (his real name) had also been a member of the FAU China Convoy and had been one of Bernard Llewellyn's closest friends.

Settled back in UK I discovered that Bernard's son, Michael, lived nearby and he produced for me a treasure trove of stuff about Jack... Jack had sent everything he wrote to Bernard and Bernard had faithfully filed it all away. One day at Michael's house we were trawling through some of these papers when we came across an A4 photocopy of an article from Hong Kong's South China Morning Post about Tony Reynolds. The story was of Tony's life-long dedication to China and how he had at last achieved his aim of again helping the Chinese people by coming to share his expertise in industrial engineering as a lecturer at the university.

At the top of this yellowing sheet of paper there was some hand writing giving the source of the cutting and the date. It was an electrifying moment when I realised that the hand writing was mine. Decades previously I had clipped the article from the newspaper and copied it for Bernard when he visited. He had kept it all that time and now it was in my hand.

Thus by so many compelling coincidences and stimulated by the wealth of material on Jack Jones produced by Michael I was slowly drawn in and dedicated myself to telling Jack's story in my book. In consequence I have been able to take Tony's photos back to China where they are now so appreciated and valued. And soon in February I will enter my eighth decade. More importantly we should remember the seventieth first anniversary of the arrival of the FAU's crucial convoy of medical supplies for the people of Yenan who had been blockaded and besieged for so long.

It is on the friendship and dedication of the men and women of the FAU such as Tony Reynolds that our current strong relations with China should be founded.

NOTE: One of the members of the FAU convoy heading back south through Shuangshipu from the Kansu oilfields was New Zealander, Owen Jackson, with whose niece I recently visited Yunnan on a trip to discover the Burma Road (see the story on this blog below). In the photos below he is seen behind the camera tripod, possibly taking the photos of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives guest house in Shuangshuipu that then follow. He also appears in the group photo taken outside the building at the end of the avenue of trees. Again I'm sure these photos of the guest house are totally unique.





Saturday, August 6, 2016

THEY NEVER CAME HOME

It took courage to be a conscientious objector, to swim against the tide of patriotic fervour and to refuse to do military service. Of those who registered as conshies and who joined the Friends Ambulance Unit for alternative service in war-torn China, a significant number never came back. The distribution of medical supplies and the many medical projects they undertook were not a cushy option by any means.


Surrounded by his family, prosperous builders in Yorkshire, John Briggs, seen sitting at the front, refused to fight and instead joined the FAU in China. Very recognisable by his sad and soulful eyes, he is seen below leaning over the rail of the ship in 1944 on the way to Calcutta from where he flew in to Yunnan province. Not long after, supervising construction of the new FAU transport depot buildings in Kutsing he caught typhus and died. Two weeks later Douglas Hardy, another colleague, also died of typhus.


John was buried in Kunming, his death being so bitterly mourned by his parents that in the early fifties they managed the near impossible journey into communist China to visit his grave.

Other FAU members died of illness and also in accidents. Brian Sorensen, below, died in NE China in a plane crash, ironically when on his final adventure before returning home to the UK.


John's father was Revd Reginald Sorensen, the Labour MP for Leyton in north London, who was later elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Sorensen. Brian was flying back to Chungking after delivering a truck to the British Consulate in Urumchi out along the Silk Road in NW China. As is recorded in my book, when his cousin saw a news paper poster in London reporting the death of an MP's son in China he knew it just had to be Brian.

Peter Mason who lives in Arundel tells me how he and 'Pip' Rivett both contracted polio when serving with the FAU in China. Peter is still living but Pip who was out on the road with Hugh Russell, the son of the Duke of Bedford, never recovered and died in Chungking. Hugh's letter home to his father tells of the horrific time when, weeks away from help, Pip fell ill and of the desperate struggle to get him back to base and to hospital.

I was able to find no picture of Pip but I had a strange hunch that this picture below taken in China could be him.


I knew that Pip had attended Charterhouse school so I contacted their librarian who sent me a house photo including Pip. Pip is below and I'm sure from the sharp profile that the man in the white polo neck jumper is also Pip. He was buried in the hills above the Quaker high school near Chungking.


Finally, I must mention the death in 1949 of Canadian, member, Bob Waldie. I have no photo of him, though the story of his death is fully told as Chapter 8. of my book, A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA. Jack Jones wrote at length of how Bob, his young recruit, was taken ill with appendicitis, was rushed to hospital and operated on but died following complications. Jack's account of the funeral in which he was laid to rest alongside Pip under the pine trees in the hills is full and moving. This picture was taken shortly afterwards.


Sadly though the exact site of the graves is now lost, though with Jack's description of the burial, it ought to be possible to find it. How good it would be to trace the families of Pip and Bob and to visit together the hills on the south bank of the Yangtse at Chonqing and, with the help of the staff at the school, to look for the graves and to pay tribute to these men whose service and sacrifice is now forgotten. It should be possible... an old plan of the school even shows a Quaker burial site in the hills.


So how do we now trace surviving relatives of these two men? As my book records, Bob's parents were William and Nina Waldie of Kimberley, British Columbia. A Google search for Robert Alexander Waldie produces a family tree which tells of Bob's life and death but has given me no leads to surviving relatives.

Louis Rowan Rivett was born on 10 February 1917 and lived at 55 Harley House, Marylebone Road, London NW1. He graduated from Oxford in Modern languages. His father was a distinguished surgeon, Louis Carnac Rivett, FRCS, FRCOG who became ill and died not so long after Louis, his only son. I can find no mention of any sister, though census records might reveal more.

Somehow it should be possible to discover family connections who would want to remember and celebrate the fine principles and service of these men. It would be so rewarding to find them.