Yesterday I was unexpectedly reminded of a boyhood hero of mine and the reminder came from an extremely roundabout source. Here is the story:
I recently had an inquiry from a young woman filmmaker from Buenos Aires in Argentina if there was any possibility that we could meet during her approaching visit to Montreal. Yesterday she arrived, Laura Tusi, a fairy intense, enthusiastic woman in, I imagine, her thirties, who has been brought to Canada by her interest in making a documentary film about a small group of Argentinians, most of them Quakers, if I have the story correctly, who many years ago established a community in a British Columbia town called Argenta, in the very heart of the Kootenays.
Here is the Wikipedia entry about Argenta:
Argenta is a settlement in British Columbia. Located on the west side of the Purcell Mountains, on the northeast shore of Kootenay Lake, it was founded during a silver mining boom in the 1890s. Argenta was given its name by the Argenta Mining Company from the Latin word for silver, argentea.
In 1952, Quakers settled in the town. Primarily from California, they first established the Delta Co-operative Association in 1954. They then went on to found and operate the Argenta Friends School, a boarding school, from 1959 to 1982. Students studied academic subjects, as well as gardening, how to milk cows, chop wood, and cook on a wood stove.
In the 1960s, Argenta attracted anti-war protesters, as well as hippies, back-to-the-land residents, and members of the counter-culture.
With a population of just 100, many residents have gone on to great things, including one who worked as an economist at the World Bank in Washington. Another former student of the Friends School is head of disaster relief for the UN in Nairobi, Kenya. Nancy Herbison changed her name to Nancy Argenta and became a well-known opera singer based in London.
Laura Tusi’s aunt, now in her eighties is one of the Argentinians who took up residence in Argenta, and is still there. During her description of the town Ms Tusi mentioned that a prominent personality had been Hugh Elliot, a man who had worked in China in the pre-Communist years as a teacher at a school deep in the interior that had been run by a New Zealander called Rewi Alley. Alley is the boyhood hero I mentioned in my introduction. He disembarked in China from a ship in 1929, and stayed there for the rest of his life, becoming such a famous figure that his eightieth birthday in 1987 was celebrated by a banquet given by, and attended by, all the leaders of the Communist government of China.
In the 1930s Alley founded the Chinese Industrial Co-operatives, but when this was destroyed during the Japanese invasion, he decided he should retreat to the far reaches of the country, and establish a self-sufficient school to train rural workers that would be impervious to invasion. So, his school --- the Baily school named after an American who was its first principal --- was established in a village called Shandong, supported by the contributions of well-wishers in New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and probably elsewhere.
When the Communists swept into control of the country, Alley concluded they were trying to do for the nation what he was doing on a local scale in his school, so he became an enthusiastic supporter. The government demanded he renounce foreign money in support of his school, but they kept it going, and eventually it was transferred into the city of Lanzhou and given the status of a university.
When I visited China as a member of a National Film Board crew in 1978, one of my first requests was to meet Rewi Alley, who to me, was an almost legendary figure. We were put off with one excuse or another, but when we were making our obligatory visit to the model commune of Tachai (for which absurdly exaggerated production figures were claimed as part of a misguided attempt to persuade other communes to more effort), I noticed one evening in the dining room an old white man dining with a group of Chinese officials. I thought he looked like Rewi Alley, so I went over and introduced myself, and sure enough it was the man himself. He apologized for not being able to meet us, but later came over to our table, and I had the pleasure of a talk with him in his room. He told me then --- prophetic words --- that he was not worried about the Chinese being able to make things: they were an industrious, clever people, and could make anything, What worried him was their ability to feed their people. His primary interest was, what is happening to the water table? With thousands of wells being sunk all over the country especially in the agricultural areas, how could the water table, that underground system of acquifers that keep everything going, last? That is probably China’s number one problem to this day.
Alley was one of a handful of old China hands from abroad who chose to stay in the country after the Communist takeover. Hugh Eliott was one of those expelled. In the Macarthy-ite atrmosphere of the United States in the 1950s, he found it impossible to settle there, so he moved north to Argenta, where he became one of the pillars of the community. He apparently died a few years ago, but his work is about to be immortalized by Laura Tusi, if she ever gets to make her proposed film.
I felt quite offended when John Fraser, the Globe and Mail journalist in his book on his experience as a correspondent in China, wrote a vicious denunciation of Alley for having followed the Communist party line through thick and thin, treating him as nothing more than a crude propagandist. He was, of course, “struggled” against by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, but nothing could shake his faith in China and their rise from being the world’s most despised people.
I met Alley again in 1983 when I was researching a proposed film for UNICF about child services in China: he was in hospital, already declining in health, and he died four years later at the age of 90.
To give a flavour of his life, work and attitudes, I cannot do better than quote from some of his statements, recorded in the Wikipedia entry about him:
“Never mind about whether you are a student of China or not, as long as you are among the ordinary people you will get an understanding, a real understanding of this country. You're already in amongst it... Some very bad things happened. The price of China breaking free of foreign domination and the bad things of its past was enormous. They reckon that it cost 30 million lives to build new China. The West should have a bit more gratitude for the struggle of the Chinese. If it wasn't for the resistance in China during the Second World War, the Japanese would have had tens of thousands more men and they may have got as far as Australia and New Zealand. Back then sides were clear-cut. They were clearer even before the war, if you had the wit to see it. I became involved in China's struggle and I chose my side. After the war and the revolution, I knew I had a choice. I could have joined the critics of China, but China had become like my family and as in all families, even though you might have been arguing with each other, when the guests come you present a loyal unified face to the world. I could have joined the journalists and so-called sinologists in condemning everything about the revolution, but I had already chosen my side.
"This place (China) is a great case study of humanity; one of the biggest examples of humanity's struggle. If you can't feel for these people, you can't feel anything for the world. Although it was in France, in the First World War, that I first had a taste of China. I can remember when there were a lot of shells falling and we had our rifles and our steel helmets on and there were these coolies. Coolies, that's a word people don't use much any more; but that's what they were, these Chinese labourers. Coolie comes from the word bitterness. These blokes were eating their fair share of bitterness in France. Navvies for the poms, they were. Shells bursting and the ground shaking like there was an earthquake, and they were stripped to their skinny waists and just kept unloading the wagons. I saw endurance and a determination that I had seldom seen before. Then later, back there in the thirties, I was involved in the factories in Shanghai and I can remember seeing sacks in the alleys at the back of the factories. At first I thought they were sacks of rubbish, but they weren't, they were dead children. Children worked to death in the foreign-owned factories. Little bundles of humanity worked to death for someone's bloody profit. So I decided that I would work to help China. I suppose then it was like a marriage of sorts and I wrote what I wrote and said what I said out of loyalty to that marriage. I know China's faults and contradictions; there are plenty of those. But I wanted to work for this place and I still do. I woke up to some important things here and so I felt I owed China something for that."
"I had human principles and I made choices based on these. I have always been and will always be a New Zealander; although New Zealand has not always seen me as that. But I know my own motives. The buggers even refused to renew my passport at one point and they treated my adopted son very badly. Did you know that when Robert Muldoon visited Mao Zedong in the 1970s he was the last head of state to see him? Well I'm told that when Muldoon asked what he could do for Mao, Mao is supposed to have said 'Give Alley his passport back.'
"I love New Zealand, and sometimes miss it. New Zealand is a good country, populated by basically just and practical people. But there is a fascist streak in New Zealand as well, and we must always be vigilant to prevent it from having too much sway. I remember as a boy, I was walking along the beach near Christchurch and there was a group of men coming back from a strike, or a picket of some kind. Suddenly, out of the dunes came police on horseback and they rode into these unarmed workingmen, swinging their clubs as if they were culling seals. I will stand up against such forces as long as I can stand. Even here, in the Cultural Revolution, when some young blokes came in here and started breaking things I grabbed one of them and put him over my knee and gave him a proper hiding. I got army guards on the gate after that. That was thanks to Zhao Enlai, looking after an old mate from Shanghai; but I stood up to them. I know many in New Zealand see me as a traitor to their culture, but I have never betrayed New Zealand. What I betrayed was the idea many New Zealanders had of what a Kiwi should be and what was right and wrong in the political world. There is a very big difference.
"Successive New Zealand governments have tried hard to discredit me as if I was some sort of communist threat to them or a traitor. Well I am a communist, but I am not a traitor. I have always loved New Zealand. I just said what I thought was important and true."