Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 9. 9 May 1972
Autobiography Rewi Alley
Autobiography Rewi Alley
There wrote a friend, imperiously commanding
Put down the story of your life;
And the letter came on a stormy day so that
Winds took it from one's hands,
Flipped it against a tree, then as deftly
Detached it, blew it under an old man's skirts;
A puppy gave chase; a lad retrieved it,
Bringing it back laughing; another story from
Another atom? These infinitesimal atoms and
All stories, maybe, fit into some pattern somewhere ....
So at fifty, with a good December fire, and the
Walls of the room still echoing with the voices of the day,
It is pleasant to check up accounts; the day
Gives that privilege, shall we say.
And Muggins, the tabby cat, puts an inquiring paw
At the pen as it scratches; arches its back,
Carries her tail erect under one's nose as
One lies on the K'ang 1; and the kerosene lamp
Glows quietly. Certainly interesting to reach
Fifty today! As nice as five, fifteen, twenty five?
It's been grand to have them all; it would be
Fun to have them all again.
Running up a pile of bags of chaff in a school house yard;
First close haircut; Canterbury, New Zealand's loveliest, and in the
Township of Amberley, where the ground felt warm and friendly
Under bare feet; where we would go to the cow bails, and get
Great mugs of warm milk; Saturdays in the Kowhai River, delighting
In each other's suppleness at the old swimming hole; gorse hedges,
Rabbits; the wonder of the smithy, and to be able to stand under
Railway bridges when trains passed over; fighting with
A freckled-faced friend much loved-and in all, just as most
Free kids anywhere love to be part of loveliness.
Tall gum trees, tussocks, one's horse and gun, apple pies,
Love of a mother that was more than food, more than all else,
Enfolding always, lifting, heartening, capping off each day with
A goodnight kiss; blending love into light, love into hope for
The future, love into faith for ourselves, into justice within
Our group, into fairness and beauty, responsibility and comradeship,
Good solid things that stay by one, making any other legacy seem
Foolish; and this all so quietly, always leading from the rear.
Then all the other things-schools, running home from playing fields
On frosty nights, stolen peaches, patched shorts, winds caressing
Bare legs, light hearts that looked and were satisfied with the
Glory of Autumn and Spring; and occasional thrashings, richly deserved,
Wholly necessary ; and Castle Rock, windy Waimea Plains; learning to plow,
Endure cold, and eat a little bitterness at times; to read all that
Could be read; doing many foolish things, and rarely repenting.
Troopships crawling around an African coast; riots in Capetown, sickness
In Sierra Leone; fractured arm, and nights in the sick bay, listening to
A Maori boy in delirium. A ship full of dazed country boys being carried to
They knew not what; then the shouting, cursing, welding into one following unit
On Salisbury plain; numb fingers, numb brains still dazed, and then into
Menin Road, mud, dear friends' frozen faces that lay in the mud for us to pass
Each day; death so common, one wished for it; Dead Mule valley by night and
Alone; a vacant world gone insane, to the insane orchestra of an insane
Machine gunner; shattered trees that lifted shattered heads to a dead
Sky; but there was a man who gave a bowl of rice and milk when dysentry
Would make no food stay; who gave his bed to lie on for a day;
Comradeship did that, though so much else we had been taught had been
Forgotten, violated; and there was the apprentice from the bookshop
Who sold one treasures in High School days—and he lay beside and died
With torn intestines and a calm face; and the policeman who once had
Warned one for riding bicycles on footpaths; his arm was torn off;
He died in agony; and then through hospitals, operation tables, back to
Homeland quietness; down through the East Indies, and the quiet wonder of
Panama; to a home, years, that were no count of time, had almost made
Forgotten; and one felt like something from another world; apart.
Quiet normality in Moeawatea Valley, valley that sleeps in the
Daytime. A few scattered settlers in vast forest areas under the shadow of
Egmont; where horses could not pull, we pulled; sweating up cliff faces,
The last garment, tattered shorts, put on shoulders to keep fencing posts
From chaffing; shearing sheep, building houses, cooking, reading, swimming
Flooded rivers after timber, swapping lies about pig hunts; producing
Wool for a glutted market, struggling to meet interest, ever mounting interest
On mortgages, hoping for one day land sale, and riches; and trampling
On the flowers at our feet; food that grew abundantly, water power page 5 that asked
To be used to make the wool we threw away into the socks we needed;
Better had we tilled the few flats, and let the hills stay in forest; found
Bits of industry for off days; but we had been sick, and we were getting
Well again . . . and there was the loveliness after rain, the bell birds
In crimson Rata trees, sheep stringing out on the ridge.
Gone were dreams in the daytime; and down one reeking lane after
Another, fronted with blasphemous names, "Five Happiness Courts", "Blessed
Harmoney Alleyways", where people rotted in conditions intolerable in the
New Industry that went to make men rich; make who rich, I never really
Found out; all connected with the business seemed to be rotting in one
Way or another. A long way from Taranaki to Shanghai? Not at all—though
The way did lie through a fertiliser factory in Botany Bay, wireless room
On a freighter picking up indentured labour at Rabaul, Ocean Island, Nauru,
Then on to Ilo Ilo and Hongkong; and one saw ways of working, and of using
Men, one had not known of before; and dissatisfaction came, which deepened as
One pressed through Shanghai lanes; and one watched history being made,
Watched what happened to those who fought warlords; watched lives that
Snatched at shadows, and left the substantial; wondered how shadows could
Be made so real, given great names, armies, titles, newspapers; while in
Ten thousand villages the substantial lay neglected; then one Spring
To a shabby city not far from reeking Shanghai, to see Plum Blossom beside
A great lake; and on the return walk to the railway station to see
Other blossoms; five lads stripped and being dumped; an unshaven red
Eyed little man with a pistol, pressing it against each throbbing brain
In turn; end what had been effort to help the rotting fingers, scalded arms
Of silk filature children one had seen so helplessly; they didn't look
Much like what we had heard to be labour leaders, but that is what Shanghai
Papers said next day they were; a fat shop apprentice clapped his hands
After each shot, turning a laughing face upward; all this indelible ink
Written on the parchment of one's skull. Then there were days in escape
From Shanghai's concentrated misery; days in Tien Ping San; soft glory of
Leaves, Shih Hu, Mo Do, Junk sails from the top of Quinsan Hill; then a
Change in scene—Mongolian plains, famine swept Saratsi2 and a crazy canal,
Corpses raked into holes; grain merchants fat and happy, sunshine, bandits,
Ingram3 the doctor delousing peasants; intellectuals on summer vacation
Concerned about face and fame in the midst of unutterable horror; and then
In other years to other fields; Japan, Korea, Sungari River in Summer
Changsha after revolution, Wutai, Tai and Hua Shan, the soul tearing beauty
And misery, inextricable mixture that is always China; the great flood,4
Dyke repair, the general who said 300,000 refugees were red bandits to be
Gotten out in two weeks; Han River banks jammed; mud and slough; wet
Padded clothes, babies being bom, old dying, youth being executed, dykes
Taking shape, wheat, more wheat, and not all going to dyke workers; then
A few quiet weeks through tropics to familiar shores; taking Alan5 and
A memory that would not pass; of two eyes that had passed on a Hankow road,
Where they had come, killers and the to be killed, and with the last,
One who walked lightly, whose eyes burned steadily, looking past the sordid
Street, past the terror; a flapping uniform flattened out in the bitter
Wind against his spare form; and one felt like throwing off the greatcoat
That suddenly became too warm, leaving the ranks of the well fed, curious,
Joining him; yet one only slumped back; let the procession pass, felt
Cold and exhausted; and the eyes stayed; and they are still with one.
Who was he? What had he done? Heaven knows!
Two adopted sons. Shanghai and work to do. The birth of better
Factory inspection; and one was with industrial sickness, industrial disputes,
Industrial hopelessness, industry gone mad, lopsided, the spider city battening
On a bankrupt interior; the mess that could yet be left to see
Azaleas on Chekiang hills in Spring, purple clover and yellow rape, peasants
In blue moving quietly, temples and bridges, beauty without which life
Would have been utterly crazy. And good friends who also passed, and left
Their mark as all true friends do; Lu Hsun.6 and the rest; and people came
To look at Shanghai's misery, came and went solemnly; and some wrote books
About China, and some said a few sentences about the chaos of newer
Industry; and there were shelves filled with books, and home comfort;
Too many, too much, and one wondered if the world would go on like this
For ever; then off to factories in other corners—Chicago, Pittsburgh,
New York, Birmingham, Copenhagen, Hamburg, and then from Paris and Geneva
Back to a toppling Shanghai; corpses piled high, dogs dragging bones down
Deserted streets; home and books gone; Alan with a piece of bomb cut from
An arm, waiting for Mike5 for a place to fight back; an insane Shanghai, then.
Hankow in Summer heat, with Japanese advancing steadily. Yet the same
Old Hankow. Trying to get factories to the Northwest this time, trying to
Be midwife to the infant Gung Ho, trying to get people to really work
Together—Kiangsi, Fukien, Kwangtung; then into Chekiang and Anhwei again.
From Ordos sands by Yulin, down to Meihsien, back to Chungking and Chengtu,
Lanchow and Loyang again; typhoid, malaria, and all the narks; but people did
Work together; especially the common ones; it was quite a trail; Sungpan
Thibetans,7 army blankets, from the sheep's back to the soldier's back,
Misunderstandings; different ideas; dialects, hours in Chungking dugouts,
In Yamens,8 in chasing rats; in conferences; and then more conferences;
Letters by the million; where are all those letters? A little success, a lot
Of failure; plenty who died for the job, as well as those who deserted it;
Plenty to make one feel humble enough; to deflate the most optimistic; much
To learn, little time to learn it in; groping, and more groping ....
More conferences, more army blankets; more lads who once had
Ideals, leaving them for new positions, new wealth, new fame; tattered armies
On highways, leaving their dead with dysentery, with every other thing;
Profiteers who laughed at production; who the devil wants industry in villages?
The people cannot be trusted — — — why give them industry? Yet there were so
Many who helped; and in Shwangshihpu,9 a mountain village, George twenty
Years younger, and so much wiser, decides with others that if we are to (build)
A future Gung Ho, we have to put more work into grass roots; and so the trek to
Sandan, ancient capital now a village, in the heart of China's Northwest
Where raw material, poverty, and opportunity march together; and the lads
Pulled, hauled, rode on trucks that spilled them off, and finally they all
Collected there; and George said, "We'll live in Sandan, die in Sandan"—and
He died all right, fighting tetanus spasms; and perhaps because of that the
School loved, with its pottery, its tannery, paper and glass making; its
Machine shops and farm; its sheep out on the steppe, and its paifang10 beside
Playing fields, and the lads who now start going East again, with new
Understanding. Inflation drains the villages anew; friends help in
Many lands to hold what we have struggled for together; that is epic!
Dream? Why, there's a million things to do. And they say
Go away—and write, talk—and outside, the wind rattles the shutters; a
Dragon's head falls from the temple roof next door—it has stood since
Ming,11 which is not so bad; and tomorrow we'll go the rounds again; past the hut
Where there is a big fat dog coiled up in a basket too small for her, and then
The next house where there is a dog in a basket too big for him ....
1 k'ang—a bed of mud bricks warmed by a fire which can be lit underneath it in winter time.
2 Saratsi—in Inner Mongolia. The drought and famine of 1929 were responsible for the deaths of 3,000,000 people in Northern China, and Rewi Alley spent his Summer holidays on relief work in this area.
3 Ingram—"A famous Mission doctor, killed by bandits in his seventies. Father of Ruth Ingram, well known W.H.O. Health worker who was here in 1947. Dr Ingram was a very powerful personality." Rewi Alley.
4 The great flood—the Yangtze flood of 1931. According to Sir John Hope Simpson of the National Flood Commission. Rewi Alley was largely responsible for the successful distribution of the 300,000 refugees. He organised the dispersal, and arranged for transport and supplies of food.
5 Alan and Michael—the two Chinese boys adopted by Rewi Alley, one during the famine, and the other during the rebuilding of the dykes.
6 Lu Hsun—the pen-name of the famous Chinese writer Chou Shu-jen (1881-1936).
7 Sungpan Thibetans—In "Scorched Earth" Edgar Snow relates how he once met Rewi Alley in Chengtu. Western Szechuan. "He had just walked back 250 li from Thibetan Singp' an, across mountain tracks where few Chinese dare go [unclear: unccompanied] by armed escort."
8 Yamens—a yamen is the Provincial Magistrate's Office.
9 Shwanshihpu-Southern Shensi, the home of the training school before it was transferred to Sandan. In his book "I See a New China" George Hogg describes Rewi Alley's cave in Shwangshihpu. Its distinctive feature was "that at any time out of school hours it is filled with boys. Boys looking at picture magazines and asking millions of questions. Boys playing the gramophone and singing out of tune. Boys doing gymnastics off Rewi's shoulders or being held upside down. Boys being given enemas, or rubbing sulphur ointment into each others' scabies. Boys standing in brass wash-basins and splashing soapy water about. Boys toasting bare bottoms against the stove. Boys pulling the hairs on Rewi's legs, or fingering the generous proportions of the foreigners' nose. Boys are Just the same any where, says Rewi. "Wouldn't those kids have a swell time in New Zealand!"
10 paifang—See note to "Then we raised a paifang ... "
11 Ming—the Ming Dynasty, 1369-1644.