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Brief Synopsis of Agnes Moncrieff – YWCA International Secretary China 1930-1945

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DON’T TRAVEL IN CHINA AT THE FULL MOON: Correspondence of Agnes Moncrieff from China 1930-1945 – Compiled by Barbara Francis – 2012

While in China from 1930 to 1945 working with the YWCA of China as a Foreign Secretary (later changed to International Secretary) Agnes Moncrieff (known to many as

Agnes Moncrieff, YWCA International Secretary of China 1930-1945
Agnes Moncrieff, YWCA International Secretary of China 1930-1945

Nessie)  hand wrote or typed hundreds of letters and reports to family and friends. As required by the YWCA of New Zealand, who paid her salary for fifteen years, she regularly sent them typed reports and kept carbon copies. She also kept copies of reports she wrote for the YWCA of China in the various positions she held, as well as copies of correspondence to YWCA Secretaries in other countries. Initially Agnes was based in Peking; then, on her return from furlough in 1936, in Shanghai. The Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1937 saw her moving to Hankow, until that too was about to be occupied and she was recalled to Shanghai until her 1940 furlough. Her final term 1941–1945 was spent in Chengtu. Although this part of the interior was not occupied by the Japanese, life there was very difficult.

Her family and friends kept all of their letters and gave them back to her when she came back home. On returning to New Zealand at the end of her first two terms Agnes brought back carbon copies of her reports. When she was in her seventies, after her retirement from the Correspondence School, she sorted through all of her papers and chose to keep just on 250 of them. Some reports of epic journeys she retyped; others she titled on an attached notelet. On the reverse side of one of these is a Whitcombe and Tombs receipt dated 28 July 1969. On a separate sheet is a list categorising the letters and reports from 1937 onwards, which form the greater part of her collection. Also included are a few letters from the YWCA of China thanking her for her work and commenting: “We very much value the contribution you are making as City Co-ordinator in these times of complex and baffling problems. You are handling difficult systems calmly and systematically with insight and understanding”. When Nessie also took on the position of Business Secretary they commented: “We believe that you can carry this dual responsibility to the satisfaction of all concerned … we wish to express our gratitude for your patience, your courage; your understanding of our need mean more to us in this time of struggle than ever before”.

In 2002 Agnes’s executor, gave the letters, other papers and correspondence, and a photograph album to the Alexander Turnbull Library Wellington where they form the Agnes Meikle Moncrieff Collection MS-Papers-7492. There are eleven folders in all, and one photograph album. They relate a fascinating story of a remarkable woman living and working in China, who helped to improve the quality of life for many Chinese women by being a much valued and needed executive secretary of the YWCA of China in this difficult time as Japan advanced and then occupied much of China. The correspondence describes not only what life was like for a New Zealand woman in her thirties and forties living and working in China, but also her observations of the Chinese and Japanese military strategies, and her horror at some of them. She was caught up in the Wuhan bombing raids and only just evacuated from Hankow in time. Part of her work involved travelling to visit YWCA associations in other cities and to attend conferences. Initially she travelled either by steamer on the Yangtze River, or by train which was often interrupted by air raids. As well as descriptions of the bombing raids on Wuhan, there are those of her train travel with frequent references to the dangers of what the full moon brings, hence the title. Her reports show amazing Chinese women, assisted by overseas secretaries, who saw that their YWCA programme catered to the wide variety of needs of the women of China at that time.

Even though the Sino-Japanese war was well under way, some semblance of social life still went on and Nessie wrote about dinner parties, concerts, and especially movies for relaxation and to ”forget about everything for an hour or so”. Through her work and social contacts Nessie knew and met a wide variety of people, from Madame Chiang Kai-shek to Agnes Smedley, as well as other Chinese, New Zealanders, and international workers and visitors, many of whom are now well known for what they have achieved. These are referenced in end notes at the end of the appropriate chapters. Of particular interest is the New Zealand author Robin Hyde, who as Iris Wilkinson had entered Wellington Girls’ College in 1919, just two years after Nessie left. In April 1938 she too was in Hankow and lived in the same complex as Nessie. In Dragon Rampant she wrote about her life in Hankow during that time and there are several similar accounts of events as well as meeting the same people Nessie wrote about. For much of that month Nessie was away in Changsha, but later she refers to Iris in one of her letters.

With war in Europe well under way and the Sino-Japanese War worsening, the New Zealand YWCA were most reluctant to allow Nessie to return for a third term. However the YWCA of China pleaded for her return commenting to the NZ YWCA that “… we miss her strengthening hand…” and “she is a living link binding our two movements together”. In a letter to Nessie, the Chairman commented “… your part in living through this difficult period with us has not only saved us from many troubles but also strengthened our morale. We have known that we could count upon your objective point of view and wise counsel”.

Due to the deteriorating situation in Shanghai, the YWCA of China had moved its headquarters to Chengtu in the interior, so it was to there Nessie travelled for her third and final term. The only overland route available to her was to travel with three returning missionaries – a six-week journey by truck from Rangoon up the Burma Road, into China and on to Chengtu, which she reached just two weeks before Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbour. Life in Chengtu was difficult for everyone as communication was sporadic and basic commodities very limited. As well as being responsible for all communications done in English Nessie also kept the two positions of City Secretary and Business Secretary. The latter was very complex as it involved keeping the books with six currencies in a time of runaway inflation and its attendant black market exchange rate. Back in New Zealand Nessie rarely spoke about this time and she only kept two letters from it. Fortunately several letters she wrote to the New Zealand YWCA were published in their monthly magazine and I have included these.

 In 1959, through my involvement with the Student Christian Movement, I boarded with Nessie in her home in Brooklyn, Wellington. I was fascinated by her stories of her life in China and the many mementoes she had. Although there was a forty-year gap between us, we became good friends and remained so until her death. When I moved to Christchurch we corresponded and her letters were so delightful that I kept them. We also met up when either of us visited the other’s city.

After returning to Wellington in 2007, I learned of the collection in the Alexander Turnbull Library. As I read through them I was totally overwhelmed at the experiences my friend had been through and what she had achieved. There was much she had never mentioned when talking of her time in China, most written in her delightful ‘Nessie’ style. Realising her other friends needed to know this, I copied out extracts to share with them and also researched other aspects of her early life which I compiled into a document called Our Friend Nessie. At the urging of the Wellington YWCA, I produced another document, Our Secretary in China, which they published. Nessie was the only New Zealander to be seconded to the YWCA of China.

In my quest for further information, especially about China at that time, I was put in contact with Dr Pauline Keating, Senior Lecturer in History, Asian Studies Institute Executive Committee, Victoria University of Wellington. She was most enthusiastic that the correspondence should be made available to a wide audience and recommended I produce “something substantial” that could interest Victoria University Press.

As a retired school teacher I have had no prior experience of research or publishing skills. Through Dr Keating’s recommendation that I had “uncovered a story that needs to be told and published.” I was fortunate in 2009 to be awarded a research grant from the New Horizons for Women Trust (Inc.). Since then I have worked at compiling the letters and reports to tell the life of this exceptional woman in China between 1930 and 1945, her observations on the people around her, and the work of the YWCA of China. 

Barbara Francis

Barbara Francis
Barbara Francis