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Rewi Alley: Holding on to his history

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Jane Furkert’s 2016 Rewi Alley Friendship & Exchange Fund-backed project involved locating monuments to Rewi Alley that exist in various more or less obscure cities across China.  In retrospect, the final results look simple – details of the monument, its location, and how to get there. 
The actual process proved slightly more challenging than that…       Below is Jane’s tale of one of those discoveries.

‘Holding onto his history’

Honghu

“Rewi Alley spent time in the 1930s in Honghu on flood relief work.  Research using the internet and asking people had indicated only that ‘there was a house Rewi lived in, it had been relocated, and housed a small museum’.  This was from a letter dated 2004 addressed to Bill Willmott (thanks Bill for providing the only clue!), where it said the museum was still under construction and also that the city wished to erect a statue of Rewi in the town square. Another conversation had mentioned a library – whether this was the same as the museum was unclear.

“First task – locate Honghu!  Many place names in China are similar, so making sure I was searching in the correct province – Hubei [rather than ‘Hebei’] – was the first step.   Is Honghu a city? A town?   I learn it is part of Jingzhou city, but doesn’t have a train station.  Studying maps reveals it is closer to the conglomerate city of Wuhan (pop. 10 million) – from a travelling perspective Jingzhou is an unnecessary detour – don’t go there!   The lack of a railway, unusual in eastern China, seems to be because the area is surrounded by lakes, rivers, marshes – the name Honghu means “flooded lake”.   Wuhan has many bus stations, a Chinese friend does the searching and finds a bus going to Honghu from one of them and he finds out the cost and time it will take – vital clues to indicate that you are on the correct bus, also whether the time/cost match your expectations.   

“Going to towns such as Honghu, which are not even on the Chinese tourist trail, means travel is challenging: no English will be spoken, many hotels will not accept foreigners, people will be curious but incredibly friendly and willing to help.

“A day’s travel to Wuhan, another day to Honghu – crossing the Yangtze river, a bus change en route, three hours alongside canals and small villages, very picturesque.

“I arrive at Honghu bus station about 2pm, in this city of 300,000.  The feel of being in small-town China is interesting – everyone stares with surprise at me, many say waiguoren (“foreigner”) as I pass.  As usual my hotel is not where the booking site, or maps, put it – GPS co-ordinates can only be published in China with about 1km accuracy.  I ask a taxi driver, and he drives me, insisting on no charge – people are so friendly!  No English out front, I’d never have known it was a hotel!

“The hotel people are a bit nonplussed, though friendly.  They ring a friend in Wuhan who speaks English, to help me check-in.  I’m just glad they accept foreigners, the only other hotel on the booking website I use says Chinese Mainlanders only.  I ask about Rewi Alley and translator/friend is rung again for me but she knows nothing of him.

“Well, I’ve found the route here, found the bus station, found a hotel – that’s some of the info I need.  Now just to find the Rewi sites!  Walk around town, hoping to spot something.  I find the town square park, where they wanted to erect a statue of Rewi – but no sign of one. Crowds of elderly are playing board games, chatting, drinking tea – I ask if they know of Rewi (ie show his name in Chinese characters to them), just in case his statue is nearby.

“Circle around some more streets, looking for parks or museums or public places. Back in the hotel, I ask if there is a library (by Google translating and then photographing the Chinese word).  There is! And a hotel guy offers to show me – as I obviously wasn’t understanding his verbal directions. It’s only two streets away, and – I don’t believe my luck – it’s called ‘Rewi Alley Library’!!! I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot – I didn’t really expect to succeed here! 

“Next morning, I repeat my successful search technique – translate the characters for museum, show them to the hotel – and yes! there is a museum in the city.

“I head to the library first. It is open and a helpful woman gets a man to take me to find the museum.  At the museum, various men phone other men and one gets permission from a boss.  He then goes with me in a taxi to find…. Rewi Alley Memorial Hall, and Rewi Alley Former Residence. I’ve hit the jackpot twice in two days!!  All this achieved by just saying ‘Rewi Alley’ and ‘New Zealand man’ in Chinese, I’m able to indicate sufficiently what I want. Sincere thanks to all the dozens of locals who are so friendly and keen to help even without a smattering of English.

“At the Hall, we go to an adjacent building.  More bosses are greeted (I can tell they are boss-men as they are seated at big desks in their individual impressive offices).  Phone calls are made, and a man arrives with a key to unlock the Hall.  I’m given a personal viewing – 4 rooms on the ground floor, and 4 above.  Many photos on the walls, original furniture and a bed, a weaving loom.  Quite a few locals come in to see what is happening – there is an outdoor market on the stop bank opposite.

“So, another location ‘achieved’.  For future visitors I can provide English information on getting to this town, bus station locations, buses, hotels that accept foreigners, locations and photos of the Rewi sites, descriptions of what is available and how to access it.  I may have revived local interest in the sites, the novelty of talking to a foreigner will be a tale to share around dinner tables tonight.  Many photos are taken;  I wonder if they’ll turn up alongside the records of past visitors – officials at the opening ceremony, and a women’s basketball team sometime in the last decade.  Have there been others?  Will there be others in future who make this pilgrimage, to keep alive the legend of Rewi Alley?   

“I’m holding on to his history, one little bit at a time.”

Jane Furkert

Jane’s project has been transformed into a series of website articles.  These can be accessed via the following links:

Rewi Alley’s China > Beijing > Shanghai > Hubei province > Shaanxi provinceGansu province > Shandan > Lanzhou >

Jane taught at Shandan Bailie School, September 2014 – July 2015, and wrote a number of interesting reports from there.

Editor’s notes:

  1. Rewi Alley worked on flood relief in Honghu during Spring, 1932, see ‘A Chronology of Rewi Alley’s Life‘).
  2. For more on Bill Willmott, see ‘NZCFS Life & Honorary Members
  3. ‘Stop bank'(New Zealand) is a dyke or an embankment built to prevent a river flooding.