This is a report from Philip Hall, Kathleen’s great nephew. He was invited to Beijing to attend the 70th Anniversary Celebrations (3rd September 2015) commemorating the end of the Japanese War.
I grew up hearing stories from my family about my Great Aunt Kathleen. She has been a hero of mine for as long as I can remember. It was a great honour, then, to be invited by the Chinese Government to join the recent 70th anniversary celebrations in Beijing.
Everything about China is, of course, impossibly vast. The celebrations were no exception. Even the official name was huge: The 70th anniversary celebrations of victory in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War.
This makes it all the more remarkable that the contributions of Kathleen – a humble woman from tiny New Zealand – were not only remembered, but honoured.
The anniversary day itself started with a military parade, followed by a formal lunch. Both were extensive and impressive. During the lunch, in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, President Xi gave a speech to mark the occasion. When he mentioned New Zealand, I am pleased to say that he and the many heads of state in attendance will have heard a polite but enthusiastic cheer from one of the tables.
That evening we returned to the Great Hall for one of the most remarkable live performances I have ever seen, chronicling the events of the war through song and dance. It concluded with scores of smiling young children standing across the front of the stage, gazing into the distance, symbolising China’s future. I was lucky enough to be in the front row of the audience, and as we stood and clapped and cheered I was astounded to see not a single child broke character or diverted his or her gaze until the lights had dimmed.
I later travelled south of Beijing to see all the places I had learned about in my youth, including the remote village where my Great Aunt had worked for many years. I visited the school there, named after Kathleen, and spent time with the children, who wholly outclassed me when it came to speaking each other’s language. I was helped and guided the entire time by the indomitable Ma Barou, who probably deserves an honorary knighthood for her contribution to China – New Zealand relations.
During my visit I met and befriended many people whose relatives had, with great bravery, sacrifice and skill, contributed to China during the 20s, 30s and 40s. (Mark Bethune, a direct descendant of Dr. Norman Bethune, was most intrigued to learn more about Kathleen and Norman’s work together). We all swapped our stories; they were all remarkable.
Kathleen’s story – a brave and devoted woman from a small and still-new nation, working in a vast and ancient country torn apart by war – deserves to be told and re-told. I was honoured to have had the chance to do so in Beijing, and am very grateful for the work the New Zealand China Friendship Society does to help keep her memory alive.
– Philip Hall