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Rewi Alley’s Shanghai Days

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Transcript of an interview between Andy Boreham and Dave Bromwich about Rewi Alley and his time in Shanghai

Can you briefly introduce yourself?

My name’s Dave Bromwich, I’m a member of the New Zealand China Friendship Society. I’ve been president for the last seven years and on the executive for nearly twenty years. I started coming to China 29 years ago. I’ve now come to China about 50 times, with a total of about nine years altogether. In that time I’ve traveled to every province of China, except Taiwan. I’m also involved closely with the Gung Ho Cooperative Movement, which we’ll hear a bit more about, with Rewi Alley and also have a lot of visits to the Bailie schools in China. I also enjoy bringing China Friendship Society and personal tours to China to introduce other people to China.

Who is Rewi Alley?

Rewi Alley always described himself as an ordinary bloke, but in fact he turned out to be a man of exceptional talent and extraordinary experience. From the time he arrived in China, right through to the end of his 60 years, he clearly made a very big impact. And when we look at what he did in Shanghai, he went on to have national status with national leaders, including people like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and significantly Song Qingling. Now, I think, in his relationship between New Zealand and China, he is very significant in the relationship because our Prime Minister, your President, always refer to him as the father of the relationship.

How was Shanghai and important part of his legacy?

When you read Rewi’s biography, you realize that when he first arrived in Shanghai, he wasn’t a particularly political animal. He clearly had a lot of compassion as part of his character, but in the time in Shanghai, a lot of his experiences and the people he met shaped his politics, but also taught him a sense of righteousness, which he then started to practice in the activities that followed from the time he started leaving, or even in the time he was in Shanghai. He is what I best describe, in Chinese, as having a lot of 仁 and developing a lot of 义。So when he was in Shanghai, the experiences he had include the time when he was a factory inspector and he witnessed and saw a lot of atrocious working conditions; children locked in factories 12 hours a day, appalling conditions, no escape if there was a fire.

He also witnessed other events from that very chaotic period from 1927 through to 1930s, ’38. I remember one incident he recalls in his biography is witnessing some young laborers being strung on poles and being carted off to an execution ground, simply because they were laborers and associated with the Communist Party (CPC). Those shocked him and he made this comment to one of his international colleagues at one point, he related that very appalling incident and he said: “Something’s got to be done.” And she said to him: “Well let’s get on with it then!” And that, I think, became the founding philosophy of Rewi Alley; let’s do it! 有办法,we can do it, and he moved on from there.

So, meeting international people, including the founders, the people he founded the Gong He Cooperative Movement with, the Snows, Helen Foster Snow and Edgar Snow, Song Qingling, a very, very important figure in his life in Shanghai, and throughout the rest of her life, and also a guy called Joseph Bailie who was an American educational philosopher on which he founded the Bailie Education Systems and founded some schools later on. So, very important in those two areas: experiences of atrocious conditions, and meeting some very intelligent international people.

Do you think his political awareness was fostered in Shanghai?

Yes, yes. They were possibly innate before then, but when he had those experiences of meeting with people, talking a lot, and the experiences he witnessed, the appalling chaos of Shanghai society in that period, I think that brought out whatever feeling was innate. And he very quickly started to associate with, for example in 1932 he went off to help with the flood damage in Wuhan, 洪湖 rehabilitation there, volunteered his time, he did some more voluntary time in Inner Mongolia, so he started to work with the people for their benefit. And I guess you could say he probably wasn’t a person who spent a lot of time with the international bohemians who went to the Peace Hotel jazz bar, so he probably wasn’t of that ilk, or that society, but it was… you know, very fertile ground for international people back in the period when he arrived there, 1927 through.

If you could describe Rewi Alley’s legacy in just one or two sentences, how would you do that?

I always consider Rewi Alley has three, distinct legacies that are quite significant. The first is establishing the Bailie education system and founding several schools, notably initially in Shanxi Province, Baoji Fengxian, Shuangshipu which got moved to Shandan, and then that got moved to Lanzhou later on. The Bailie Education System is a philosophy of using hands and minds together, so rather than relying on classroom education, to use half time in the classroom and half time experiencing and doing work. In Shandan there are a lot of vocational training courses which, theoretical training, and then practical training in the workshop situations.

The second key legacy he left was his work with the cooperative movement, initially called INDUSCO, and he later revisited that, brought it back to life again in 1987 called Gong He, Work Together, so that was initially established to move factories from the areas in the east of China, when they were getting bombed out by the Japanese, largely, and they moved a lot of factories to the west. In the period of about three years he established 2,000 small cooperatives scattered throughout the west of China. They provided employment, they moved equipment, they were small and very, not significant targets at all so very, very successful serving the war effort, effectively, at that time. But then they went on to helping the reconstruction of China right through until 1949, effectively, when the communist era came in and they had a different system, but not incompatible. So that is what I consider his second legacy, both of which have been continued to today.

And the third legacy is, I think his concept of international peace and friendship, and it was in 1952, after he’d moved to Beijing, that he encouraged New Zealand friends to establish the New Zealand China Friendship Society, so we’re, I think, possibly the oldest existing China Friendship Society, started in 1952, 68 years old now, with a philosophy, really, of encouraging mutual understanding, so helping outsiders to understand and appreciate what China really was, because of course there’s always been very bad press about China and unfortunately it continues through to today. So those, I think, are his three key legacies. So that’s not a brief description, so I’ll summarize.

Three key legacies are: establishing the Bailie education philosophy and schools; establishing the cooperative movement, expressed today as Gong He, and; encouraging international peace and friendship and mutual understanding between peoples of China and people of foreign countries.

What are some of the important locations I should visit here in Shanghai that relate to Rewi Alley’s life and legacy?

If you were to follow his arrival in Shanghai in a chronological order, the first place you may like to go is to go to the Shiliupu Docks down the southern end of Zhongshan East Road, which is where he first stepped ashore in Shanghai with a bag and no knowledge of where he was going. Of course there’s no acknowledgement of that happening but that’s where he started his journey.

He very quickly got a job at the Hongkou Fire Station as a fireman, and then he became a fire safety inspector, and that’s where he went into a lot of these factories and found the appalling conditions.

In this time, in 1932 he rented a place on Yuyuanjie in the French Concession area and he was there for five years, until 1937. It was quite a large building, at that time he had become quite politicized. He was supporting communists who were trying to flee from being routed out, so he would sometimes hide them and act as a holding place while they escaped. But also, on the top floor he operated a radio which was one of the few means that the Communist Party in those days could communicate with the outside, so quite brave, but also quite significant in that era.

At that time, also, he was a frequent visitor to Song Qingling’s mansion, which is in fact Song Yatsen’s old house, so there are photographs remembering us of his visiting there in Song Qingling mansion, so that’s another place, I think, of some significance.

And then, if you come right forward to today, to note that he is still remembered as a very important person, go to his cemetery statue, at the cemetery in Qingpu. So Qingpu is a very contemporary cemetery with a lot of people’s ashes held in different floors and drawers. There are some people out on the lawn with gravestones marking their position. Rewi has a very nice location, under a tree looking out over a little lake which has swans swimming in it, and I think that is a note of the esteem with which he is still held, and that was opened, that bust of Rewi there was opened in 2014 and I had the privilege of being present and escorted a young member of Alley family, I think a third or fourth generation of Alley family who assisted with the unveiling of that statue there.

So I think those would be, to me, probably the five most significant sites in Shanghai to visit.

Rewi was announced as one of China’s ten best foreign friends in the 20th century. How significant is that?

In China, the position of Rewi as number seven in that survey that was done several years ago is, I think, very significant because in the last century there have been a lot of foreigners who have worked in China and helped China. The top on, of course, is Norman Bethune, he died a martyr. Perhaps if Rewi Alley had died a martyr he would been even higher but he lived 60 years in China and still maintained that position. I think the people who met him and knew him from his earlier days, and his most significant period is probably the thirties and forties, and I have met a number of those people, some of them are still alive and they’re in their eighties now, nineties even, they revered him. And I think the fact that, in that internet survey that he achieved that position, shows how important and how significant he was right through.

To New Zealand, in New Zealand unfortunately not so many people are aware of the significance that he holds, but if you recognize whenever a New Zealand prime minister and the President of China meet, they will spend quite a reasonable amount of time initially acknowledging Rewi Alley and the position he holds in our relationship. For example, I was present in Beijing when John Key opened the New Zealand China Council there and there was a video on Rewi Alley. A good five minutes. I was also present at a lunch in Auckland, one of 500 but I was still there when Xi Jinping was hosted by John Key in 2015 I think it was. Xi Jinping, in his speech, initially spent at least two minutes acknowledging Rewi Alley and the place he holds in our relationship, so very, very significant still.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think the significance of Rewi Alley, it could die out if we just recall him as a historical figure. But on every occasion when I’ve had the opportunity to speak, and perhaps I should add I escorted the Rewi Alley family in 2017 on the 120th occasion out to the northwest and to the Great Hall of the People, whenever I gave a speech I said it’s great to commemorate Rewi Alley, but in between times, before the next ten years is up, what we need to do is we actually need to act on our commemoration of him and try and keep delivering outcomes from his legacy that are significant, for example the cooperative movement. It’s a modern era, we need to change, we don’t want to repeat what he does, our research needs to look at how we can continue his legacy and what he brought. There’s a book out called Collected Papers on the International Spirit of Rewi Alley and we need to actually just keep building on that, because without a figure on which to base things, perhaps that spirit gets lost in modern day and, you know, with cellphone technology for example, it’s very easy to quickly lose sight of some of those people who hold a very important part in the foundation of our relationship and on the foundation of society in China.