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A Life of Deeds and Some Little Fame – Rewi Alley

by Rhonda Bartle  

Rewi Alley: Photo thought to have been taken around the time he went to China. Image: Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Rewi Alley: Photo thought to have been taken around the time he went to China. Image: Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

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China, Rewi Alley

You could say Rewi Alley's parents were responsible for the man he became. He was the third of seven children produced by a school master, and a wife who was passionate about the sufferance and temperance movements.

Born in Springfield, Canterbury in 1897, Alley was named by his childless Aunt Amy, who had great admiration for Ngati Maniopoto leader, Rewi Maniapoto. "I, a little blonde Anglo-Saxon, was given a Maori name," Alley later wrote.
From his autobiography: "People owe a good deal to their parents and to their early formative years. I was certainly fortunate in my parents. My father, Frederick James Alley, was a schoolmaster. The son of an early Irish immigrant to New Zealand, he had come up the hard way and became a pupil-teacher at the age of fourteen. He was a great believer in social progress, a socialist before his time.
"My mother, Clara Maria Buckingham, was a woman of great ability, balanced and thoughtful. She was from a Norfolk family in England, which immigrated to New Zealand in 1884.
"She was a woman ahead of her time, always as young and progressive as the youngest. She had a breadth of understanding of international issues remarkable in our New Zealand society…to have such a mother was my great good fortune." 
While his mother 'loved ducks, bees, roses, cats, tramps and all kids' she belonged to an inspired group of women who fought for and obtained women's suffrage in the early days in New Zealand.
The Alleys instilled a keen interest in social reform and education in all their children. Though Rewi's eldest brother Eric was killed at Armentiers, France, Geoffrey worked as a travelling Workers Educational Association tutor sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation, played for the All Blacks and became New Zealand's first National Librarian.
Gwendolen, Kath and Joyce were all teachers, with Joyce becoming a prominent nursing administrator.  Phillip lectured at Canterbury University's engineering school.
Alley chose a different path when he joined the New Zealand Army in 1916 to serve in France. But it was a chance meeting with two Chinese nationals there that would one day launch a fascination for China and set him on the journey that would change his life.

From France to a back blocks farm

In 1916, Alley enlisted in the army: "I admired my brother Eric when he enlisted as a lieutenant 12 days after the war began. I was hoping he would remember the good old school, which to me was then the greatest thing.
"It was something heroic for a high school boy in those days to be killed and so have his name inscribed on the Roll of Honour. When the message came that Eric had been killed in France, I became even more impatient of any delay and determined I would follow him.
"I tried to enlist by advancing my age by about six months, but still did not get away. My people were angry because I was too young. But at the end of 1916, I went into camp when I was 19, the usual age being 20."
After being wounded in combat in France, Alley returned to New Zealand with a companion, Jack Stevens. Together they took up land under the returned soldiers' settlement scheme, and began a near-impossible six year tortuous stint breaking in a back country bush farm at Moeawatea, inland from Waverley in South Taranaki. 
"The farm, 800 hectares in size, was a piece of tough land, hilly though fertile. Half of it was still in forest. We took it over for £12,000 and I put in all my wartime savings, my dead elder brother's wartime savings and some money my father gave me.
"In the 1920s, there was a great deal of this land up the Whenuakura Valley, the Moeawatea Valley, and the upper reaches of the Waitotara, as there was elsewhere on the west coast of the North Island." 

No time to sleep

While Moeawatea means 'sleep in the daytime', there was no chance of that for Alley or Stevens with all the cooking, gardening, milking, butter-making, mustering, scrub-cutting, burning off and sowing grass necessary to survive.
And then there was fencing, shearing, dipping and docking, not to mention mending the road just to get in and out for supplies.
"The stories of the struggles that have been made to tame it and use it for better livelihood and better production are an epic so far unwritten. Ours was an isolated back-country farm. We farmed there in a pioneer way and increased the stock to 1000 sheep and 100 cattle. We worked like slaves, sometimes 16 hours a day."
The men often wore nothing but boots, their shorts over their shoulders for shoulder pads. "We were supremely alone. You could shout as hard as you liked, but no one would hear."
Yet despite the obvious hardships, Alley wrote lyrically of other aspects of life there: 
"Our four-roomed house, called locally a 'whare' was built on a narrow flat, in a valley overlooking a deep river with wonderful scenic country around it. 
"Many a scene comes back to me as vividly almost as when I saw it, so deep an impression did it make. The rata trees in flower, the birds, the brushing of wet fern against my bare legs as I climbed over ridges on rainy days, chasing wild pigs. 
"It was wonderful country for fruit – we planted lemon trees that grew like magic, fruit trees that bore loads of fruit, a vegetable garden in which lettuce, rhubarb and celery grew like nowhere else I have ever seen."
But after six years of loneliness and struggle, watching the price of wool drop to almost nothing, Alley moved off the farm, leaving it to his newly married partner and wife. There was not enough profit to be had at Moeawatea for one person, let alone three.
Yet he carried away with him an enduring internal and external strength, and stamina that seemed to stand him in good stead for a lifetime.

A slow boat to China

In 1927, Alley decided to go to China, a country shaken by revolution, with the idea of joining the Shanghai police.
"Shanghai in those days was beset with social upheavals," he explains in his autobiography.
"Three workers' uprisings had been organised. During the third uprising, the workers led by Zhou Enlai himself gained control of the city. Terrified by the triumphant advance of the Northern Expedition Army, Chiang Ka-shek decided to check the rapidly growing Communist influence among the workers and peasants by force.
"He abruptly broke the alliance of the Kuomintang and the Communist Party and started a massacre in cold blood. Hundreds and thousands of Communists and union workers were arrested, tortured and shot, their heads being kept in cages hung on telegraph poles along the streets. The White terror reigned in Shanghai and other parts of the country."
Caught up in the conflict - though he did not have a clear picture of it at the time - Alley was spat on by a worker when he stepped off the boat.  He found work as a sub-officer in the Shanghai Fire Department.
A friendship with Joseph Baillie, an Irish-American missionary, had a great impact on him, as bit by bit, he came to see the poverty and racism rife throughout the city and found it impossible to ignore.

Appalling working conditions

By 1932, Alley's main role as Chief Factory Inspector for the Shanghai Municipal Council took him through factories filled with unspeakable horrors suffered by China's slave labour – children.
"In my work as factory inspector, one of the most miserable experiences was to see the incredible torture of the young children working on the then exiting system in silk filatures.
"The children, many not more than eight or nine years old, stood for twelve hours over boiling vats of cocoons, with swollen red fingers, inflamed eyes and sagging eye muscles.
"Many would be crying from the beating of the foreman, who would walk up and down behind their long rows with a piece of No.8 wire as a whip. Their tiny arms were often scalded in punishment if they passed a thread incorrectly."
Conditions in other factories were as bad, with antimony and lead poisoning common. "I recall small boys who stood wearily, day and night, over buffing wheels, their pitiful limbs encrusted with the grime of emery powder, sweat and metal dust.
"They worked over open chromium vats without exhausts for the poisonous fumes around them, sores ate into their flesh and their hands and feet were pitting with 'chrome holes' nearly impossible to cure under their horrible working conditions."
Seeing children in such inhumane conditions denied even the most basic existence, meant Alley's thoughts turned more and more to reform. He instigated every improvement to improve their lives - from ordering the cooking of unwashed rice to save vitamin B, to providing medicine.
When the famine of 1929 rammed home the plight of the peasants, he toured rural China helping the China International Famine Relief Commission.
That same year he adopted a Chinese boy, Alan.  Later he would adopt another child, Mike. Alley was homosexual and never married.

A man on a mission

Over the following few years, Alley took reform ideas to Korea, Japan and many parts of East China, and in 1932 once again helped with famine relief. 
Despite lingering illness, he travelled the country widely, gathering knowledge, experience and authority that made him unique amongst foreigners in China.
By 1938, co-operatives had been organised right across China to off-set the Japanese blockade of central China, as well as a school at Shandan fired by Alley's interest in education.
He also initiated the Gung Ho movement – working tirelessly to establish the Industrial Co-operative (INDUSC), adopting the slogan ‘Gung Ho’ which slipped easily into English vocabulary and would be recognised forever as his catch-cry that anything was possible.

In 1953, Alley made Beijing his home, continuing to build and run schools throughout the country.
Though still suffering recurring malaria, he took his Gung Ho principles around the world, working with key political figures like Mao Zedong and Che Guevara.
By the time he was 82, Alley had produced a book a year for three decades. Today, as author of many fiction, non-fiction and poetical works, he is considered the largest producer of western writings on China the world has known.
Presented with the Queen's Service Order at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing in 1985, he died two years later at the age of 90.
Before his death, Alley summed up for his autobiography: "For the past 59 years I have watched the efforts of the Chinese people to throw off their shackles, stand up and order their own destiny, ever fighting their way through. Little as I knew when I arrived from New Zealand, I had come to learn something of the greatness of the Chinese civilization and of its potential for the future.
"I realised China was a crucible where a new kind of people was being forged through ten thousand tribulations, a people who could build up a strong organised country. It was my privilege to have close contact with the working folk, to live with them and join in their struggle."
From Advice to Myself, written in 1970:
Surely none will listen
if your admonitions are too many
your pontifications too heavy;
each ringing dully,
like a very bad penny;
too much of the same,
too often said.
Is that all you have stored in your head?
Pull out the stops,
let the organ sound...
and the man you aim
to reach will respond,
pick up his tools,
go on with his work,
realising anew
that change must come
and he is part of it.
Rewi Alley

First published 4 January 2006




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