We cross live to China, 1927

In this edited extract from her new book, Elsepth Sandys imagines the day that the legendary New Zealand humanitarian Rewi Alley first arrived in China.

Rewi Alley is standing on the deck of the ship that has brought him to Shanghai from Hong Kong. The date is April 21, 1927. He left his home in New Zealand five months ago with barely any money.  He stopped off in Sydney and worked in a fertiliser factory in Botany Bay for two months, studying at night to gain a wireless operator’s certificate so he could get free passage on an Australian ship.

He’s had adventures. He’s been in a fight. One of his co-workers at Botany Bay accused him of being the boss’s man. Rewi gave him a bloody nose. He’s made friends in the Philippines where the ship stopped for a week. He has come to China on not much more than a whim. He knows what he’s getting away from – the New Zealand way of life – but what he’s getting into is anyone’s guess.

He’s aware, of course, that there’s some kind of revolution going on – it’s why he’s come. What he doesn’t know is that in the past two weeks the city he will soon be calling home has seen arrests and executions on an unprecedented scale even for China. Hundreds of workers identified as communists, often wrongly, have been rounded up and shot. There has been a strike organised in part by a young communist called Zhou Enlai, recently returned from study in France. The strike has been called off, but that hasn’t stopped deputy premier Chiang Kaishek ordering the arrest of Zhou and the wholesale massacre of what Chiang disparagingly refers to as gong fei, red bandits. Anyone seen wearing red, the bandits’ chosen colour, is liable to be shot on the spot.

Everywhere he looks he sees boats – junks with dark red sails, packed with coal and bales of cotton and silk, barges carrying fruit and vegetables, iron girders and machinery, a couple of Japanese gunboats lurking menacingly. He’s done his reading. He knows that this river, the last tributary of the Yangtze before it flows into the East China Sea, is vital to China’s trade. But there is a world of difference between knowing something and seeing it in action.

By the time the ship docks at Nanjing Road, Rewi is suffering from sensory overload. The sights, sounds and smells of Shanghai are like nothing he’s ever experienced before. He’s used to chaos, the default condition of warfare, but this deafening, technicolor, highly pungent bedlam is something else.

He disembarks carrying his battered suitcase containing all he owns in the world – a few books, some writing materials, shirts, socks and three pairs of his ubiquitous shorts. No one else in Shanghai wears shorts, but that doesn’t deter Rewi. For the rest of his life, wherever he is in the world, he will prefer Kiwi mufti: shorts, shirt – he wears a tie only when compelled to – socks pulled up to the knee, sandals.

He looks around for signs to Immigration and Customs. Surely he has to register his arrival, declare what he is bringing into the country? But there’s nothing. Just groups of Chinese shouting at one another, darting this way and that as if in response to the calls of a drunken dancemaster. Rewi has made a start on learning Mandarin, but nothing he hears makes sense to him today. Soon he will learn that speaking Chinese is frowned upon by Europeans. They say to him, ‘Why are you bothering with that monkey language?’

He’s about to leave the wharf when a Chinese man – a worker, judging by his clothes – appears in front of him, stares at him a moment, then spits in his face. Rewi reels back, more in astonishment than outrage. What an extraordinary thing, he says to himself, wiping away the spittle. What an extraordinary country.

He swaps his suitcase to the other hand and heads towards the city. It’s April, there’s blossom on the trees, but that’s not what he smells: petrol fumes, cooking, the fishy smells from the river, the stench of rubbish, human sweat ... Later he will identify something else, the distinctive battlefield odour of sewage and rotting flesh. Even in peaceful times – which these are not – people living in the Chinese part of Shanghai die every day on the streets from famine, from overcrowding, from industrial accidents and appalling working conditions. Their bodies are tossed in the river, or gathered up, doused with gasoline and burned. No one talks about it. It’s commonplace. The smell is not supposed to reach the international settlements, but when the wind blows from that part of the city not even the most privileged inhabitants can claim to be ignorant of what’s happening beyond their borders.

Rewi stops to blow his nose. Something other than the smell is irritating his nostrils. He looks up. The air is full of thistledown. Of course, he thinks. Pollen from plane trees. Two out of every three trees in Shanghai, he will learn, is a plane tree. He’s about to move on when he hears the unmistakable sound of rifle fire. A brisk rat-a-tat-tat, followed by silence. He freezes. Old instincts pulse through his body. He doesn’t have a rifle but he knows how to take cover. Strange, he thinks, as his eyes scan the seemingly indifferent crowd, how gunfire, like the crying of babies, sounds the same wherever in the world you are.

Right, he says to himself as he starts walking again, I get the picture. It may be out of sight but there really is a revolution going on. He steps aside to avoid a rickshaw. It’s being pulled by a stick-thin coolie – the word comes from the Chinese word for bitterness – dressed in ragged trousers and sandals made from straw. The passenger is a fat European gent, wearing a white panama hat and sweating copiously. As the rickshaw passes, Rewi meets the man’s eye. A flicker of acknowledgement. ‘Did I tell you to slow down?’ the man shouts at the coolie. He glances back at Rewi. There’s more than acknowledgment now. It’s as if they’re in league. ‘Got to show the natives who’s boss,’ he yells, grinning. ‘Don’t pay them to dawdle.’

Rewi, his temper flaring, drops his suitcase. The frightened coolie is running now. Rewi makes as if to follow, then changes his mind. Punching that fat bastard’s nose would give him great satisfaction, but what would it do to the coolie? Earn him a whipping probably, or worse.

Sobered by the experience Rewi walks on. That man had recognised something in him that he would rather not think about. You and I are the same, he’d signalled. We’re the ruling elite. Well, I may be a supporter of empire, Rewi silently answers him, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit back and watch men like you lord it over people with far more right to be in this country than we have.

He pushes his way through the press of people, anxious now to find the boarding house in Sichuan Road where he’s arranged to stay. He’s been in big cities before but nothing has prepared him for this maelstrom. It’s not just the shoving, shouting, spitting crowd he has to navigate, it’s the streams of bicycles, rickshaws, wheelbarrows, carts pulled by mangey mules. It’s the swerving cars and trucks, the children shouldering yokes from which buckets carrying God knows what swing precariously. The noise - shouting, tooting, banging, braying, the screech of brakes - is frightening.

As a foreigner he attracts the attention of street sellers: a man with a wispy beard and a queue (pigtail) tries to sell him cigarettes; a woman with a child tied to her leg offers fried turnip cakes and basket buns (Shanghai specialties); other women proffer dumplings, pancakes, sugar cane. He passes children sitting on the pavement making briquettes, a beggar playing a bamboo flute He passes a curtained doorway with the signs of the zodiac carved into the wall above. He watches as one man enters and another leaves.

Now he’s in a tiny alley which he will mistakenly call a hutong (the Mongolian word for well), the name given to the maze of alleys and lanes, home to poor and working Chinese in Beijing. Here in Shanghai, he will learn, they’re called longtangs. As he threads his way from one to the other, he becomes increasingly disoriented. Pointless to consult his map. These muddy thoroughfares don’t even warrant a mention.

For some time now he’s been followed by a gang of kids wearing split pants. Some are carrying straw bags filled with cigarette butts. When they crowd close, he reaches into his pocket for coins, explaining – pointlessly, they don’t understand him any more than he understands them – that this is all he has. In one particularly odorous longtang he stops to watch a woman shake bamboo sticks out into a fan on the baked mud outside her straw hut. What is she doing? He will learn soon enough. Like the customers coming and going in the zodiac house, she’s in search of information about her future.

Eventually he finds his way out of the maze and steps with relief onto a wide, tree-lined avenue. The presence of Europeans is reassuring, though most of them are whisking past in cars and rickshaws. One elegant woman,  her face half hidden under a parasol, is being carried in a rickshaw decorated with fans and butterflies.

Everywhere he looks he sees men in uniform – Japanese and British mainly, but there are others as well. Some are on horseback. Confident that he is now walking in the right direction, Rewi quickens his pace. His brain is racing. How can he hope to make sense of this rowdy, kaleidoscopic world? The non-political soldier who went to the defence of his Māori mates in Cape Town may have developed some new ideas but he’s still not a political animal.

Trams clatter past, the jerky syncopation of their progress and the clang of their bells reminding Rewi of his school days in Christchurch. Banners flutter above his head but he can’t decipher the signs. He passes a whole wall covered with painted dragons. He side-steps around a table where men are playing mahjong. They glance at him but unlike the crowds in the longtangs they seem as indifferent to his presence as they are to the soldiers nervously fingering their guns. One of the men bends sideways and aims a gob of spit into the pavement spittoon. Rewi smiles. He has just spotted an old man in a long silk gown, sitting in a doorway, calmly smoking his pipe.

Well, what d’ya know, he says to himself. I’m in China.

A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley by Elspeth Sandys (Otago University Press, $40)

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners