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June 21, 2021

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Return to China’s northwest a catalyst for stories

I RECENTLY completed the second part of my short documentary series on Rewi Alley, a fellow New Zealander who arrived in Shanghai about one hundred years before me, and ended up becoming one of China’s most valued “foreign friends.”

I wasn’t ready for such an overwhelming response.

I started to receive comments of support and congratulations from friends and strangers about how touched they were when they watched “Finding Rewi Alley.” One of Rewi’s former secretaries from Beijing told me he thought the film was “wonderful,” and stressed how important it is that these stories are kept alive “for the strong ties between our two peoples … you did very well.”

Then I received an invitation from the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries to accompany the association’s President, Lin Songtian, to Shandan for an official visit to learn about Rewi’s time there. Lin said he was moved by my film and thought I would be a good companion on his first visit to Shandan.

For me, this would be my third visit to Shandan, but it would be more moving than I would expect.

On the first evening I met a very special guest, Nie Guangtao, the third adopted son of Rewi Alley. I was a bit nervous and didn’t know if I should annoy the 85-year-old right after dinner. Then we caught each other’s eyes. “Hello! Andy!” he yelled in English as his face lit up. “I’ve seen your film! Very good!”

Nie was originally the adopted son of George Hogg, an Englishman who had devoted his life to helping Rewi and others set up schools for disadvantaged youth. He died at the young age of 30 after contracting tetanus. After his tragic death, Rewi became Nie’s guardian.

The next morning, I would be accompanying Nie to the tombs of both Rewi and George, for what might be his last time. When we visited one of Rewi’s places of residence, Nie was shocked to find a picture on the wall of himself as a child being piggybacked by Rewi.

His face lit up as he stood under the photo, and I could tell the memories were flooding back.

We visited many places in Shandan, together with Lin who was hoping to “soak up” some of Rewi’s spirit on the visit.

At the Shandan Bailie school, Nie and I stood under a massive statue of Rewi. As a Kiwi, I am shocked and amazed every time I see such mammoth monuments for Rewi, but I wondered at that moment what it must be like for Nie.

Not many people get to remember their loved ones in such a magnificent manner. “Does he look how you remember him?,” I asked. Elder Nie tilted his head up slowly and smiled a bit. “It’s quite similar.”

This trip to Shandan brought many new memories and new friends.

Lin offered me some great encouragement to keep telling stories to the world that bridge cultures, “especially in the current tense international situation.”


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