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November 11, 2009

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City's top Kiwi traces China roots back to 1925

IN 1925 the great-grandparents of New Zealand's consul general in Shanghai set up a teaching hospital in Hebei Province, and today the top Kiwi in this city is still connecting Chinese and New Zealanders. Nancy Zhang reports.

Tracing his family history back four generations to China, New Zealand's consul general in Shanghai, Michael Swain, has come full circle with his current posting.

Swain, who arrived in January, has taken up the reins at a crucial time with the upcoming World Expo Shanghai in 2010, and early implementation of the New Zealand-China free trade agreement.

"I'm lucky with World Expo Shanghai next year," Swain says. "Lots of enthusiasm is building up in New Zealand and high-level visitors from all sectors will be coming to China. My role will be to make new connections between the two sides."

Swain first lived in China in 1997 as the second secretary at the Beijing consulate for two years. But his family links with China stretch back much further.

Swain's great-grandparents, who were English, arrived in China in 1925 and joined the Salvation Army to help a desperately poor country. Dr Arthur Swain and his wife, a nurse, set up the first teaching hospital for the Salvation Army in 1931 in Dingzhou, Hebei Province. They lived in China for 10 years, during which Swain's grandfather was born and went to school in Tianjin until he was seven.

Dr Swain also studied traditional Chinese medicine, and published two papers on TCM back in England in 1926. He concluded: "We of the West must be patient in our desire to see ... the real thing in the healing art taken up by Chinese."

Swain's father immigrated to New Zealand where he became a sociologist with a special interest in genealogy. When Michael Swain was posted to Beijing, it was the perfect opportunity to research the family history. He traveled with his parents to Dingzhou and Tianjin, but found nothing of the hospital, which was said to have survived until 1947.

Only a few buildings from his grandfather's school (now the Tianjin No. 2 Middle School) remained.

"I was struck by how easily the past slips away, even events within the span of one lifetime," says Swain.

In Arthur Swain's day, coming to China was extremely hard - physically and financially. Arthur died of tuberculosis contracted at the hospital. But by Michael Swain's day, the world, particularly China, had changed beyond recognition.

Representing a developed nation, Swain sees his mission here as different from that of his great-grandfather.

"It used to be that New Zealand and China related to one another as a developed nation and a developing country, but this is not the right lens through which to view it any more," he says. "China's time has come, and we see ourselves as a small country but a partner with knowledge and experience to offer. We identify ourselves now as much by our geography as by our history, and this part of the world, the Asia Pacific, is where the future lies."

Even in the 10 years since his last posting, Swain has seen vast changes in China.

In the 1990s educational relations mainly consisted of Chinese students going to New Zealand. But now it is more joint research and collaboration.

There's also a great increase in what Swain calls people-to-people connections, including New Zealanders of Chinese heritage (who now number one in 25 in the New Zealand population), and Chinese alumni of New Zealand universities. Out of these connections many cultural and non-trade exchanges flourish, such as the Chinese garden in Dunedin.

In Shanghai, Swain connects all the strands of New Zealand interests - trade, investment, tourism and immigration. He also connects the New Zealand expat community, who numbers 1,000, with the Chinese side.

When asked what his great-grandfather would have thought of his current work, Swain says: "He would be really pleased that the Swain connection with China is continuing. He gave his life and sacrificed everything, so I am glad that something of his memory carries on. With my son here as well, there have been five generations of Swains in China."

New Zealand nationals abroad can register with the consulate at Michael Swain

Nationality: New Zealand

Age: 40

Profession: Diplomat


Favorite place:

People's Square Metro Station. There the whole of Shanghai flashes before your eyes - it's a great place to get a feel for the city.

Worst experience:

First day driving in Shanghai. I have driven before in Beijing but it was very different - speeds were slower and there were more bikes. It takes a while to get my head around Shanghai's one-way systems and the right turns during red lights.

Perfect weekend:

After a successful Expo next year when all the construction is finished, and the visitors have moved on. Then we can relax and enjoy the city.

Strangest sight:

When I was first stationed in China 10 years ago, I saw old women in parks walking backward. Now I see in addition young people jogging forward! It's a complete change.

Motto for life:

I like this Maori proverb:

Whaia te iti kahurangi

Ki te tuohu koe?

Me maunga teitei

Seek the pinnacle of your endeavor If you have to bow down

Let it be to a lofty mountain.

How to improve Shanghai:Shanghai is improving all the time in front of our eyes. I just hope in the midst of all that changes, what remains of old Shanghai won't be lost.

Advice to newcomers:

Firstly register with your consulate! For New Zealanders this means we can then contact you if you need assistance, or if there is a family emergency in New Zealand. Second, don't give up on the Chinese language. New Zealanders don't have a strong tradition of learning second languages, and far more Chinese learn English than the other way round. But people here really appreciate it if you make the effort.


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