Spreading the word in gritty Lanzhou

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 April, 2000, 12:00am

It is one of China's most polluted cities, situated in a poor, landlocked province - not everyone's choice for an ideal assignment abroad. But Lanzhou is where 40-year-old New Zealander John Wilson Hill and his Hong Kong wife have made their home for the past five years, and where they have set up an English-language training centre.

'We would like to stay as long as people want us to stay,' Mr Hill said. 'This is not a short-term thing. We have no plan to leave. This is a long-term project.' The couple set up their centre in co-operation with a retired civil servant named Jian Su, with each contributing 250,000 yuan (about HK$223,000). It took six months to get the necessary approvals before they opened in 1996.

Now they have 750 students, from primary school children to adults, paying three to four yuan an hour. It remains the only centre of its kind in Lanzhou and Mr Hill is the only 'big-nose' English teacher in the city, apart from those who come for short-term stints. 'We are not here to make money,' he said. 'What profit we make we invest back in the school. Our purpose is to help people. Chinese study English hard, learn grammar and read well. But they cannot communicate. That is where they need help - in speaking, which is what we provide.' Asked why he and his wife chose Lanzhou, he cited two reasons. 'I worked in a school in Hong Kong. My wife and I were interested in education. She is patriotic and wanted to help her country.' The second reason was Rewi Alley, the most famous New Zealander in China, who spent nearly all his life in the country, inspired by the early communists. He worked with farmers in western China and later lived in Beijing, where he worked as an author and translator.

'I read of Alley's life and was inspired by it. He was a distant relative, because my father's brother married into his family. Although he went back to New Zealand a few times, neither my father nor I met him.' Lanzhou is one of the dirtiest cities in the country. A survey by a United States company in 1997 rated it the most polluted city in the world. It sits on the southern side of the Yellow River in a basin surrounded by mountains which trap the pollutants from cars as well as from steel and petrochemical factories. It is close to the desert with almost no wind and little rainfall.

'We have adapted,' Mr Hill said. 'We have had no health problems since we came and have not seen a doctor.' He and his wife work hard, preparing lessons in the mornings and teaching in the afternoons and evenings.

Mr Hill has become a star in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, where the Government shows him to visitors as an example of a foreigner, one of just 30 in the city, who is happily in residence.

His partner, Mr Jian, is a talkative and passionate man who lived in the former Soviet Union for four years. He is a devout member of China's official Catholic church.

His latest project is the construction of a church for up to 3,000 people in downtown Lanzhou costing 5.5 million yuan, most of which will come from the Government. It is on the site of a Catholic church and school that was confiscated by the Government in the 1950s and demolished a few years ago. Work began in May last year and is due to be completed in August.

The two spires are 56 metres high and the central hall is being built without pillars in order to give worshippers a clear view.

'We have 5,700 Catholics in Gansu, with 1,000 in Lanzhou,' Mr Jian said. 'Look at this wonderful new building. We have the priest arranged. You tell the Americans that we have freedom of religion in China.'