Frederick O'Neill

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 October, 2011, 12:00am


MEDAL OF HONOUR On August 20, I learned of an auction to be held five days later of the medal the Chinese government awarded in 1920 to my grandfather, Frederick O'Neill, an Irish Presbyterian missionary in Manchuria. He received the Order of the Striped Tiger for his work with the [British] Chinese Labour Corps, a group of 96,000 people who helped Allied forces in France and Belgium from 1917 to 1919. At the auction, in Tsim Sha Tsui, I paid US$5,000 for the medal. It was an enormous amount for a piece of silver-gilt brass, but I could not let this piece of history disappear into the safety box of a collector in Wuhan or Wisconsin and never see it again.

UP FRONT My grandfather was assigned to a 2,000-bed hospital in the region of Picardy [France], close to the frontline, well-equipped and staffed by British Mandarin-speaking doctors and nurses, many recruited from China. He comforted the sick and dying, wrote letters for them - nearly all were illiterate - held services and conducted funerals. He arranged entertainment for the workers on their rare days off. In a report to the mother church in Belfast, he described the camps where the workers lived: 'Far spread to right and left, the tarred huts and wide workshops of our long camp dotted the road. Overhead a flight of aeroplanes sped away to the north. The steady booming of the distant guns made no impression on the solitary cow gazing mildly up at the stranger in her field ... In our hut, in this barbed wire compound, nearly half of the 23 occupants are Christians. Others wish to join their number.' The Chinese, who numbered 136,000 including those working for the French, were the largest contingent of foreign workers used by the Allies during the first world war. My grandfather and the other missionaries lived in the camps with the workers.

ESCAPE FROM FAKU Other foreigners would not live cheek-by-jowl with Chinese workers, but such intimacy was normal for my grandfather - a chance to evangelise. He arrived in Liaoning province on October 30, 1897, and was assigned to Faku, a small town 90 kilometres north of the provincial capital of Shenyang, and would stay there for 45 years. The town had no electricity or running water, no railway, no post office and no proper road. In winter, the temperature fell to minus 30 degrees Celsius - a good time to visit the faithful because the rivers froze over. In 1900, he saw posters in town announcing his execution, by order of the emperor, on July 8. This was during the Boxer rebellion. He disguised himself as a local, with a light blue robe and coolie hat, and escaped to Shenyang, where he found a contingent of Russian troops who helped him escape by train. For nine days, he travelled with other refugees at the height of summer towards Harbin. Boxers lining the hills above the road fired at them and they took cover in the fields. From Harbin, they took a river steamer to Khabarovsk and then Vladivostok. He was lucky to survive. Throughout China, the Boxers killed 241 foreigners: 53 Catholic missionaries, 135 Protestant missionaries and 53 of their children. In Manchuria, they killed 332 Chinese Christians - but no missionaries.

FOR BETTER OR WORSE Siberian winter and all, my grandfather lived the first five years on his own in Faku. Finally, he asked his lady friend of 10 years, a teacher in rural Donegal, Ireland, to come to China to marry him. They married in Shanghai. After arriving in Faku, he told her she would be 'useless' until she learnt Chinese. So she had three hours with a teacher in the morning and three hours of self-study in the evening. She accompanied him on long journeys through the countryside, staying in crowded inns. She described leaving early in the morning: 'We walked down the rows of sleeping carters and, to my astonishment, saw the heads and the pigtails which hung on the edge of the kang [a platform for sleeping]. People were full of curiosity about me - did I make my own boots? Why did I not wear padded clothes?' She bore five sons, of whom two died young in Faku and are buried there. The other three, including my father, stayed until the age of primary school, when they were sent to study in Belfast and live with relatives. They were highly educated and excelled in their professional careers - but none remained in Ireland or joined the church. Being a foreign missionary meant many sacrifices: a close family life was often one of them.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE From 1911 to 1931, Manchuria was ruled by two warlords, Zhang Zuolin and his son, Xueliang. They supported the missionaries, giving money to their hospitals and allowing them to work unhindered. The worst period for my grandfather was the Japanese occupation from September 1931. They disliked the church's links with the rest of China and the outside world. If my grandfather wanted to travel anywhere, he had to seek permission. The break came when the government demanded students at mission schools attend Shinto shrines and worship the sun goddess. The church withdrew from education after half a century: it sold the schools to the government or closed them, as in Faku. In late 1940, the British government advised its nationals to leave Manchuria but my grandfather refused. His home was Faku, not Belfast. After Pearl Harbor, he and my grandmother were interned in their house and banned from seeing Chinese friends. On May 26, 1942, they departed under police escort. They were taken on a Japanese ship to Mozambique and swapped with Japanese prisoners of war, before going on to Belfast. There, my grandfather died in 1952 and his wife four years later. The church he built in Faku is thriving: his calligraphy stands above the pulpit and his name remains on the lips of the faithful.