‘The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. At 1 o’clock the urgent alarm went off and at 1.10 the planes arrived’, writes Agnes Moncrieff, known as Nessie, from Hankow in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
From 1930 to 1945, Nessie served as New Zealand’s foreign secretary for the YWCA in China, an organisation formed in 1855 in England to promote ‘the welfare of young women’. The collection of excerpts from her letters and reports published in You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon captures a period of uncertainty, a time when ‘long spells of wet weather’ are welcomed during the full moon, as they hinder air raids. Ranging from observations of daily life through to thoughts on military tactics and accounts of epic journeys, the letters all share her delightful style.
The book is formed from two complementary threads – the stories of the letters themselves and those that the letters hold. The letters, subject to the laws of the physical world, survived not only the vicissitudes of war, but also travelled a great distance to arrive in New Zealand. Barbara Francis, the editor of this volume, became Nessie’s friend while boarding with her in the 50s, and much later discovered the existence of the letters by chance, through a conversation. A trip to the Alexander Turnball Library followed, and her efforts have ensured that Nessie’s experiences can reach a wider public.
These letters hold a tension. They are foreign in that they bring news from elsewhere, and from another time – one that has passed. But there is the intimate sense of person that the letter form enables, where the writer is free to express herself and unselfconsciously communicate thoughts to the receiver. Nessie’s voice is immediate; she translates this other place and time into something we can relate to through writing that is a pleasure to read.
Letters from her first four-year term working for the YWCA in Peiping (now known to us as Beijing) detail her life of running a hostel and helping women in need. In addition to humorous sketches, there are observations of political undercurrents, which we view through our own filters on the other side of history. In 1934, she wrote that she was pleased to ‘note steadily increasing interest of students in rural and social reconstruction as fundamental to the solution of China’s problem’.
After a furlough, she returns to Shanghai in 1936 to begin her second term for the YWCA. While she is on holiday up the Yangtze River, the Japanese take Shanghai. Here begins the accounts of epic train and road journeys, the constant worry, and admiration for the resilience of a people. Unable to return to Shanghai, she moves up river to Hankow, the seat of the Chinese government. This is quite a glamorous time, involving lunch with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, dinners with diplomats and a variety of people moving through the Lutheran Mission. But it is also heavy with the realities of war and an ever-present threat. She writes to her dear friend Eva Skinner: ‘Sometimes I can just not believe that it is possible that the things that happened in Nanking and elsewhere will surely happen here if the Japans come in. It is all too fantastic and terrible and so remote from the ordinary decencies of human life.’
Though the threat is approaching, she does not wish to leave, fearing for her Chinese female colleagues. Eventually she must and sets out on a journey to Hong Kong, in spite of stories of bombed trains and survivors having to hide in ditches or long grass. An epic journey via truck, rail and boat ensues, one that she records with her trademark reserve and dry humour. An air raid takes place during a stop, where she notes that the ‘green canvas did not seem very adequate protection against shrapnel, so as soon as the anti-aircraft guns came into action, I shot off the truck and got under it in company with the two Chinese men.’ She reaches Hong Kong only to learn that she had left Hankow just two weeks before it fell to the Japanese.
With a return to Shanghai in 1939, the strain of living with constant bombing raids and reports of horror begin to take their toll. Nessie writes in her understated manner to Eva of her profound fatigue and a visit to the doctor: ‘my reaction to her knee taps nearly knocked her out of the room, so I suppose the trouble is nervous.’ From here, another visit to Hong Kong for recuperation, a return to Shanghai and then another furlough.
The YWCA of New Zealand allows her to return to China for a third term on the insistence of YWCA China and Nessie herself. In order to arrive there safely, she travels through Burma, involving another epic journey of 3500km. She arrives 15 days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.
You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon allows insight into a dangerous time and Nessie’s extraordinary life, where engaging writing, a formidable personality and a turning point in global history intersect. In a tribute paid to Nessie upon her death in 1988 (six weeks before her ninetieth birthday), the YWCA of New Zealand wrote ‘Although she is no longer with us physically her spirit will endure’. It comes through time and time again in her letters.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from China, 1940-1945
edited by Barbara Francis
Published by VUP