Rewi Alley was thirty-two years old when he decided ‘to go and have a look at China’, leaving family in New Zealand. It was 1927, he had always dreamed of a life in the army, but after returning from World War 1 he found little for him in New Zealand and after a stint at farming in the North Island left to check out the Chinese revolution.
Arriving in Shanghai, Rewi was soon employed as a fire inspector for the Municipal Council in the British International Settlement, before being promoted to a factory inspector. But he found this to be a ‘miserable experience’ with many of the workers ‘not more than eight or nine years old’ being beaten by the foreman ‘with a piece Of Number Eight gauge wire as a whip’. Ultimately it is the plight of the children as factory slaves as well as orphans of war and famine which give him the courage to leave his job and follow the dream of Gung Ho.
In 2017 Elspeth Sandys, a cousin of Rewi Alley, travelled to China with other family members to mark the ninetieth anniversary of Rewi’s arrival in Shanghai. In her book A Communist in the Family she follows that journey as well as including much of Rewi Alley’s life. A great deal of this comes from Alley’s own writing, letters home, poems, memoirs and other books he has written .
A Communist in the family: Searching for Rewi Alley is written with a great deal of detail and the reader feels part of the journey as the family travels from Beijing to the remote Shandan province on the border of Inner Mongolia, visiting many sites which were significant in Rewi’s life .There was also time for temples and marvelling at 18metre high gold Buddha before their guide would be calling them ‘Alley whanau! Attention please. Follow my flag. This way’…
Sandys has included photographs of Rewi and many of the people who were important in his life, as well as some wonderful photographs captured during the family trip in 2017. The page of Māori words and New Zealand slang at the rear of the book will be helpful for readers from other countries, and the End Notes provide excellent information for people wanting to do more research.
I found this a fascinating read, as Sandys’ beautiful descriptive writing had me feeling part of the journey through modern China, while Alley’s poems reminded me of the harsh history China has endured. It is a solid read but I found it particularly interesting. As New Zealand now has close links with China for trade, it will be of interest to many people.
Elspeth Sandys has published nine novels, two collections of short stories and two memoirs. She has written extensively for the BBC and for RNZ as well as for TV and film. Elspeth lived for many years in the UK but has been back in her home country of New Zealand since 1990.
Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh
A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley
by Elspeth Sandys
Published by OUP