Book cover of Jack Jones: A True Friend to China. (Photo credit: Estate of Jack Jones)
by Tamara Treichel
BEIJING, Dec. 1 (Xinhua) -- Back in his native Britain, Jack Jones was an aimless drifter, a "Jack of all trades" who had stints working on a fishing trawler, in a sugar beet factory, as a potato digger and a speedway rider. This all changed when he registered as a wartime conscientious objector, colloquially known as a "conshie," in the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) set up by the Quakers, and after months of rigorous training, landed in China in 1945.
Suddenly, Jack found himself with a mission and a passion as he hit the ground running, providing desperately needed medical relief mainly from the FAU transport depot in Chongqing, during a critical and turbulent time in China's history.
Andrew Hicks chronicles the story of Jack's experiences and those of other FAU volunteers from 1945 to 1951 in his recent book "Jack Jones: A True Friend to China," an edited collection of Jack's weekly "China Convoy" newsletter contributions that were distributed throughout the country. As Hicks pointed out, being a "conshie" was not an easy way out of military service, as the foreign volunteers who worked in China's FAU were subjected to an "experience high on culture shock," austere living conditions, ever-present danger, deadly diseases and sword-wielding bandits.
"The FAU distributed about 80 percent of all medical supplies in China during the war years and saved many lives over a ten-year period, a massive humanitarian achievement," Hicks, both a lawyer and writer who comes from Britain, told Xinhua in a recent exclusive interview.
He said the wartime contributions of the Flying Tigers, whom FAU members would have encountered occasionally in and around the southeastern Chinese city of Kunming whose air base was the entry point for arriving FAU members and medical supplies, are still remembered and celebrated in China. Yet the same can't be said about the FAU. "Sadly the FAU, a fine Anglo-American project, is as good as forgotten both in China and the West," Hicks said, who sought to change this with his book.
FAU group photo at the Chongqing depot in 1947. Jack is in the middle, bearded. (Photo credit: Estate of Jack Jones)
FOREIGN WOMEN VOLUNTEERS
Another interesting aspect to the book is its mention of foreign women volunteers in the FAU. During wartime, the FAU initially only posted men to China, Hicks said, but that changed when there was a great demand for nurses.
"In June 1944, three British nurses were sent out and worked in appalling conditions at a field hospital at Paoshan (Baoshan) trying to save the shattered Chinese soldiers, battling on the Salween front to eject the Japanese invaders from Yunnan. From then on women, both foreign and Chinese, became key players in the project," he said.
Hicks mentioned the example of Margaret Stanley, an American nurse who worked in an FAU surgical project in the caves at Mao's headquarters in Yan'an in northwest China and was on the run with other members of the FAU's medical team when the Nationalist soldiers arrived. "They were unaccounted for during many months, moving their operating theater from place to place and continuing to operate in extraordinary conditions," Hicks said, adding that one foreign FAU team member even gave birth while they were fleeing and carried her newborn with her.
Just as remarkable is the story of Fleda Jones, a young African-American laboratory technician who joined Jack's medical work in Chongqing in northwest China in November 1949 just days before the communists took over.
"As a petite young woman, unable to speak the language, of a racial minority that made her a constant curiosity, it really took guts to fly alone into an imminent war zone. Fleda performed fine service in Jack's clinic, carrying a massive work load in appalling conditions and her full story, with a near tragic twist, is dramatically told in my book," Hicks said.
WHO WAS JACK JONES?
As the time and place Hicks' book deals with are remote to many today, Hicks believed a film might bring his work closer to contemporary audiences.
"Nothing would make it more accessible than a movie, which Jack's story certainly deserves. China of the forties is a world away and the context of Jack's stories does take some effort for readers to grasp," Hicks said. "I really do believe though that for an assiduous reader, Jack's collected writings do make a great adventure story at many levels, despite the difficulty of grasping the context."
So how did Hicks first stumble upon Jack's story? The author told Xinhua that when he was teaching at the University of Hong Kong in the 1970s, he worked as a fundraising volunteer in his spare time for Oxfam, the British NGO that supplies global development aid. There, Hicks befriended two Oxfam directors who used to work in the FAU.
Three decades later found Hicks in Thailand, having published a popular backpacker novel called "Thai Girl." When Hicks' novel was frequently compared to Jack Reynolds' 1956 worldwide bestseller "A Woman of Bangkok," he felt there was something he needed to pursue.
"Nobody in Bangkok knew who this author was so I started digging. It turned out that Jack Jones (his real surname) had been in China with the FAU and by coincidence was a close personal friend of my Hong Kong Oxfam friends and had later settled in Thailand in 1951, working as a transport officer for UNICEF. I then traced his family in Bangkok and met several of his friends, so when I returned to live in the UK, I wanted to learn more about him," Hicks said.
Hicks' quest for Jack Jones ("Reynolds" was a pen name Jack had used for his books) and the FAU led him on a research odyssey to the Friends (Quaker) archives on both sides of the Atlantic and included tracking down several surviving FAU members.
"I started this process about six years ago, since when I have met about eleven survivors who were actually there and exchanged emails with another four. In total I have shared information with perhaps fifty families," Hicks said about his arduous research. For example, he said it took him years to track down the daughters of John Peter, the longest-serving of all FAU members who had escaped the Japanese invasion of Rangoon and finally left China in 1951.
Sharing his findings about their father with Peter's daughters has been one of the most rewarding of his discoveries, Hicks said. Another great discovery was finding eight of Jack's illustrations in Seattle, which Hicks plans to include in a reprint of his book. "There have been many Holy Grail moments like these but they have been hard won," he said.
Another FAU group photo with local puppies at the Chongqing depot in 1947 with Jack in the middle, bearded. (Photo credit: Estate of Jack Jones)
LABOR OF LOVE
Yet for Hicks it was a labor of love, and he felt compelled to share Jack's story with the world. "Jack's long articles told of the day-to-day work of the transport unit in Chongqing and I just fell in love with his writings. Somehow this sparkling writer, bashing the keys in the heat and humidity of Chongqing, one of China's 'four furnaces,' crafted anecdotes that were more evocative and immediate than any formal history written much later could ever be. I just had to collect, transcribe and edit this mass of material into a story of China at a terrible time in history telling of the dedication and commitment of Jack and the many principled young foreigners of the FAU who really did want to make a difference," the author said.
Hicks' curiosity drove him to seek out the transport depot in Chongqing where Jack wrote his blog-like newsletter articles. Today, on the former site of the depot, which Hicks described as "a messy collection of low buildings with trucks packed into a small yard," stands a school.
"The Chongqing 110 Middle School is now a bright and friendly place and when we showed the children some photos from the forties of the depot and the surrounding countryside, they could not believe their eyes. I'd love them all to be able to learn more of the epic struggle of the FAU to distribute medicines in such terrible times that took place right there under their feet in so different a world that is just still within living memory," Hicks said.
In some respects, Hicks and Jack are kindred spirits that transcend time and space. "Jack wrote a single novel about a young Englishman falling in love in Thailand and so did I. We both love the English language and writing it, we both relish the special stimulus of living in a foreign culture that makes each moment of every day special, we share a love of Southeast Asia and of China, and, like him, I have the urge to do something worthwhile with my life," Hicks said.
When asked about Jack's greatest legacy, Hicks suggested that his legacies are manifold. If one takes popular appeal as a yardstick, he cited Jack's novel, "A Woman of Bangkok," which is still in print 60 years later and praised for its accurate portrayal of a "Thai lady of the night."
Yet Hicks pointed out that in a published interview, Jack said that among his works, his personal favorite was "Daughters of an Ancient Race" (1974), a story collection about the plights of Chinese women who sought out the medical services of the FAU in Chongqing and whom Jack knew personally.
"Jack would hardly have recognized the term, feminist, but that is the book's approach to the predicament of Chinese women, an oppressed group over long millennia of China's history," Hicks said.
To Hicks, Jack's legacy transcends one man and his written works. "For me though his most important legacy is a collective one, shared with the four hundred or so foreign FAU volunteers who served together in China throughout the forties, and that is their monumental dedication to the people of China," he said.
"Jack of course was a key chronicler of the FAU, he wrote ephemeral pieces that have proved to be enduring, and I hope I have now done my bit in rescuing from oblivion and securing that legacy," Hicks said.