The Beginning


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Asia » China » Gansu » Xiahe
January 11th 1949
Published: May 4th 2011
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For the Chinese and many East Asian countries, a month after a baby is born the child is one year old; the point where the child is considered viable, having gone through the highest risk periods of infant mortality with life beginning with conception. As I was conceived in China, I am beginning this story of my life's journeys with the marriage of my parents on January 11, 1949.

My parents William Donald (hereafter referred to as Dad) and Edna Dorothy (known simply as Bonnie since her college days, and hereafter referred to as Mom), were married at the mission station in Labrang, Gansu Province, China, in what is ethnographically Tibet. Labrang (Chinese name is Xiahe) is a major Tibetan religious center, with a monastery which at the time had over 5000 monks, but let's back up a bit.

My parents went to China in 1947 as single missionaries. They met on the Marine Adder, a converted WWII troop ship; six double bunks to a room (or whatever they are called on ships), with men and women segregated. This unlikely setting was the beginning of their romance. I can't picture tham falling in love while throwing up over the
Missionaries on the Steel Adder on their way to ChinaMissionaries on the Steel Adder on their way to ChinaMissionaries on the Steel Adder on their way to China

Mom is to the far left and Dad is to the far right.
railing so they must have had some smooth sailing.

My Dad was assigned to Lintao, Gansu Province. In the 1920’s he spent three years of his early childhood in this area with his parents who were also missionaries. When he was five he contracted diphtheria and scarlet fever at the same time. The nearest doctor was three days journey away, so there wasn’t much to be done but pray. He survived, but lost his sense of smell and hearing in one ear. As a yound child he and his parents had to evacuate during the rebellion that was recounted in the movie “Sand Pebbles.” They settled in Jersey City. My grandfather worked in Manhattan as treasurer of the mission.

My Mom, originally from Toronto, Canada, was assigned to Liuzhou, near Guilin, in southeast China, over one thousand three hundred miles from Lintao, so much of their courtship, other than a couple of visits, was through correspondence. The following is from a letter shortly after her arrival:

“It was on December 10th (1947) that we landed in the great land of split pants, dirty noses, and great burdens. These were my first impressions, but the one that has remained with me was that of the much too heavy burdens under which everyone struggled. How appropriate are the words of our Master “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy ladened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you…For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Even though I can do little to lift their physical burdens, I can through Christ lead them to the Great Burden Bearer, even Christ. Our trip to Wuchow by boat did not lack in variety of experience. Why didn’t I go by plane as everyone else did? The “Hilltop” was a very welcome spot and I was able to enjoy its luxuries for three weeks before the Fowler family and myself started out for our respective stations. The four days of travel from Wuchow to Liuchow were very enjoyable in spite of the bumps, mud, soup, and hard beds. Two days after my arrival in Liuchow, language study began with the incessant singing of tones. After at week of this I was graduated, by shear lack of patience on my teacher’s part, from singing tones to the higher realms of learning radicals and on to more
Dad as new missionary in ChinaDad as new missionary in ChinaDad as new missionary in China

having lunch after studying Chinese
laborious tasks of memorizing my reading lessons. Later, I found that after studying the required number of hours each day, I still had a couple of hours in which I wished to do “labors of love.” The need of the sick pressed heavily on me, and I felt that I could do a little to alleviate the suffering that was everywhere. I had been graciously warned of the task, but as always I had to learn the hard way with experience as my teacher. It did not take long for my fame to spread abroad and before I knew it there were between sixty five and seventy five crowding into the compound each day. My limited language called for a pantomime with every patient.”

Mom, who had been trained in tropical medicine, reports that she had a great time as a single missionary; but that Dad was not as fortunate – only because he was single. My Dad had a shotgun and loved to hunt the many pheasant in the mountains surrounding the village. He once hit two pheasant (NOT peasants!) with one blast. However, to afford the diamond engagement and wedding rings he had to sell his gun.

As the date for their wedding approached, the Red Army was making headway on all fronts, and it appeared that the Communists would soon win the civil war. The following is from a letter from my Dad, as he awaited my Mom's arrival in west China:

" On November 30, 1948 our Field Committee decided that our mission should evacuate Kansu (Gansu) and that I should fly immediatley to Shanghai to join my fiancee, Miss Dorothy Northcott. I left Lintao with mixed feelings - thinking that I might not see Kansu for some time to come. As I was waiting for my plane in Lanchow (Lanzhou), having bought my ticket and my baggage being at the air office, I received a phone call from the Field Chairman saying that an immediate evacuation of Kansu was not necessary. I then wired Bonnie to proceed to Lanchow and we had high hopes of carrying out our original wedding plans - being married at Labrang on December 31st. Having cancelled her reservation for December 6th, Bonnie was unable to obtain another booking until December 20th. Then nine days of bad weather grounded her plane in Shanghai."

The following is from
Labrang Monestary in 1949Labrang Monestary in 1949Labrang Monestary in 1949

with Dad on horseback in the foreground
a letter she wrote to her parents on March 16, 1949, about her trip to the wedding in Labrang:

"Bill, my husband-to-be, lived in Kansu province, thousands of miles to the northwest. We learned that a Lutheran operated plane was to take a load of rice to Shanghai and arrangements were made for me to go on that flight. In Shanghai I would take a flight to Kansu. While in Shanghia I stayed at the China Inland Mission Home. A medical examination revealed that I should have my tonsils removed. The Japanese had taken most of the mission hospital equipment so I sat on a kitchen chair, my head held by a nurse who stood behind me, and a very competent doctor removed the tonsils that had been a source of trouble for years. During the surgery I was choking on the blood. The nurse hung onto my head --- eventually I coughed, splattering blood on the doctor's jacket."

"The wedding date was set of December 31, 1948. Invitations were sent to those near and dear to us. The Communist troops were working their way towards Shanghai and their advance caused a financial crisis. Our wedding invitations required three layers of stamps which measured the size of the envelopes. My wedding gown ordered from the States was made of "contraband material" and was not allowed into China. This meant that I had to acquire material and have dresses made for members of the wedding party. The Chinese merchants were hesitant to sell me the material because on the morrow the money received from the purchase would have little value. However, one kind merchant was willing to sell me enough material for Chinese style gowns. The proper shoes were not available and it was decided that shoes to match my dress would have to be hand made. One day I found the French Concession, and to my surprise I found a fingertip length veil. On another day, I discovered a Russian Tea Shoppe. Upon enquiring, I was told I could buy a top for a wedding cake complete with hearts, and bride and groom. This purchase I wrapped in tissue (toilet tissue because Kleenex were not available). Safely wrapped, it was put in a large tin to be carried on the long trip to Labrang, Kansu province where our wedding was to be held."

"Labrang had been chosen
Mom visiting her sister Minnie with Dad joining themMom visiting her sister Minnie with Dad joining themMom visiting her sister Minnie with Dad joining them

The chaperon in the red dress is another lady, Betty. Mom is in the middle and Dad is to the right. The rest aare Tibetans in the Labrang market.
for this very special occasion because my sister and family lived there along with several other families. The weather made it impossible for women to travel with small children. Day by day the Communist army continued its march to victory. While hundreds of Caucasins fled Shanghai, arrangements were made for me to fly over the Communist army to Kansu. From day to day we received communications regarding the latest decisions by the Alliance Mission. On one occasion I was told that the missionaries in Kansu were preparing to evacuate. For ten days my flight was changed. Many of the Chinese were fleeing Shanghai. They carried everything of cash value with them."

"Finally, ten days after the announced date of our wedding, the plane took off at 4 AM. Our pilot, who had flown for Chennault, was making his first flight to the northwest. We were scheduled to stop in Sian (Xian). However, the snow covered valley had successfully obliterated the landmarks that he was trying to spot. The mountains were only two minutes away, but by flying in a circle he was able to bring us safely to the deserted airport. By mid-afternoon we arrived in Lanchow (Lanzhou). Bill, who had not known from day to day whether he would evacuate, was on hand to meet me. The local culture took precedence -- we were happy but we were not supposed to show it. While in Lanchow we had to acquire permission to travel to Tao Chou (old city) where we would stay before going on by horseback. The friends in Tao Chou gave me the only shower that we had. The gifts received were added to the other items packed away for the upcoming trip to Labrang. Mr. Holton loaded up the jeep. We heard that the city was under military curfew and that soldiers were posted every few feet along the road out of town. In our haste to be on our way, we neglected to ask God's protection along the way. One man prayed -- and while praying someone shouted "Stop!" One of the soldiers was running towards us with his gun aimed at us. We held up the letter of permission to travel. The soldier took the letter and tried to impress us with his efficiency...but he had the paper upside down. Finally, he handed the letter back to us and waved us on. After
Mom in her pith helmetMom in her pith helmetMom in her pith helmet

Yes missionaries did wear pith helmets!
a day's jeep trip we were met by a group of men with horse in tow. All of our belongings were packed in the saddle bags and on top of the animals. A Tibetan rug was thrown on top of everything. This arrangement put us about a foot above the animals. Our party was made up of three men (my Dad, Bill Kerr, and Jack Sheperd) and me. As we started out one of the men called out, "If you need to stop at a gas station just let us know!" I looked ahead at the trail chopped out of the side of a mountain and noted that there wasn't even a tree in sight! There was very little precipitation which meant that there was very little rain in the summer and very little snowfall in the winter. However, the mountain streams and rivers were already frozen as we began our trip. We crossed one such mountain stream and Bill's horse slipped and fell. Fortunately, he was thrown off to one side, helping him to escape injury. When we came to the next frozen river, we decided to alight and walk our animals to the other side. There were times when our feet went through the ice, leaving us with a boot full of ice water. The weather was bitterly cold, but we were warmly dressed in military clothes left over from the war. Just before nightfall we stopped at a settlement of sedentary Tibetans. There were no trees there either. Our animals were taken to be fed and cared for. We were shown into a large room with a kong (a raised brick platform, the cavity under it having an opening to the outside where yak dung could be inserted for a fire) along one wall. This kong had a wooden divider across the middle of the bed. The three men would sleep on one side and I would have the other side to myself. Bill Kerr's gun hung on the divider. The "facilities" were up on the flat roof! A wash basin with water ready for our use was on a small rough and dirty table. During the night, ice formed in the wash basin. We were comfortably warm because a yak dung smoldering fire in the kong provided heat all night."

"We thought we would take two days to finish the balance of our journey so we slept in the following morning and started on the road at 8:30. By early afternnon we had made such good time with a minimum of discomfort that we decided to go stright through to Labrang. We preferred the prospect of a warm cozy mission house to a cold crowded Tibetan inn. Our journey took us along a winding stream that passes through one of the most beautiful valleys in Kansu. Sometimes our horses had to follow narrow trails that clung to precipitous mountain sides. As we were descendin one of these mountains Bill Kerr's load shifted and he followed the law of gravity down a thirty foot bank: we were happy that this hadn't happened a few minutes before where the bank was much steeper. Arriving in Labrang on the evening of the 6th we decided that having the wedding on the 11th would give adequate time to prepare. Everyone on the compound pitched in and helped with the wedding preparations; the men brought evergreens from the monastery-owned forests (Note: Tradition says that the Living Buddha who founded the monastery had his head shaved and his hair was scattered on the mountain side facing the monastery. Evergreens came up
Cleo, Gene, and Jodi; missionaries in LabrangCleo, Gene, and Jodi; missionaries in LabrangCleo, Gene, and Jodi; missionaries in Labrang

Jodi later went to Dalat School, Vietnam where in fourth grade she comforted a homesick first grader on his first day of boarding school...that first grader was me.
in their place); Mr. Griebenow tried to hurry along the buds on the carnation plants; Helen Sawyer baked a delicious three tier wedding cake (the bottom layer was made in a dishpan, the middle layer in a standard cake pan and the top layer in a coffee tin), with Mr. Holton putting the finishing touches on the decorations; Cleo Evans made wedding certificates; and soon all preparations were completed with a minimum of rush and anxiety. Unlike Chinese weddings, as the hour approached the guests arrived promptly. The Tibentan General (Whang-su-ling) and his wife (the first one...responsible for attending social function) rolled up in their antiquated automobile accompanied by a retinue of soldiers. Midst a fanfare of firecrackers three soldiers came bearing trays of gifts while others took their places at the entrances." They stood at attention the entire ceremony with their tommy guns on the ready."

For the wedding, my Mom wore a white Chinese style gown she had tailored in Shanghai. Dad wore a western style suit. There were over a dozen other missionaries in attendance including my Uncle Wayne and Aunt Minnie, her sister, who was matron of honor.

Their marriage license was handmade as
Dad in Lanzhou waiting to pick up MomDad in Lanzhou waiting to pick up MomDad in Lanzhou waiting to pick up Mom

He would escort her along with two other missionaries to Labrang. They could only go so far in a jeep. This was followed by three dyas on horseback.
there wasn’t a civil authority to give them one. Marriage in China was a religious ceremony. I’m not sure if they ever did get a U.S. marriage license. Anyway, the American Vice Consul sent my Dad a letter dated October 20, 1948 stating that "If you are married by an ordained minister, the marriage will be recognized in the United States."

Following their wedding my parents were assigned to Minxian, a Chinese town east of Labrang, still in Gansu Province. They didn’t live there long. The following if from another letter:

"When the church bell was rung on Sunday morning, the children spilled out of their homes and over a thousand people attended Sunday School. This was their first opportunity to hear about Christ. During the following months our love for the Chinese people grew. We were at home -- these poeple were our family. Meantime the storm clouds of war got darker. A runner cam one day from a town over the mountain to warn us of the approach of the Communist army. Day by day we waited for more news. The only telegraph wire had been cut. Communications could only be received by runner. In many instances these runners were Tibetan priests because they would not arouse suspicion. In June that year the fateful news came."

As early as December 1948, the missionaries had been notified that an evacuation order could be issued at any time. In May 1949 the missionaries received word to evacuate as Mao’s Red Army was approaching. They escaped by jeep to Lanzhou and from there caught a DC-3 to Nanking and Canton (now Guangzhou). They took the train from Canton to Hong Kong, but rains had washed out some of the track, so they had to walk the final five kilometers to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong they waited with the other missionaries for their next assignment. Some were sent to Vietnam, others to Laos and Cambodia, and my parents and Uncle Wayne and Aunt Minnie were assigned to Thailand. They soon sailed to Bangkok, where they would be missionaries until they retired in 1986.

In 1986 on his way back to the States my Dad flew to Beijing and took the train and plane to Lhasa and then to Labrang and Minxian. He visited with his Chinese langauge teacher who was now in her 80's.

In May 2009 I took my Mom, sister Carol, and son Will to Shanghai, Lanzhou, Minxian, and Xian, China. Mom could not recognize anything in Minxian because everything had changed so much. See my blog at Our drive to Minxian and night train to Xian).


Additional photos below
Photos: 44, Displayed: 34


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Mom and Dad on the ferryMom and Dad on the ferry
Mom and Dad on the ferry

Mom in the white overcoat and Dad on the right.
Mom on her way to the wedding in LabrangMom on her way to the wedding in Labrang
Mom on her way to the wedding in Labrang

She rode horseback for three days over several Himilayan passes in the middle of winter.


30th December 2011

What a wonderful beginning :)
I've been reading so many of your great blogs Bob, but I have neglected to comment. So, now I will make amends. Love the pictures. Especially the one of the jeep stuck up in the mountains. Colour film must have been quite difficult to obtain back in 1949.
23rd January 2012

I'm hooked!
now I have to start from the beginning. I love these personal accounts, especially as they go back , way back, in time. I'm jealous you kept all those photographs --- and in good condition!
24th January 2012

Thanks!
I hope you enjoy my experiences growing up in Asia in he early years. I really was fortunate to have all these pictures. My Mom almost threw all my Dad's pictures out after he passed away in 1988, but I told her NO WAY! She moved to live with us in 2008 and still had the pictures. It took me until last year to get up the energy and time to digitize them...with the help of the photoshop at Walmart.
25th January 2012

How lovely!
now I feel compelled to search for old photos to scan. Love your posts!
28th May 2013

I've started so I'll continue...
A fascinating beginning and so good to know that you have managed to retain the family photos. One down, only 189 or so to go!
28th May 2013

I didn't have anything to do in 2011...
and I knew I had to do something with the thousands of slides and prints from my Dad in the garage, so I bit the bullet and digitized everything. Fortunately, I had Travelblog where I could post my memories and the pictures. Have fun reading!
3rd February 2014

Sooooo good to get this. Fabulous photos and info. Thanks for taking the time to capture this history.
31st May 2014

What a great way to capture your family history
Wow, Bob, I'm a genealogist but never thought of doing anything like this to record family history. What a great job. Thanks for sharing. Judy
29th April 2017

Amazing tale
The first time I have read your early posts. Excellent that your parents wrote such detailed letters. Having just returned from Tibet this is especially interesting.
29th April 2017

Early posts...
People keep asking me how I remembered my earlier trips, starting before birth! It's my parents letters, diaries, and stories they told when showing us slides (we didn't have TV in those early years). I was so fortunate to have these resources in putting together what is my legacy for my family, including my TB family. Last month was the first month that someone read everyone of my blogs. I learned at the reunion that it was Carolyn, my prom date, who took three full days of constant reading to read them all.
11th December 2017

Comment from Kay Houck Cummings:
A short time before the missionaries were to board the ship, The Steel Adder, heading to Vietnam and China, my Dad was helping load up the steel barrels that missionaries used to ship their household goods overseas back in the 40's. A barrel lipped and struck my Dad;s foot. The injury was so painful he couldn't even bare the weight of a sheet on it, so slept with his foot in a cardboard box, then covered with a sheet. The doctor gave him crutches to walk and said there was NO way he'd be sailing on the Steel Adder in a few days. My Dad believed that they were to go to Vietnam on that ship. In reading his Bible in the book of Psalms he read..."and thou shalt TREAD on the lion and the adder." He thought to himself tread doesn't mean limp on board with crutches, so he stepped out of bed and firmly put his injured foot down on the floor and was instantly healed. When they went to the doctor he commented that he was not a religious man, but there was no other explanation but that it was a MIRACLE!!! As you can see from the photo my parents and sister sailed to Vietnam on the Steel Adder in 1947! True story!

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