Sunday, April 13, 2008

George Hogg - The Englishman Who Gave His Life For China’s Orphans


Finally, the inspiring, and tragic, story of George Hogg, has hit the big screen.

The film is Escape From Huang Shi, and it stars Irish actor and model Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Hogg.

Hong Kong film icon Chow Yun-Fat, Malaysia’s Miss Hollywood Datuk Michelle Yeoh and Australian actress Radha Mitchell also star in the film, which is written by James MacManus of Britain and directed by Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies) of Canada.

George Hogg gave his life rescuing a school of young Chinese boys by taking them on a “long march” of 700 miles to safety from the advancing Japanese colonial army in the bitter winter of 1944.

Hogg was just 23 when he arrived in Shanghai for a two-day visit in 1937. Fresh out of Oxford, he was on a round-the-world trip before taking a job in banking.

He died seven years later, having woven a story of courage and high adventure that is still remembered in China today.

Hogg’s life is full of irony. He was a quintessential middle-class, rugby-playing Oxford graduate taking time out before starting a career in London but became a hero almost by chance in the Chinese war of liberation.

Scriptwriter MacManus said his achievement would have remained unknown at home but for a snatch of conversation he overheard in a Beijing bar in 1985.

At the bar which was the British Embassy Club, MacManus overheard a junior diplomat complaining that he had to fly to the remote town of Shandon on the Mongolian border, where a statue had been put up in memory of an Englishman called George Hogg, who had died in 1944.

MacManus was then a journalist with The Daily Telegraph.

MacManus later met an old friend of Hogg, a New Zealander called Rewi Alley, who lived in Beijing.

Alley told MacManus that Hogg was “an outstanding young Englishman who fell in love with a foreign people and devoted his life to their betterment, and what he did made him deeply and widely loved.”

Hogg’s reputation is still kept alive by the loyalty of his surviving old boys - all now in their eighties.

Hogg’s adventure of a lifetime began when he set sail on the Queen Mary in 1937 to New York on the first leg of his round-the-world journey.

Having hitchhiked across the US he joined his aunt, Muriel Lester, a well-known pacifist, for the voyage to Tokyo.

While in Tokyo, Hogg decided on a weekend trip to Shanghai. He arrived in January 1938 just as the Japanese took control of the city.

It was a dark and violent world in which he found himself. The Japanese had embarked on a deliberate policy of civilian mass murder as they expanded into the interior from their control of the coastal belt and the capital, Beijing.

The savagery of the conflict caused huge casualties and by the time of the Communist takeover in China in 1949 it is estimated that 13 million had died in a decade of war.

Hogg flung himself into this maelstrom. He became a stringer for the Associated Press in Shanghai, was expelled by the Japanese to Tokyo, and made his way back to northern China and Beijing via Korea.

In Beijing he met Kathleen Hall, a New Zealand nurse whose mission clinic had been destroyed by the Japanese. She was smuggling food and medicines from the occupied capital to guerrillas in the countryside.

Hogg joined these risky sorties for a while and then, under increasing scrutiny from the Japanese police, the two of them made a nighttime escape to the liberated areas late in 1938.

Delayed for months by typhus, when Hall saved his life through diligent nursing, Hogg finally linked up with Mao’s army in Yenan.

By this stage he had learnt accentless Mandarin and had developed a deep interest in the emerging cooperative movement in free China.

In letters home to his parents, who lived in Harpenden, Hertforshire, Hogg described a life of high adventure as he crisscrossed northwest China helping the cooperative movement.

Hogg eventually ended up at Shuangshipu, a small village in the Tsingling Mountains in the north-central Shensi province.

There in 1943 he was appointed headmaster of a school for technical apprentices who were being trained to bolster the cooperative movement.

Eight headmasters, all foreigners, had failed to prevail over the unruly mix of illiterate peasant children from the north and west, and the sons of rich families who had been driven from the coastal areas by the advancing Japanese.

Hogg succeeded by imposing sound English public-school rules. The boys were made to rise at dawn and swim in icy rivers, rubbing in sulphur ointment afterwards to rid themselves of scabies and lice.

In his own words, Hogg managed to “smelt this varied human material into a real community without the help of any past school tradition and with no school spirit”.

It was an extraordinary achievement, but a greater challenge lay ahead.

The Japanese were advancing west and Hogg took the decision to move the entire school to the safety of Shandon, a hilltop town in a corridor between Mongolia and Tibet.

This was a risky decision. Shandon was 700 miles away and the journey would cross 12,000ft to 16,000ft mountain ranges.

Most of the boys were teenagers, some were very young. Winter had already set in.

Hogg scrounged a fleet of carts, pulled by five mules each, piled them high with 15 tons of equipment — boys, books, machinery and food — and set off early in the new year of 1945.

It was an appalling journey made by foot, mule cart and finally by six ancient lorries in what proved to be the coldest winter in 20 years.

Several mules and carts went over the edges of ravines but only two boys were lost in the ten-week journey. One died of a heart attack and the other turned back on his own.

At Lanchow, a staging post on the old Silk Road to the West, Hogg swapped his mule cart for trucks.

He was halfway to the sanctuary of Shandon. The headmaster finally led his exhausted and half-starved schoolchildren to an old Buddhist temple near the town in March 1945.

Four months later, having rebuilt the school, Hogg cut his foot, probably playing basketball with his pupils.

He developed tetanus and lockjaw set in.

While couriers raced back to Lanchow to find serum, the boys did their best for their headmaster. They pulled out some of his front teeth to feed him soup through straws.

The late Professor Brian Harland, a geologist from Cambridge, met Hogg a few days before his death.

Harland said: “He was in excruciating pain but stayed cheerful to the end. The boys sang all the school’s songs to him as he died. The carpentry section stayed up all night making him a wooden coffin.”

Hogg was buried on July 22, 1945, the day after he died. His will was simply: “My all to the school.”

A bust of Hogg, restored after the desecration of the Cultural Revolution, stands in the school at Shandon.

The school’s Silk Road Library, which was built in his memory, is filled with books.

His headstone over a grave nearby carries lines from his favourite poem by Julian Grenfell:

And life is colour and warmth and light
And a striving evermore for these
And he is dead who will not fight
And who dies fighting has increase.

Vanessa Dingley, a niece of George Hogg, thanked MacManus for the film about her uncle’s life. Her cousin Mark Thomas portrayed Hogg in a documentary film made for Chinese television a few years ago.