Guangzhou then and now: Early 20th-century missionary Annie James and her incredible story

By Jocelyn Richards, May 22, 2015

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In a series of articles and photographs, we're taking a look at how Guangzhou has evolved in the past century. This section explores the life of Annie James, a plucky evangelist who refused to abandon the city through the Republican era, the Japanese invasion and the Communist revolution.

Nowadays, a so-called ‘strenuous’ journey to Guangzhou consists of potential delays, malfunctioning in-flight entertainment and a salty cup of ramen. Preparation generally maxes out at 20 minutes of survival Chinese phrases – most likely over a glass of wine. 

At the turn of the 20th century, however, the average missionary spent nearly half a decade learning Cantonese and an extra two or three years mastering medicine before landing in Guangzhou. If the four hellish months at sea failed to squelch any lingering excitement, the high odds of dying from bubonic plague upon arrival would have surely done the trick.

Yet for those craving a challenge, the path was paved with gold. From the Canton Villages Mission of New Zealand, one woman in particular stood out for her relentless commitment to the region despite an increasingly tumultuous political landscape. Annie Isabella James was appointed as an evangelist and stationed at a compound in Jiangcun – now Baiyun District – in 1912 at the age of 28. Between 1912 and 1951, James journeyed back and forth between Canton and New Zealand no less than 11 times to complete further study in maternity and nursing as part of her mission.

In 1925, the course began to turn rough. Anti-imperialist sentiment swept across the nation, forcing missionaries to evacuate their compounds, including James, who was eventually transferred to the remote area of Kaai Hau – today’s Conghua District.

James served in Conghua from 1930 until 1951, where she opened a successful hospital, founded a Sunday school, led weekly study groups and organized services of worship. She even adopted five children. Before long, everyone in the region knew her by name – her Cantonese name, Tse Koo, which meant ‘beautiful and peaceful.’ In 1936, to honor her achievements, the church provided James with a new Ford V8.

When the Japanese invaded southern China in 1937, James refused to leave her post. Instead, she set up a clinic 10 miles down the road and returned to the hospital every few days, fleeing whenever Japanese forces appeared.

“Some of the photos in the [New Zealand] collection are her actually dodging Japanese air strikes in her little Ford,” describes George McKibbens, who first helped draw attention to the archive in 2014. “She was making house calls to people as one of the only missionaries who escaped confinement.”

The following decade only turned dimmer. Although the hospital was operating with enormous success – treating an average of 1,750 patients per month – James returned to New Zealand in poor health. Upon her return to China in 1947, political instability in the region affected plans for the hospital’s development.

Still, even after the Communist takeover in 1949, James refused to leave. Two years later, when a general brought his ailing baby to her clinic for treatment, fate took a calamitous turn. The child passed away, and the official put James on trial for murder.

“In those days, local authorities would ask all the villagers to come to a public trial. They were encouraged to shout to have the person executed,” explains McKibbens.

But not one villager showed up to James’ trial. With no way to prosecute her, officials deported her to Hong Kong, where she remained until returning to New Zealand in 1961.

“It’s really quite a tragic story,” sighs McKibbens. “A lot of people built their lives here and were part of the community… and then they were just asked to leave. It’s difficult to talk about. It’s not so much sensitive as it is unflattering.”

Politics are often glossed over during local Guangzhou exhibitions of the New Zealand Presbyterian photo collection, highlighting instead a history of amiable ties between the two nations. Yet James’ story challenges viewers to open their eyes to a much more realistic picture of history, one in need of further exploration.

“I think the next step is to start finding more of these collections in different parts of the world and make them widely available,” suggests McKibbens.

Indeed, myriad accounts surrounding old Canton remain untold, concealed within forgotten photographs, artwork and other keepsakes from the era – a controversial age of imperialism, revolution and transformation.

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