China Baby Love: How one woman turned her life upside down to help those who needed it most – half a world away

Every orphan comes with a story. Every journalist has a story that stays with them. And everyone has the power to make a difference. 

From rural Queensland to rural China, China Baby Love is the story of moving mountains, one shovel at a time. Former foreign correspondent and host of ABC TV’s ‘One Plus One’, Jane Hutcheon introduces us to Linda Shum, a not-so-ordinary grandmother and widow from Gympie whose compassion for China’s forgotten children inspired her to create an unlikely empire.

The story of COAT (Chinese Orphans Assistance Team) and Linda’s quest to help orphans, many with multiple disabilities, reveals the hidden human aftermath of the One-Child Policy. A tentative visit to an orphanage in a small Chinese city turned into many over a period of twenty years. Linda’s curiosity transformed into sheer determination to battle superstition, bureaucracy and a constant lack of funds, to found foster homes and a special needs school that has transformed hundreds of lives, including her own.

What Jane intended as a five-minute ‘human interest’ segment in a news broadcast inspired an unexpected friendship and the writing of a book that would take Jane back to China. Through the story of Linda Shum’s life and work, Jane gets to the heart of some painful truths behind modern Chinese families living in a one-party state.

Read a sneak peek now:

On a hazy summer day in 1930s Shanghai, a nine-year-old girl named Beatrice and her father Kit, arrived at The Bund to farewell visitors from Hong Kong. Aunt Rose and Uncle Alfred were heading home on a steamship, docked at the famous Shanghai waterfront. An outing to the pier was always exciting for a young girl. But suddenly, while she was still below deck admiring the cabin, she felt a shudder and realised the vessel was departing. It was too late to disembark. She didn’t understand what was happening. Would her father, who was still waiting in the Studebaker on the pier, be worried or angry she wondered, as she raced out of the cabin to the deck and searched for him on the pier. She saw the black Studebaker first. Then she saw her father’s silhouette against the smooth cream-coloured passenger seat of the car. His face was buried in his hands. He refused to look up.

Unknown to Beatrice, her father and his sister, her Aunt Rose, had hatched a plan. Without the child’s consent, Beatrice was being taken from her home in the leafy French Concession of Shanghai. She had not been given the option to say goodbye to anyone and now she was being uprooted from her school, her friends, her two brothers and sister, her cousins, and being sent to the British colony of Hong Kong to live with her Aunt Rose, Uncle Alfred and cousin Alec. Everything in the plan had proceeded smoothly so far and now here she was on the ship with Rose and Alfred, heading for her new home and a new, unfamiliar life in Hong Kong thirty-six hours away.

As a child in Shanghai, Beatrice was unwell much of the time. A few months before she was sent to Hong Kong, she contracted diphtheria and was rushed to hospital where surgeons performed an emergency tracheotomy. When she was four, her beloved mother, Elsie, caught meningitis and died. She has one faint memory of Elsie sitting at a sewing machine. The absence of a mother, combined with the idea that Hong Kong might be better for her health, led to the arrangement with Kit’s sister and brother-in-law.

Fortunately, though Aunt Rose was a disciplinarian and neither warm nor loving, Beatrice was doted on by her cousin and uncle and there were other relatives who showed her patience and kindness. She quickly found friends, a wonderful school and made a new and successful life for herself. This was very fortunate, because when Beatrice was fourteen, her father, Kit, still living in Shanghai with the rest of his family where he worked for a firm of chemists as a book-keeper, died suddenly. He had not seen his daughter since leaving her on the ship bound for Hong Kong. When Kit died, that made Beatrice, the youngest of four children, an orphan.

Beatrice is my mother. More than eight decades after she left Shanghai on the slow-boat to Hong Kong, she is still alive and well into her nineties. She often says that, although the early part of her life had its challenges, the latter part more than made up for the hardship. I’m thankful that she had relatives to care for her. Even though their care wasn’t perfect, she wasn’t given up to an orphanage. Losing her mother at such a young age would have been a terrible trauma, although in those days, any child who suffered a tragedy was expected to just get on with life. Setbacks unfolded, particularly around the time of the Second World War. But you didn’t complain or feel like a victim. You were told to put one foot in front of the other.

That’s the way it was.

As a result of my mother’s experience, child abandonment is something that has always tugged at my emotional core. From an early age, I was drawn to stories of orphans from Cinderella, and Peter Pan, to the world of Oliver Twist. I graduated to the comic strip Little Orphan Annie and later on when I had a daughter of my own, she introduced me to additional orphan characters like Sophie from the BFG and of course the boy wizard, Harry Potter.

My mother left Shanghai long ago – and happened to meet my father, who, like her, was born in Shanghai – so it would be fair to say that Shanghai, or China, has never really left me. China hasn’t always been a love affair, but it’s most certainly an ongoing fascination. So when I came across the work of an Australian woman named Linda Shum who decided to dedicate her life to an orphanage in what she likes to call ‘the real China’ (because it’s not one of the big, flashy cities we usually hear about in the news), it was hard for me to walk past.

On the other hand, there are international experts, including Professors Xiaoyuan Shang and Karen Fisher at the University of New South Wales, whose research is contributing to Chinese government policy and creating reform within China’s child welfare system.

China is a country which produces an incredible array of statistics. It has a population of 1.38 billion, more than 300 million children, and more than one million orphaned or abandoned children. About 110,000 of these orphans are state wards, the majority of them (80 per cent) living in institutions and orphanages. An estimated 60 million children live separately from their parents who have left home to find work elsewhere in China. Parents leave their children behind because of strict residency controls which can affect education and healthcare.

China maintains that the one-child policy that was in place for thirty-five years from 1980 only applied to 36 per cent of its population and that 53 per cent were allowed to have a second child if the first was a girl. In the coming pages, you will hear about the negative side-effects of the one-child policy.

Linda Shum opened her world to me, introducing me to her network in China and beyond. The stories in this book belong to Linda and her ever-widening net. Linda is happy to ponder the deeper questions such as why a Chinese couple today is willing to abandon an infant with a physical disability such as a missing left hand. But she is more concerned about how to give abandoned children the best start in life, to give them an education and, if necessary, to guide them to adulthood. I admire her work. However, I am often speechless concerning why child abandonment remains widespread and why so little is done by the Chinese government to reduce abandonment and address disability discrimination.

The stories you’re about to read don’t all have happy endings, but there are many triumphs along the way.

Linda Shum likes to tell her volunteers a story from the Chinese classics:

Yu Gong was a man who was laughed at by his whole village because he said he could move the local mountains to a better spot. He took a shovel and began to dig up the mountains bit by bit. Yu Gong got older, but still he shovelled and shovelled and again, the villagers laughed at him. They said he would die before the mountains were moved… but Yu Gong insisted that his children, their children and great-grandchildren would persist in order to move those mountains.

That’s what Linda Shum is doing. She is moving mountains; one shovel at a time.

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China Baby Love is out now in all good bookstores and online.

About Jane Hutcheon:

Jane Hutcheon hosts the weekly ABC-TV interview program One Plus One. She began her career in radio and television in Hong Kong. She has served as the ABC Correspondent in China, the Middle-East and Europe. Her first book From Rice to Riches published in 2003, documented her family’s connections and her own reporting experiences in China. Visit her website: janehutcheon.com

 

Posted on April 28, 2017 by

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"China Baby Love: How one woman turned her life upside down to help those who needed it most – half a world away"

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