THE LADY WITH A MISSION
For twenty-two years, a Canadian named Ethel Groce has fought ignorance and, native healers to bring the Gospel and, medical care to the boat people of Hong Kong. She’s done a few other things too— defied a Japanese firing squad, run the gantlet of Communist gunfire, and bought newborn girls to save them f rom death
WILMON B. MENARD
IN THE HARBOR AT HONG KONG lies Yaumati, a floating city whose forty thousand inhabitants live, work, beget and die aboard their junks and sampans. Many are refugees literally crowded out of the Chinese mainland, desperate families with nowhere else to go. Others, born afloat, have never set foot on shore. With as many as eighty people aboard each boat there is never enough space, never quite enough to eat, never a chance to escape dysentery and tuberculosis and other disease bred in the crowded hulls and in the polluted water on which they live.
The only effective medical help these people get comes from a woman from Smiths Falls, Ontario. Ethel Groce, a medical missionary, has been in China for twenty-two years. With an American couple. Bill and Marilyn Kinkade, she lives and works aboard a houseboat at Yaumati. A cheerful, white-haired woman of fiftyone, she holds morning clinic for patients strong enough to climb aboard her floating clinic. In
the afternoon, and often at night, a boatman rows her from sampan to sampan visiting those too sick to be moved.
Miss Groce and the Kinkades work for the Oriental Boat Missions, a non-denominational, non-profit mission organized in Illinois in 1909 to take Christianity and medical help to the boat people of the Far East. Yaumati is only one of several floating colonies in Hong Kong and there are hundreds more along the China coast. The boat people, called the Shui-jen or Tanka, have for centuries been sea gypsies ostracized by their neighbors on land. In their self-contained world they have their own pigs and poultry, their bumboats for fetching vegetables, firewood and fresh water, their floating drydocks for scraping and repairing hulls. Like other Chinese, the Tanka are traditionally Buddhist or Taoist, but many have turned Christian in order to avail themselves of Miss Groce’s free medical service. She says frankly, “The
majority of these boat people are glad to add Jesus Christ to their gods if there is any material profit. The medical care is our means of public relations, of reaching them so that they will come to our houseboat and listen to the w'ords of a Christian faith.”
Their need for medicine is strong enough to overcome their distrust of foreign drugs and foreign religion.
"It isn’t easy to convert them to western techniques,” Miss Groce admits. "Their doctors use remedies old as civilization, every sort of bizarre powder, ointment and pill compounded of dried monkey hearts, entrails of lizards and parings of tiger claws. With these weird ingredients they use a lot of sorcery whose psychological effect often brings about a kind of cure. So I have to proceed very carefully. But antibiotics have done winders in breaking down the Tanka’s suspicion. When an injection of penicillin brings
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The lady with a mission
continued from page 33
As a first step, converts are expected to burn Buddhist or Taoist shrines
immediate relief of pain and a quick, definite cure, they are convinced that my medicine is stronger than theirs. The word spreads and bit by bit my work becomes easier. The Tanka witch doctors fight me, but they can’t refute my results.”
Miss Groce’s biggest problem is obtaining medicine and equipment. Although her vaccines, vitamins and dressings arc free to patients, she has to buy them at retail prices in Hong Kong. She spends whole days tramping from one British government agency to another, begging for drugs or a few used surgical instruments. Other supplies come from mission headquarters in Chicago, from the United Nations Economic and Social Council and from private Chinese doctors, but there arc never enough to fill the demands of patients who begin lining up for pills and powders at eight in the morning.
Some of the patients are aware that Miss Groce’s handouts have commercial as well as therapeutic value. At one time a wily old fisherman used to come to the clinic almost every day, complaining of a strange fever that Miss Groce couldn’t diagnose. She prescribed penicillin tablets until she happened to hear that he was inducing his own fever by a secret Chinese formula and selling his pills on the profitable black market of Kowloon. She promptly substituted placebos of calcium, sugar and bismuth, and waited. A few days later he turned up with a black eye; his customers had realized that they were buying blanks. Now he came to warn Miss Groce that she was being cheated by her medical supply house because the tablets weren’t working. When she told him how she had switched them he took it as an immense joke.
The clinic, a white workmanlike room, is aboard the Chung Kwong or Faithful Light, the newer of the mission’s two houseboats, built in a Kowloon boatyard in 1957. "The ten thousand dollars to build it came from all over North America,” Miss Groce explains. “We didn’t solicit directly, we just prayed hard and somehow the money came in.” The Chung Kwong has a blue hull and white twostoried superstructure housing the clinic, a living room, two bedrooms and a modern kitchen.
Her sister craft, the Proclaiming Light or Po Kwong, serves as classroom and Sunday school under the direction of the Kinkades, who handle the evangelical side of the mission. Three Chinese teachers, five Chinese general workers and several youngsters work in the mission too.
The two boats are moored by the shore on the Kowloon side of the harbor. Nearby are clustered the sampans of the Tanka who have been converted to Christianity and farther out, lying hull to hull and bow to stern across the whole shimmering expanse of water, ride the high-pooped junks of the Hong Kong fishing fleet, the harbor junks into which vessels of every flag unload their cargoes, and the thousands of sampans sheltering the wanderers of the South China Sea.
“Our converts stick very close to our houseboats at first,” says Miss Groce. “It takes courage for a Tanka family to come alongside and hand up their Buddhist or Taoist shrines and tablets for burning in the first step of their conversion. The Tanka who are still heathen threaten them, warning them that ghosts will come to devour them in the night.”
Whenever one of Miss Groce’s patients
dies, the unconverted Tanka seize the chance to jeer at the weakness of the Christian God, though her tasks are often medically impossible. A fifteen-year-old girl dying of tuberculosis comes begging to be cured; a mother brings a baby with a cleft palate, expecting her to make the child normal on the spot.
Bill Kinkadc. who travels around to the offshore islands in a launch, was bitterly scolded by an old woman who had previously welcomed his preaching. “Why didn’t your god send rain for our winter rice crops? Go away or we will stone you!”
Tanka parents frighten their children with stories of white foreign devils, monsters with pale eyes, big noses and hairy bodies. Miss Groce says, “A Tanka child will break into piercing screams if a white male doctor approaches, but I have an easier time because the babies instinctively trust me as they would their mothers.”
She likes working with children best, and in her teens she dreamed of becoming a teacher. She changed her mind after her father, a salesman for a Canadian pulp and paper company had met a member of the Oriental Boat Missions in Chicago and fired his daughter’s imagination with stories about the boat people of the world. When he died suddenly, her mother went to live with relatives in Hamilton and Ethel enrolled at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago where she studied for three years. Advised to make herself more useful by learning a profession, she took a course in obstetrics
at the Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago.
She had long ago set her heart on going to India, but no posts were vacant there when she reported to the Oriental Boat Missions. She offered to go anywhere and was sent to China, where two of her classmates had recently been beheaded by bandits.
“My own destination was the leper colony of Tsingyun in the province of Kwangtung, outside Canton,” she remembers. “Early in 1938 I started work aboard a gospel boat on a river in Kwangtung. 1 took lessons in Cantonese, the South China dialect, which I now speak as easily as English. When the Japanese army captured Canton in October, I worked in the refugee camps doing midwifery and general clinic and bible work.”
Two years later she was ordered to report to the Presbyterian Hospital in I.inhsien, about 150 miles northwest of Canton in an unoccupied section of Kwangtung. This meant that she had to cross the Japanese lines that encircled Canton.
“Chinese friends suggested that I sneak past the garrison and swim the river at night, keeping below the surface most of the time. I rejected that plan because I was taking children with me. and because it was against my principles to steal across like a common thief.”
Instead she presented herself at the office of the Japanese commander of the occupation forces in Canton, requesting permission to cross the bridge with her charges. He refused indignantly. “I have orders from Tokyo to let no one pass. If you try to cross that bridge you'll be shot!”
“I’ll be crossing your lines at eight a.m. on October 28,” Miss Groce said quietly, and walked out.
On the morning she had set she walked across the bridge holding the hands of two Chinese children, a three-year-old orphan and a fourteen-year-old boy who was going to Free China to continue his schooling. Behind her came her guide, an old Chinese who knew the way to I.inhsien, and a ragged line of porters. Halfway across, she saw the sun glinting on rifle barrels at the far end of the bridge. While the little hoy whimpered and the guide begged her to turn back, she and the older child struck up a hymn.
Convinced that she was under the protection of God, she led her terrified pack toward the barrier of levelled rifles. At a hundred feet, the Japanese officer ordered her to stop. Knowing that she would lose her psychological advantage if she obeyed, she walked on. Astonished, impressed. undecided, the Japanese lifted their rifles.
“Who gave you permission to cross the bridge?” the officer demanded.
“The good Lord,” Miss Groce replied firmly.
After telephoning his commander in Canton, he put her party under guard in the garrison for twenty-four hours, and next morning allowed them to set off on their twenty-mile journey through banditinfested territory to the Free Chinese armies. At dusk the following day they arrived at the first Chinese army outpost, where they hired a boat. They travelled upriver for three weeks and reached Linhsien in the middle of November.
There Japanese planes flew over daily. Fearing incendiary bombs, the staff kept the hospital ready for immediate evacua-
tion, and rushed the patients off to the hills as often as three times a day. Each morning they packed bedding and other necessities into dugouts in the garden, knowing they would have no time to save personal belongings in a raid. Miss Groce worked under these emergency conditions until she was sent home to Canada on leave in June 1944.
When she rejoined the Oriental Boat Missions in Canton two years later, she found refugees pouring into South China as the Communist armies moved south. "Almost every day girl children were of-
fered to me—for a price,” she says. “Some 1 paid for. to keep them out of the hands of wicked old C'hinese women who would have sold them as slaves. Others I found abandoned at the side of the road or along the banks of the river.”
In Canton Miss Groce worked aboard the old houseboat Po Kwong. Since the Japanese had used the mission boats as barracks and then scuttled them in 1943. they had to be raised from the mud on the river bottom. In the summer of 194^ waterlogged and rotten with teredo worms, the Po Kwong was salvaged.
patched up and put into service again.
Three years later Miss Groce was ordered to leave Canton because it was about to fall to the Communists. Working against time, she got permission from the Hong Kong government to take the Po Kwong to Yaumati and hired a launch to tow it down the Pearl River. The old houseboat lay hidden in coves by day and inched her way down river by night, and at last reached Hong Kong with her superstructure riddled w'ith holes from Communist bullets.
Miss Groce says, "I’m fond of that old
tub because we've gone through a lot together. I’ve lain on her deck with bullets whining overhead, and slept for years on her floor. Since we launched the Chung Kwong we’ve had the Po Kwong stripped to a skeleton and repaired for use as a classroom.”
Aboard the Chung Kwong Miss Groce gets up before dawn. After a short prayer meeting and breakfast she scrubs and organizes the clinic for the morning lineup of forty or fifty patients. Her only assistants are a twelve-year-old Chinese nurse’s aide who helps with cleaning, making simple bandages, and distributing medicine, and an eight-year-old Tanka girl who keeps order in the waiting room and records the patients’ complaints in a ledger.
Tuberculosis is Hong Kong’s foremost killer. This and other serious conditions such as cancer, heart disease and spinal meningitis Miss Groce refers to the British government hospitals in Kowloon and Hong Kong. Everything else, from pulling teeth to fighting diphtheria, she handles alone.
The most persistent problem is dysentery. Miss Groce explains, "The Tanka will eat almost anything, even garbage they fish out of the harbor. Since they have no refrigeration, even their fresh food is contaminated by the bacillus of dysentery. They’ve built up an incredible resistance to it but this breaks down when they become saturated with the germ. Diarrhoea kills a great many babies here. I’ve written booklets of simple rules for preventing diarrhoea and had them translated and printed in Chinese for the Tanka mothers, but their living conditions still give infection the upper hand.”
Often her morning routine or her sleep is interrupted by an urgent call from a mother with a desperately sick child, from a fisherman who has had an accident at sea or from a woman giving birth. She has delivered countless babies by the dim light of a lantern aboard junks and sampans.
“Each time I deliver a child 1 fall in love with it." she says. " The children all call me Mama, and their mothers think of me as godmother. But I often have trouble making the Tanka understand that they must not destroy their newborn girls. Most people don’t know that infanticide is still sometimes practised in Hong Kong. It’s prompted by the need to survive: every newborn baby represents another mouth to feed in an economy always on the borderline of famine. I’ve lost count of the number of baby girls I’ve rescued and sent to orphanages in Kowloon and Hong Kong."
One emergency call took Miss Groce to the red-light district of Yaumati. where prostitutes hail boatmen and tourists from a double line of lighted and decorated sampans. A girl had tried to perform an abortion on herself and bungled it. Now she was in agony with peritonitis. For fourteen hours Miss Groce worked over her, while the girl clung to her. weeping and murmuring over and over. “Mama, save me, save me, and I be good girl forever!" Her life was saved anti soon afterward she came to the houseboat, dressed in simple coolie blouse and pantaloons, to say, "Now I have come, Mama, to be a good girl and work for you forever and hear about your Jesus Christ God.”
Miss Groce was so moved that she burst into tears. She says. "This is the sort of thing that makes my work worth while. Often 1 get discouraged through sheer exhaustion, but I can’t think of happier work. It’s a good. Christian, enriching life. I plan to stay in China, to live and work and someday die here. My destiny was decided long ago, and my place is here.” ★