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Rewi Alley. Photo/Getty Images

A Communist in the Family: Elspeth Sandys' search for 'Uncle Rewi'

Family perspective casts a new light on Rewi Alley, a Kiwi pathfinder in Communist China.

Rewi Alley has been the subject of four major biographies but the latest, by Elspeth Sandys, A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley, is distinctive, showing him through a personal lens.

The details of his life are well known. Alley headed to Shanghai in 1927, to become a firefighter and factory inspector. Appalled by conditions, he became a Communist sympathiser. He was part of a talented generation of observers along with New Zealander James Bertram and American writers Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley. When Japan invaded, he helped establish industrial co-ops, shifting factories inland and raising money overseas. Later, he joined his friend George Hogg at a school in the interior. After years crisscrossing China, Alley acquired an international reputation and a knowledge few foreigners could match.

Novelist Sandys tells a more personal tale. She grew up believing Alley was “Uncle Rewi” and, though it transpired she was adopted, she places him in a family of spirited characters. She weaves together her family story partly through the chronology of his life but also pausing to focus on themes or characters, including his friend, the beguiling Soong Ching Ling (widow of Dr Sun Yat-Sen), and his adopted children Mike (Li Xue) and Alan (Duan Simu).

Also running through are scenes from an official bus tour by the “Alley whānau” to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of his arrival in Shanghai. There are some lovely moments, such as when the whānau practise their waiata for the next memorial in a secluded valley. These shifts between Alley the man and Alley the memorial are particularly powerful when the past and present Alleys converge at his beloved school.

Sandys is at her best depicting moments from his life and imagining some conversations. She captures Alley arriving in Shanghai marvelling at its life – and poverty. The book has extensive footnotes but at times you want to know more of where the detail came from.

She diverges from recent historical works over whether Alley was gay. Professor Anne-Marie Brady says he was attracted to Shanghai by its sexual freedoms and that he was able to have a family in China. Sandys disagrees. She says he was rendered impotent when wounded in World War I and that there were always whispering campaigns to discredit him. A person’s sexual orientation shouldn’t matter, she tells one family member. “Except it did back then,” he replies.

After the Communists came to power, Alley settled into writing and giving speeches as a peace ambassador under the eye of the party. He lived through the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution but almost never spoke out. Acknowledgement of the catastrophes later was “too little, too late”, says Sandys. But he was also on the itinerary for visiting leaders including Rob Muldoon, whom he rather liked. His mana helped New Zealand forge relationships with China.

There was also unhappiness. His adopted sons were imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Grandchildren Mao Mao and Bao Bao emigrated to the US and broke contact. Though the story of the Kiwi Alley whānau is captured so well by Sandys, there may yet be another Alley whānau story to be told.

A COMMUNIST IN THE FAMILY: Searching for Rewi Alley, by Elspeth Sandys (Otago University Press, $40)

This article was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.