An Irishman's Diary

AT AN AUCTION in Hong Kong on Thursday, I paid $5,000 to purchase a medal awarded by the Chinese government to my grandfather…

AT AN AUCTION in Hong Kong on Thursday, I paid $5,000 to purchase a medal awarded by the Chinese government to my grandfather, an Irish Presbyterian missionary, for helping thousands of Chinese migrant workers in France during the first World War.

Rev Frederick O’Neill, who served in Manchuria from 1897 to 1942, was given the Order of the Striped Tiger for his work with the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC) of 96,000 people who assisted Allied forces in France and Belgium from 1917 to 1919. He and other missionaries cared for the personal and spiritual needs of the workers; most were illiterate, had left their country for the first time and, outside work, lived in closed camps.

The medal, in silver-gilt and enamels and with a lacquer box, is a testimony to his good deeds.

Grandfather was born in Belfast on August 26th, 1870 and left for China in September 1897. He was assigned to the small country town of Faku in Liaoning province, where he built a church, schools and a hospital.

I have just finished his biography, to be published in Chinese and, hopefully, English within the next nine months. I went to Faku three times, Nagasaki, France and Belfast to trace his roots. I spoke to Chinese ministers and other believers who still remember the good work he did for them.

Grandfather died in Belfast in October 1952, at the age of 82, and his wife Annie four years later. He left behind books he wrote but the medal disappeared. I was surprised to read in The Irish Times on August 20th that it was to be auctioned on August 25th in Hong Kong. It was Lot 888, very auspicious for Chinese: car number plates with the number eight sell for high prices.

The auction catalogue did not identify the vendor other than to say that he was a “descendant” of Rev O’Neill.

I frantically called my relatives to try to establish the identity of the vendor and convince him or her to cancel the sale.

Because of its historic value, the medal belongs in Northern Ireland and not in a coin shop or deposit box in China or elsewhere in the world. But telephone calls and e-mails were to no avail and we were unable to establish who the vendor was.

Then both the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland and Declan Kelleher, the Irish Ambassador in Beijing, asked Baldwin’s, the auctioneer, to contact the vendor and asked him to withdraw the medal from the auction, to allow organisations in Northern Ireland to raise money to secure it for their collection. Both believe that it should be kept in Ulster.

Baldwin’s passed on the message but the vendor did not withdraw the item. One reason might be that, if he did, he would incur a financial penalty.

So the only option left was to go to the auction. I walked into the room with trepidation. The event attracted buyers from all over China, bringing tens of thousands of dollars; all could outbid me if they chose.

The auction began in the morning. Since my lot was 888, it meant a long wait during the afternoon. As I sat and watched prices rise by thousands of dollars with a flick of the auctioneer’s finger, I became increasingly nervous.

Any of those present could outbid me without thinking of it.

The catalogue highlighted Grandfather’s medal by its lot number, two wonderful photographs of him in Manchuria and an introduction to his life.

Finally, close to 7pm, the number came up. “We have a bid via Internet at 4,000 dollars,” said the auctioneer. I raised my bidding card – “4,200” – and looked fearfully around the room. There was silence: no-one moved. The Internet buyer made two more bids but did not respond to $5,000.

So the gavel came down and we had secured the medal; the auctioneer moved rapidly on to lot 889.

I felt very happy that we were able to keep such a precious piece of history. I plan to donate it eventually to an institution in Northern Ireland.

But I also felt sad at having to pay such a large sum of money to a relative, when a simple telephone call could have saved everyone the trouble. The medal’s value is not measured in money but as a symbol of what Grandfather did for the people of China.

He and another Presbyterian missionary in Manchuria, William Cargin, received the medal for work with the Chinese Labour Corps. They were the largest contingent of foreign workers used by the Allies during the first World War, outnumbering the Indians, black South Africans, Egyptians and West Indians.

On February 17th, 1917, a German submarine sank a French transport ship off the coast of Malta: 543 Chinese aboard drowned. There are 2,000 Chinese Labour Corps graves in France and Belgium; the men died from tuberculosis, bombs, accidents or were killed by unexploded shells and grenades they were clearing after the war.

China offered farmers and labourers as workers in order to earn a seat at the victors’ table after the war. It was invited to the Paris peace talks but the Allies did not return the German-controlled province of Shandong, as it demanded, but gave it instead to Japan. Outraged, the Chinese delegation refused to sign the Versailles Peace Treaty and signed a separate treaty with Germany in 1921. Ironically, Shandong provided the largest number of workers to the Chinese Labour Corps.

After the attack on Pearl Harbour, Grandfather and Grandmother were kept under house arrest until May 1942, when they were taken to Japan and put on a ship for Lourenco Marques in Mozambique, where they were exchanged for Japanese prisoners. After the war, he wished to, but was unable to return to Manchuria.

Mark O’Neill, journalist, author and professor, resident of Asia since 1978, has just finished biography of his grandfather.