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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Scotswoman amongst the Chinese Poor

Looking Back

Friday March 19 2021

Looking Back: Scotswoman Amongst the Chinese Poor

Published in March 1956, the story of a Scottish missionary nurse working among Chinese refugees in Hong Kong


LOIS MITCHISON reports on a visit to Helen Wilson in her Kowloon camp, where a community has been created amidst poverty.

The young Hong Kong student told me that if I was interested in stories about Scots I ought to go and see Miss Helen Wilson, who was born 65 years ago in Aberdeen. Miss Wilson had, he said, saved “hundreds” of Chinese lives at the Hong Kong refugee camp at Rennie’s Mills.

Over tea Miss Wilson told me that she had been trained as a nurse and midwife at the Deaconess Hospital in Edinburgh. In 1920 she had sailed for central China to work with the Church of Scotland Mission. During the second world war she was interned by the Japanese in Shanghai, then had a three year leave in Scotland after the war, and returned to China to be expelled by the Communists, like other western missionaries, in 1951.

In Hong Kong in 1951 Miss Wilson booked a passage on a ship bound for Britain. But before she left she visited a friend, another missionary out of China, Miss Mary Myers of the American Evangelical and Reformed Church, at Rennie’s Mills in the New Territories of Hong Kong.

Rennie’s Mills was the refugee camp for the remnants of Chiang’s army and their families who had fled into Hong Kong. At the peak of the camp’s population it sheltered 20,000 people. There were generals and colonels as well as private soldiers, but nobody was rich… if they were they rented a comfortable flat in Hong Kong itself; and if they were richer still asked for visas to the United States or South America.

At Rennie’s Mills the refugees dug into the side of a steep hill, previously deserted except for the ruins of Mr. Rennie’s house, where the Englishman had hanged himself when his flour mills failed during the war. They built themselves shacks of matting, old boards, and general scrap; but even these houses cost something to build, and when a typhoon struck Hong Kong last year many of the families were at first too poor to rebuild their homes.

In a refugee hut

Miss Myers had a small medical clinic with her drugs laid out on a stone slab; as her guest at the camp Miss Wilson helped her. Then Miss Myers retired to Japan, and Miss Wilson wired the Church of Scotland for permission to take over the clinic. She had a hut to live in, much like those of the refugees; and for wet weather the clinic had an open-sided roofed pavilion.

The clinic was at first supported by the Evangelical and Reformed Church of America, then later by another grant of £250 a year from the Church of Scotland. Miss Wilson was given cod liver oil, vitamins, powdered milk and clothes and blankets to distribute. She bought drugs, mainly, at first while the clinic had no doctor working with it, to treat eye and skin diseases. Starvation, constant summer dust, overcrowding and an inadequate water supply multiplied these.

Today Rennie’s Mills has nearly 7000 people in it. The government no longer provides free food to anyone in the camp; but a local charity feeds 300 of the remaining disabled soldiers.

Miss Wilson’s clinic is now in a two-roomed stone hut with a proper doctor’s examination room. At first there was no hospital in the camp at all for tuberculosis, but then Miss Wilson was given money to buy some huts and give each patient a grant of about two pounds ten shilling a month to buy their food with. But, because of the camp overcrowding and starvation, about one person in every six has tuberculosis and the huts could not take nearly all the patients.

So Miss Wilson and Miss Annie Skau, her fellow worker from the Covenant Mission Church of Norway, canvassed every possible source of money, and finally scraped together from a number of missions, including the Church of Scotland, enough to build six pavilions for a hospital of 100 beds.

“We have not got the money”

The hospital, when I visited it, was not yet officially open, but Miss Skau told me that the children’s ward was already full. She was trying to choose adult patients with a good chance of recovery and mothers of young families. The pavilions are on another levelled hillside looking out over a sea inlet very like the west coast of Scotland. The hospital is going to need extra blankets in winter; and there are of course no extras like toys for the children.

“It should be far more,” said Miss Skau apologetically, “but the food is still better than the patients would get in their homes… and we just have not got the money.”

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