In the spring of 2007 in a crowded Beijing restaurant an elderly Chinese man rose to his feet and silenced his fellow diners with a song he had learnt as a child:
Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run
They all ran after the farmer’s wife
She cut off their tails with a carving knife
Three blind mice, three blind mice.
Although seventy-five years old, Nie Guang Han had a strong tenor voice, and to the bafflement of the restaurant he reeled off a number of other English nursery rhymes, finishing with a rousing rendition of:
The elderly Chinese guests had all learnt those and other songs by heart as children. They had gathered to share their memories of the man who had taught them to sing English nursery rhymes, and to whom they owed their lives, a young Englishman who became both their headmaster and their adoptive father at the height of the Sino–Japanese war in the 1940s.
His name was George Aylwin Hogg, and in a few brief years during the three-sided war in China he achieved legendary status in the north-west of the country. Although unknown in his own homeland he remains well loved and remembered by those he met and cared for in the brief years he worked in China before his death in July 1945.
It was in China in 1984 that I had first come across the story of Hogg, when I was working for the London Daily Telegraph as holiday relief in the Beijing bureau. After several barren days searching for a decent story I went to the British Embassy Club for a quiet beer. There I overheard a British diplomat complain that he had to fly to the town of Shandan in the remote north-west of the country, because the Chinese authorities had erected the bust of an Englishman in the town.
Strange things were happening in Beijing at the time. Mao Tse-tung had died in 1976, allowing Deng Xiaoping to return from disgrace and begin the economic liberalisation that was to set China on the path to today’s burgeoning market economy. The first McDonald’s had opened in Beijing. Cars were just beginning to challenge the many millions of bicycles on the streets of the capital. Western businessmen were arriving with every flight at the international airport. Nevertheless, the idea that China would honour an unknown Englishman with a bust seemed preposterous.