The People of Wheelbarrow Lane
by William Sewell
This article was originally published in the December 2003 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
I found the book, ‘The People of Wheelbarrow Lane’, in a charity shop selling for 50p. It was written by William Gawan Sewell based on his memories, diaries and letters of his 25 years experiences of living in China. It is set in Chengdu in the province of Sichuan (Szechwan) in the early 1930’s at the time that China was at war with Japan.
The ‘People of Wheelbarrow Lane’ is a delightful book about the characters that William Sewell met while living in China, and is based on the lives of these individuals. There are many characters in ‘Wheelbarrow Lane’, although names have been changed they are based on real people. There is Bao Hsin-min, the head of the local branch of the post office, Deng the carpenter and tailor Su, but the central characters are the Wu family. Wu Deh-min who is descended from a traditional Chinese family living in Shanghai, met his young English wife Molly while studying in England in Yorkshire. Returning with Molly and after a stay in Shanghai, his family sent him to Chengdu as the Chinese manager of a local tannery. The story of Deh-min and Molly and their family shows the difficulties of a mixed marriage particularly for Molly, who finds her unselfishness and sense of humour is often strained to the utmost in her fight for acceptance in a strange and many ways primitive environment.
Another important character is artist and language teacher Yu Tse-tan. Tse-tan, whose name has not been changed, taught William Sewell the language on his arrival in China, and the book is dedicated to him. Tse-tan he is a sensitive and cultured man, who is becoming increasingly frustrated and out of tune with the changing way of life. The book is illustrated with Tse-tan’s black and white Chinese ink drawings of street scenes that he gave to William Sewell.
The book has no central plot but shows the characters trying to eke out a living under the New Movement of Chiang Kai-shek. A movement designed to ‘revive ancient virtues, to return to courteous behaviour, pure living, clean thinking and hatred of evil.’ However with the continuing Japanese bombing this old way of life is changing. The people of Chengdu were living in an age that for most of the world had long since departed, ‘they were invaded by the twentieth century with its stark selfish cruelty, its technical efficiency at its most evil; they had been overtaken by world events of which they knew little.’
It is an interesting book about life in China in a past era and the lives of ordinary people, who were neither, political figures or revolutionaries. The story shows how they were affected by the approach of war and the spirit and qualities they took with them when they eventually they turned to Mao Tse-tung.
Biographical Details of William Sewell
William Gawan Sewell was born the 6th July 1898 in Whitby, Yorkshire, into an old Quaker family. He was educated at Ackworth School, and Whitby County School. He achieved his M.Sc. in Chemistry at Leeds University.
In 1921 William Sewell was appointed Demonstrator and Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Colour Chemistry at Leeds University. In 1922 he married Hilda Guy, a fellow student at Leeds University in Botany and Education. They later had three daughters and one son, the eldest daughter died in Chengdu age 7 years.
In 1924 he resigned his University post to go with his wife to the West China Union University, Chengdu, Sichuan, as part of the Friends Foreign Mission Association (later the Friends Service Council). After a years language study he joined the department of Chemistry, eventually becoming the Head and Associate Dean of the College of Science. In 1927 William Sewell and his family were evacuated from Chengdu, and after spending some time in Shanghai, he spent two terms teaching at Lingnan University, Canton, before returning to Sichuan.
From 1942 to 1945, he and his family were interned by the Japanese at Stanley, Hong Kong. After recuperation in England he returned to Chengdu in 1947. In 1949 after establishment of the People’s Republic of China, he was one of the few foreign teachers invited to stay. He continued to teach at the West China Union University, returning to England in 1952.
After leaving China, he worked for eleven years (1952-1963) as Assistant Registrar (London Representative) of the University of Ghana (formerly the University of the Gold Coast). He retired in 1964, and spent his time involved chiefly with China and Quaker communities. He was for several years Vice Chairman of the Friends Service Council, and chairman for one year. He visited New Zealand three times, giving him the opportunity of lecturing on China. In 1974 he visited eastern China. He died on the 13th January 1984.
Books written by William Sewell
Land and Life of China 1933
Turbid Waters 1934
China through a College Window 1937
Strange Harmony (An Account of Internment) 1946
I stayed in China 1966
The People of Wheelbarrow Lane 1970
China and the West: Mankind Evolving 1970
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