The ACFS is not an insignificant organisation. It continues to make contributions in a situation in which it is now difficult to imagine there not being extensive trade links, regular cultural and other exchanges, promotion of Chinese language learning, and a large tourist industry.
Yet the ACFS had its beginnings in an era when these things seemed almost beyond reach, and when the pioneers of later developments were often ostracised or persecuted for their beliefs.
The first Australia China Society branch (the word “Friendship” was a later addition to the name) was formed in 1951 in Melbourne. Its aims were to extend and strengthen cultural, trade and peaceful relations with China and to seek Australia’s diplomatic recognition of the government of the People’s Republic of China. The Chairman was Rev. H. Aiken, and the President was Mr (later Prof.) C. P. Fitzgerald.
In January 1952, a provisional branch committee was established in Sydney, and in May this group formally linked with the Victorians to form the first two state branches of the ACS.
Throughout the 1950s attempts were made to send ACS delegations, and with ACS help, delegations representing trade unions, the peace and women’s movements to China.
It was a time of virulent anti-communism in Australia and throughout the western world, and a time when racism resulted in many seeing in China a “yellow peril”, a China which with only half of its present-day population was so overcrowded that its leaders spent all their time looking with greed and envy at the vast open spaces of the sunburnt country.
Despite the early organisation of the branches in the two major eastern states, things moved much more slowly in South Australia. Our branch was founded on the 25th February 1966 (see 50th Anniversary celebrations).
I can only speculate as to why a branch was not formed at an earlier date. One reason may have been that our only university at the time did not have a group of academics specialising in Asian Studies or teaching the Chinese language, nor were either of these two disciplines represented in our schools. Another reason was perhaps the devotion of local communists to the Soviet Union. Certainly there was at that time a branch of the Australia-Soviet Friendship Society and it was apparently reasonably well-supported and quite active.
The Sino-Soviet split must have provided some of the impetus for the formation of the branch here.
The Communist Party of Australia was much influenced by the international turmoil with the result that a large section of that Party’s Victorian membership was either expelled or resigned in disputes over the direction of the communist movement.
The Victorian State Secretary of the CPA up until the time of this turmoil was a well-known barrister, Mr E.F. (Ted) Hill. He had achieved some notoriety as the counsel for Rupert Lockwood at the Petrov Commission and was widely respected for his brilliant advocacy of workers compensation cases. Hill was founding Chairman of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) which closely identified itself with China and its interpretation of Marxism which, for better or worse, was summed up in the word “Maoism”.
Only a small number of CPA members here appeared to have supported the new party. Among them were Dr David Caust, a Plympton GP, and Charlie McCaffrey, former state secretary of the Ironworkers Federation.
These two were the real inspiration for the formation of the SA Branch of the ACS.
The founding meeting of the SA branch of the ACS was held at the Caust home on February 25, 1966. Those who attended were David and Tess Caust, Charlie and Lil McCaffrey, Marj Johnston, Roy Baynes, Mrs Thornton and Messrs Evans, Smith, Drummond and Walsh. Several of the latter came along from the factory at which Charlie was an organiser for the Ironworkers Union, the SA Rubber Mills on South Road; however, they did not subsequently join the branch. Mrs Thornton and Mr Drummond became members, but were only active for a short while.
The core of the branch, those who really were the pioneers of the Society in SA were the Causts, the McCaffreys, Roy Baynes and Marj Johnston. David Caust was the first President and Lil McCaffrey the first Secretary and Treasurer.
Tragically, David Caust died at the early age of 46 in August 1968. In his enthusiasm for the work of the Society, he had allowed his surgery’s waiting rooms at Plympton to become a virtual reading room of Chinese magazines. Among those of his patients who were influenced in this way were Bob and Rhonda Creek who were later to become active branch members during the early 70s and, in Bob’s case, President of the branch for several years.
David was also very much in favour of establishing a shop for the sale of Chinese magazines. These had previously been available at the CPA’s shop in Hindley Street, but had disappeared from the counter in the course of the Sino-Soviet split. David was going to help Charlie and Lil finance the opening of the shop, but in the event, Charlie retired from the Rubber Mills, borrowed some money from a friend and, with that and his own savings, opened the shop in February 1969.
Charlie had contacted China’s state book distribution agency, China International Book Trading Corporation, about opening a shop and their correspondence on the matter through 1968 and 1969 refers to it as a China Friendship Bookshop although it was subsequently named the East Bookshop.
At the 1983 AGM, the surviving pioneer members of the Society, Marj Johnston, Charlie and Lil McCaffrey and Roy and Muriel Baynes were granted life membership of the branch. Some others whom I remember being active at the time I joined in 1970 were Jean Thompson, Dorothy Pitcher (who was Secretary immediately before Roy), George Bockmann (an old friend of Roy and Muriel who was both National Council delegate and branch President for a while), and Shirley Warton, who was Branch and National Treasurer for a number of years.
In the early 70’s branch membership grew steadily and there was an influx of young people from the universities. Lesley Caust (David and Tess’s daughter) was one of these young people. Another member of the same social group, although somewhat older in years, was Charlotte Hantken. Born in 1928, she had fled Nazi Germany with her parents and grew up hating fascism and loving socialism with equal intensity. She was a key organiser in the mid-70’s of ACS study groups which met and read Mao’s works and looked at various aspects of China such as its economy, culture and so on.
Following her death, the Society assisted in the formation of a collection of books on China housed at the State Library, the Hantken Memorial Collection. This was extended to honour the memory of Roy Baynes following his death. The expanded collection was supported for many years by the ACFS.
The question of diplomatic relations was resolved at the end of 1972. However, the branch was still regarded with suspicion in some quarters, and I remember that at Executive and general meetings the names of the movers and seconders of motions were not recorded in the minutes for fear that this information would fall into the hands of ASIO and be used to intimidate and harass people. We were even one of the few organisations to be deemed worthy of continued police surveillance by Justice White in his 1974 report on the activities of the State police Special Branch. This was on the basis of such groups posing the threat of force or violence against the state!
In 1977 we were approached by the Chinese to select from among our members a number of teachers to go to China to teach English. Such exchanges are quite commonplace today, but it was all a bit new in 1977, and the Chinese wanted teachers who understood China’s political and social system, and who would teach for two years without suffering culture shock. We eventually had eight teachers all in China at the one time – not a bad effort from our relatively small membership.
Peter Trethewey, one of those teachers then based in Xi’an, sparked our biggest project when he wrote to us requesting our help in getting books donated and sent to China. What followed from about 1979 to 1983, was a simply Herculean effort, particularly on the part of Roy and Muriel whose garage became the collection point for thousands of books at a time. I can still see Roy (whose mobility was always problematic following the loss of both legs in an industrial accident as a seaman) sitting close to a home-brewed bottle of Stout, hammering nails into tea chests which would then be loaded by our members onto Chinese grain ships on their occasional visits to Port Adelaide. One ship, the Luzhou, took 67 tea chests, containing 15,000 books in one go, and all free of charge and destined for various institutions throughout China. By the time we suspended our collection of books, more than a quarter of a million volumes had been packed and sent to China. I mentioned Roy’s mobility so as to also pay tribute to the many school visits he made at the request of teachers starved (at that time) of reliable and up-to-date information on China.
It was impossible for such efforts to go unnoticed, and I am sure that Sir Walter Crocker, a distinguished former diplomat who had himself favoured the granting of diplomatic recognition to China at a much earlier date, had much to do with recommending Roy for the Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to international relations. Sir Walter had assisted us in a number of ways and was, for a time, a sort of unofficial patron of the Society. Roy for his part, always said that his award was really the Society’s, that he accepted it in the hope that it would clear the air in terms of how the Society was viewed, that it would help establish the standing and credibility of the organisation.
Don Littledye and Marlow Kimber were both untiring in their efforts as Presidents of the Society, and following Roy’s death in 1983, Muriel was likewise untiring as Branch Secretary.
In 1986 there was a further important development when a delegation from the state branch visited Shandong Province. Members of that delegation, Jeff Emmel in particular, were largely responsible for putting in place the series of steps that led to South Australia and Shandong becoming sister states. See more or our connections.
Presentation in Adelaide by Chinese delegation to then Premier Dean Brown a celebratory banner marking the establishment of Shandong-South Australian relationships in 1986 which ACFS SA were largely involved with establishing.
Two of the services that the Society offers to its members and to the general public are tours of China and language classes. The Society is actually the oldest China tour operator and was for a long period of time the only China tour operator. Although there is now a very competitive market for China tours, our prices and the quality of the tours we operate have sustained us through difficult times. In South Australia, both our tour operations and our language classes owed much to the efforts of then Branch Secretary Barbara Wahlstrom. Language classes continue to operate today through Helen and Graham Bennett’s good organisation, and tours have the added feature of inbound tours of Australia arranged for Chinese travel groups.
Another important development occurred in or around 1990 when Lil McCaffrey proposed that the Society take over from her the ownership and management of the East Bookshop. Over a period of nearly a quarter of a century the shop had introduced countless South Australians to Chinese publications and handcrafts. Volunteer workers made possible the operation of the shop under our management.
In the mid-90’s the shop was moved to Gouger Street in the area that is home to Adelaide’s small Chinatown. Like many book retailers, increasing costs, access to information on the Internet, and online ordering eventually made the shop unviable and it closed in January 2004 after nearly 40 years of continued operation.
The SA Branch of the ACFS had always contributed to national calls for funds to help alleviate flooding in China, or in support of such projects as the industrial cooperatives (Gong He) in China. A visit organised for secondary students of Chinese by the ACFS through Aberfoyle Park High School in 1994 saw a donation made to Sanhe Primary School, near Zouping in Shandong Province. China had recognised the problem of the poverty of many rural schools and had responded by initiating the Hope Project under whose auspices money was collected and distributed to schools in need.
Two years later, a second South Australian school group organised by the ACFS made the first of a number of contributions to the Zouping School for Deaf Mutes.
Eventually some ten thousand dollars would be raised by the SA branch and channelled to this school. When the school eventually succeeded in an ambitious rebuilding program, our fundraising efforts were directed towards the Charles Foundation and its work for mainly Yi nationality children in Sichuan Province’s Liangshan Mountains.
In the first quarter of 2004, the Society mounted a major display of its own history and activity at the SA Migration Museum. Premier Mike Rann opened this in the presence of Embassy representatives. Sponsor Woodhead International gave invaluable assistance.
Occasionally the question is raised as to whether the Society has served its purpose.
Despite all the gains over the years, there still remains a substantial body of media opinion that serves only to denigrate and obfuscate in relation to China. The fact that China is still governed by a Communist Party sits uneasily with those who would prefer that their own interests in China were looked after by competing political organisations in a “free and democratic” political environment. There remains a solid group of conservative persons and organisations in the West who are biding their time and pinning their hopes on the growth of social and political turmoil in China.
Of course, the China of today is far different to the China that existed at the time of our Branch’s formation. It has become our largest trading partner and a growing source of foreign direct investment. It has a commanding presence on the world stage and is seen as a strategic rival and competitor by the Unites States.
In this context there is an ongoing need for people-to-people relations between China and Australia and for further work to promote mutual understanding and friendship.
SA Branch President 1992-2013