Long Live the Missionaries

The “Forty-niners” a group of missionaries sent by the China Inland Mission in 1949 to work in China were forced to leave when the Communists took over.  They re-located to SE Asia to work among the chinese in different places, one being Serdang Baru where their work continues to this day.

By Ong Hwee Keng

IN 1983, I WAS ASKED by my pastor to help produce a souvenir magazine to commemorate the 30th anniversary of our church, which fell on December of the following year. “Just have a simple one, with articles from various people and plenty of photographs to depict the life of the church,” said Pastor Tan. She told me the Serdang Baru Christian Church was started by foreign missionaries, who first came in 1952. Two years later, the first batch of a dozen believers was baptised at the pond near the then Federal Experimental Station of the Department of Agriculture. That baptism date was then considered the birthday of the church. “It would be wonderful if you could print messages from some of the present and former missionaries who served here,” she said.

At that time, the missionary who was still serving was Ferne Isabel Blair,* who had been posted to various places in Malaysia for 32 years. She wanted to be a Malaysian citizen, but her application was rejected by the government and she finally had to leave for her home country of Canada in 1985. I had no problem getting some material from her as well as a few words for the magazine. She was one of the “Forty-niners”, the batch of China Inland Mission missionaries that was sent to China in 1949 to study Chinese before being commissioned to serve in various parts of the country. However, their stay in China was cut short by the Communist takeover, and they moved to Southeast Asia, where many ethnic Chinese lived. Ferne gave me the address of Ursula Kohler, one of the first two missionaries to arrive in Serdang. Though Ursula and I had never met, a friendship developed and she supplied many photos and captions. I counted it a privilege to receive greetings, material, kind words and exhortations from a former missionary living in Switzerland, who, at 71 years of age in 1983, could still recall names and events of more than 30 years ago. Ursula gave me the address of Irene Neville, the other pioneer missionary who arrived with her in 1952. Irene provided me with many precious photographs of those early days.

Growing up in Toowoomba, Australia, Irene gave herself to the Lord at the age of nine and, shortly after, received a clear calling from god to bring the gospel to the Chinese. Like Ursula, Irene obeyed god’s voice and went to China. Subsequently, they moved to Serdang.

Ferne and Ursula also solicited for me articles from James Metcalfe and Barbara Hovda. James, together with his wife Pearl, served in Serdang from 1955 to 1957. They then moved to Kalumpang before returning to Serdang in 1960 to serve until 1964. Barbara served from 1964 to 1967, together with Hazel Doel and Marjorie Lattin. Pastor Tan herself obtained a short message from Rev David Day, who arrived to serve in Serdang for a year in 1958.

Time flew by and one day, in 2003, I was approached by a church deacon, who said: “Next year, our church will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. Can you write something on the history of the church for the anniversary magazine? You had some contacts with the former missionaries, right?” I thought to myself: “Was it 20 years ago that I wrote to some former missionaries to ask them for messages? It seemed like two years ago!” Then, it hit me hard that 20 years had elapsed.

I began to feel uncomfortable. With the exception of sending a card or two yearly to those missionaries, I had largely forgotten them. Over the years, the card-sending became less regular. And now, I had to ask them for a favour again! The first two missionaries I wrote to were Ursula in Switzerland and Irene in Australia, since they were the first to arrive in Serdang. Soon after, I received a packet from Australia. The sender was Ruth Burgin, who introduced herself as the younger sister of Irene. Ruth informed me that Irene had gone to be with the Lord in 1998. She kindly enclosed three dozens of Irene’s photographs for my church to use for the anniversary magazine. I was dumbfounded. How did Irene die? Had she suffered a lot? How old was she?

Around this time, I had a dream. I went into a room where there was a very sick, old lady on a bed, and several other Caucasians standing beside her. It was either a room in a hospital or a nursing home, for the old lady was hooked to some medical equipment, including an ECg machine that monitored her heart. All eyes were on me, the only Asian, as soon as I entered the room. Not knowing who the patient was, I just stood there in shock. Suddenly, one of the Caucasians spoke to me, “She can still hear if you just speak into her ear.” I got closer and saw the wrinkled face of the oldest woman I had ever seen. She was motionless and her eyes were closed.

I found myself bending over her to speak into her  left ear, saying, “I come from the Serdang Baru Christian Church in Malaysia. They asked me to thank you for bringing the good News to the new village.” Suddenly, the old lady opened her eyes momentarily and shut them again. At that moment, the rhythmic sound of the ECg machine turned discordant, and the wave-like graph went flat. The lady who had spoken to me burst into tears. Immediately, I woke up, with my heart pounding away.

I began to ponder whether god was trying to speak to me through the dream. Could the old lady be Ursula or Ferne? Oh, no! “Lord, please don’t let the dream come true,” I prayed. I began to realise that there had been a lack of care and concern for these missionaries of old. Although I had corresponded with them occasionally and sent them Christmas cards, I didn’t know how they were leading their lives as retired missionaries. As far as I knew, Ursula, Irene and Ferne never married. Who took care of them in their old age? I asked around and discovered that nobody in church was in touch with the missionaries. Although I did not belong to the group “converted” by them, I kept asking how the church could show more care and concern for these retired missionaries.

Suddenly, an idea came to me one day: We should visit those missionaries! As far as I knew, at that time, the surviving ones were Ferne in Canada, James in the UK and Ursula in Switzerland. But who should visit them? Who would sponsor the long trip? Then, it dawned on me that of all the people in my church, I would be the most suitable one to visit these retired missionaries. My job came with sufficient paid annual leave. But to suggest that the church send me to visit these missionaries would surely be seen as taking advantage of the church to go for a free holiday. I realised that I had been travelling overseas to attend professional conferences at least once, if not twice, a year. If the venue of my future conferences were to be in any of these missionaries’ home countries, I would be able to visit them.

I felt the urgency of these visits as I realised that in the year of our 50th anniversary, Ursula, Ferne and James would 92, 83 and 80 years of age, respectively. I began to pray to god for two things. Firstly, I pleaded with god to give these missionaries long life! “Don’t take them yet, like You took Irene, Lord! Keep them healthy and strong. Wait for me!” Secondly, I asked god to lead me to a conference in Canada, Switzerland and the UK.

In 2004, before we printed our commemorative magazine, god opened the way for me to attend a conference in Montreal. Although Ferne’s home was in Abbotsford in Vancouver, I was able to fly to Vancouver on my return journey. I took a week’s leave so that after my conference, I could spend some time with Ferne, updating her on developments in my church. She stayed at Cascade Court, a comfortable senior citizens’ home run by the Salvation Army. Ferne was still active in ministering to overseas Chinese from China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. She was also active in visitation, prayer meetings and Alpha courses.

Knowing that I was preparing for an anniversary magazine, she brought out her old photographs to show me. Two of her photos really moved me. One was taken in 1949 and showed her and Ruth Adams wearing quilted Chinese gowns, sitting under the winter sun at the foothills of Chongqing studying the Chinese language. The other photo showed a group of “Forty-niners” having a meal, Chinese style, complete with bowl and chopsticks. They were doing everything they could to make themselves Chinese. In the end, they became “Chinese inside, European outside”!

My visit to Canada was short. I didn’t see much of the country, but I was happy that my wish to see Ferne had been fulfilled. She told me to visit again, but not alone. “Next time,” she said, “You must come with your wife Helen and see more of this huge country.” I told her that the next time I went, it would be with Helen.

Upon my return from Canada, I began to pray for  a trip to Switzerland to see Ursula, as she was really advanced in age. I continued my prayer for her health and this time, I prayed more specifically for a trip to Zurich, her home city. In the autumn of the following year, god granted me an opportunity to attend a conference in Zurich! I was awed by the way He prepared for my trip. The organiser of the conference gave me a list of hotels to choose for my accommodation. One of the hotels was situated on the same street as Ursula’s home! Needless to say, I chose that hotel.

Upon my arrival, I discovered that I had to walk past Ursula’s home to go to my conference site. I was thus able to visit her every day on my way back from the conference. Like Ferne, she also stayed at a comfortable senior citizens’ home with dining facilities. On Sunday, she brought me to a Chinese church and I found that she could still speak some Mandarin and Hakka! As I walked with her to and from the church, I praised god that at 92, she was walking without a walking stick.

I was also moved by some of her photos. One was that of her in front of the mission house in Serdang, which was her home together with Irene. It was just a wooden house with a zinc roof. It must have been very hot during the day and very noisy when it rained. The house attracted many village children, and they had a large children’s meeting there. The first song they taught the children was Jesus loves me, this I know (sung in Chinese). The other photo was that of a clinic. It was then called the Red Cross Bungalow. Irene and Ursula were qualified nurses in their home countries and they volunteered to help in the clinic, thus reaching out to many villagers in those days. Looking at the photo, I realised that they gave up handsome salaries to become missionaries in Serdang. (Ferne was also a qualified nurse back in Canada. However, when she was in Serdang, the government clinic was well established, so she concentrated on pastoral work.)

I finally bade farewell to Ursula, thankful to god that He had fulfilled my wish to see, face to face, one of the first missionaries to Serdang. At our parting, she said to me, “Switzerland is a beautiful country, isn’t it? You must come again, but next time, bring Helen along!” I promised her that I would.

There was still the Metcalfe family in the UK to visit. I started to pray for a chance to go to the UK, but this time, I put in the condition of travelling together with my wife Helen, since everybody wanted me to bring her! But God didn’t grant me that wish. Indeed, it was difficult to arrange for the two of us to travel together, since both of us were working. Moreover, my employer avoided sending staff to the UK due to the strength of the pound sterling. During the waiting period, I kept on blessing the missionaries, saying, “The Lord bless you and keep you, and make His face shine upon you…”

Time flew, and my wife and I soon retired, but I was re-employed on a contract basis until May 2009. In 2008, the global financial crisis occurred. Following the crisis, we found that many airlines drastically reduced their fares to maintain passenger volume. We then realised that we could visit not just the Metcalfes but also Ferne and Ursula again! And so, in May 2009, I fulfilled my promise to visit Ferne with Helen. This time, with no burden of work, we could see more of Canada, including the Rockies. Ferne was thrilled to see us. She looked well, although she had been recently hospitalised for a nasty infection. Treating us to a special lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at the dining hall of Cascade Court, she said good news from a distant land was like cold water to a weary soul (Prov 25:25). That distant land of Malaysia was ever so close to her heart. She wanted to adopt the country as her own, but it was not to be, and now at 88 years of age, she was looking forward to enter the glorious abode to be with her Lord and Saviour. She had even arranged the programme for her funeral service!

In July of the same year, we visited James and Pearl Metcalfe in Reading, the UK and flew to Switzerland  to visit Ursula after that. James and Pearl were easily remembered by Serdang folks because they had five children. The Serdang church members were both fascinated and alarmed by the Metcalfes’ way of bringing up their children. Once, they screamed when the kids were enjoying their cheese, mistaking it for soap! While in Reading, Helen and I were privileged to visit two of their children and their lovely families. James and Pearl left Serdang in 1965 to move to the Philippines, where he served as a broadcast engineer for a Christian radio station, the FEBC. He was a qualified engineer before God called him to be a missionary. The Metcalfes lived in a double-storey house with a nice garden, and we discovered that they were nature lovers. They were also book lovers. Just about every available space in the house was used up for storing books!

One evening, prior to having dinner at their home, James climbed up to the attic. He came down with two things in his hands. One was a copy of the old Hakka  Bible that he had used in Serdang. This was a special Bible printed especially for reading out in the Hakka dialect. The other was a german-made accordion that he used when he taught Sunday School in Serdang. After fiddling with it for a few minutes, James began to play a few tunes, one of which was Jesus loves me, this I know. “Wah!” I exclaimed, “after all these years, you can still play such lovely Sunday School songs!” He stared at his accordion, too nostalgic and emotional to say anything. I noticed both Pearl and Helen had tears in their eyes. James was 85.

In Zurich, Ursula was no less thrilled by our visit.  She still stayed at the same comfortable apartment built for senior citizens. Ursula showed us a hardcover book published by a Swiss company celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2008. In the book, the company featured 100 unique Swiss people, whose ages ranged from one to 100. To our pleasant surprise, Ursula was featured as the 96th person! Why was she unique? The caption pointed out that she was a Swiss missionary who spoke german, English, Mandarin and Hakka and lived among the Chinese people.

Noticing her Hakka Bible on the book shelf, I told her that James had the same Bible and related to her how he played the accordion. Ursula started singing Jesus loves me, this I know in Hakka. She burst out in laughter each time she made a mistake, saying “Mmm kee tet” (can’t remember). We tried to sing along with her, but we couldn’t. Our eyes were teary and our voices cracked. Ursula was 97.

During our last visit to Ursula, we learnt that Marjorie Lattin was still alive. “I should have told you earlier, but somehow I forgot,” she said. Marjorie served in Serdang  in the 1960s. Upon her return, she had got married and now lived with her husband in California. Back home, I discovered that some time ago, Marjorie was visited by Rev James Lai, who grew up in Serdang. Rev Lai travelled extensively doing outreach work. Helen and I were much comforted by the thought that although we didn’t know she was alive, she had been visited by someone from Serdang.

Our visits confirmed that god was gracious to all His living missionaries and, we were sure, to all those who went to heaven earlier. He blessed them and kept them and made His face shine upon them and gave them peace. To god be the glory, great things He has done. end48

Ferne Isabel Blair was a former missionary, having served in Sungai Buloh, Rawang, Sungei Way, Serdang, Cameron Highlands and other places in Malaysia for a total of 32 years until her retirement in 1985. She had been of great help to members of Ikatan Kristian UPM (IKUPM or the UPM Christian Fellowship) in their spiritual growth while serving in Serdang. Some former IKUPM members had heard about our trip and raised money as a love gift to Ferne, remembering her labour of love among them. They heard that she was unwell. So my wife and I ended up with a small mission: delivering the love gift to Ferne.

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Ong Hwee Keng worked as a research officer at the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute in Serdang, where he served for 38 years. After retirement he serves as Executive Administrator of Migrant Ministry in Klang Malaysia. Hwee Keng is married to Helen and they have two sons, Evangel and Ernest. He is active in literature ministry. 

This is an excerpt from Hwee Keng’s  book “More Ordinary Man’s Stories” which is out of print. Please read it online at our ebooks section.

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