A wall of one’s own

When Ann Sefton travelled to China nearly 60 years ago in a student delegation, it was indeed on the roads less travelled.
By Michael Visontay
Great wall of china

The Great Wall of China

One of the main talking points about visiting China these days is the sheer number of tourists at the Great Wall. The wait can be overwhelming and many tourists feel reduced to lemmings. Ann Sefton can proudly say that on her first visit to the landmark, there was no one else to be seen.

Of course, that is not the only fact of life that has changed since Sefton travelled there in 1957 as part of a delegation from the National Union of Australian University Students. But it is one that has stayed vivid in her memory ever since.

“The day we went to the Wall, we were the only people. These days, you can hardly see it there are so many people on it,” recalls Emeritus Professor Sefton, who went on to have a distinguished career in Medicine (BSc Med ’57 MB BS ’60 PhD ’66 DSc ’90 HonFellow ’13), and was also an active member of the Alumni Council for several years in various capacities.

“We were having lunch with the British and we snuck out when we weren’t supposed to, in a 4WD they loaned to us,” Sefton says. “You needed a 4WD in those days just to get up there: it was winter, there was snow all around, and the roads were not good enough for a normal car anyway.

“At the time we were in a group of just four, and we were the only people there. At one point I thought I was going to die, it was so cold. I looked like a furry bear [in padded winter clothing]. But that one moment – alone at the Wall – as far as I was concerned: that was heaven.”

Ann Sefton

Ann Sefton

The delegation, which included eight students from different universities across Australia, was given a one-month tour of the newly Communist China by the All-China Students Federation. Sefton, a junior medicine student at the time, was the only woman among them. “I was very excited. I had never travelled overseas before.”

Sefton does not know why she was asked, although she suspects it was related to the fact that she had been active on the Sydney Students’ Representative Council and broader student affairs, which gave her a degree of prominence. “One of the Sydney students pulled out because he was instructed not to go by his priest. A few others turned down the offer as well,” she recalls.

It was definitely their loss. “The Chinese government gave us two interpreters in their mid-20s, who spoke very good English. They were very warm and friendly, and had a good sense of humour.”

The guides took them to a broad range of universities and specialist areas within them, to offer a window on the state of schools, medical education, public health, the legal system and courts, and other staples of the new regime that had been established after the 1949 Communist Revolution.

“We were there in mid-winter. It was freezing, well below zero,” says Sefton. “When we arrived, they insisted on giving us good clothing – very big padded clothes to protect us against the bitter cold. That broke the ice (no pun intended).

Road to Ming tombs bear Beijing

Road to Ming tombs bear Beijing

“The clothes not only kept us warm but they came in handy when our interpreters took us ice-skating at an open-air rink. I had never gone ice-skating before and found it hard to get the hang of it. I was down on my backside a lot and was grateful for the padding. Otherwise it would have been quite scary.”

Sefton was less intimidated by other aspects of the local culture. She liked Chinese food and had no reservations about trying the local fare. “It was very good but not everyone was game enough to try it,” she smiles. “We split down the middle: four of us tried Chinese food and ate it all the time; the other half stuck to standard European food.”

The group travelled around the countryside and major cities mainly by train because of the long distances between cities, and also because the road network was basic.

Whenever the group was seen out on the streets, Sefton says they were treated “a bit like curios by the locals, all dressed in Mao suits, who crowded around us at every city and looked at us like exotic objects. We did not see many other visitors or tourists during our visit.

Local children

Local children

“They definitely saw us not just as Europeans, but as Australians,” she adds. “They enjoyed hearing our broad Aussie accents and were very interested in the Australian way of life.

“One young boy in Shanghai took me by the hand and dragged me through his house, and showed me where he slept, and all his toys. He chatted away in Chinese, which I couldn’t understand. But the friendliness was unmistakable.”

The official report written up by the Australian delegation echoed Sefton’s impression: “Although opinions differed on what we had seen, not one of us felt that our insight into the new regime had not been sharpened. But on one thing we were unanimous: the generosity of our hosts. We thank them for making this trip possible and so enjoyable,” the report’s author wrote.

The trip left a huge impression on Sefton. “When we came home, I knew I wanted to go back.” And she did, a half dozen more times in the next 60 years, mainly in academic contexts – to lecture, learn or as part of a university delegation.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Sefton says she noticed the obvious signs of progress: more people around, more English spoken, better public transport and roads. On her last trip, about a decade ago, the gap had closed subsantially.

But as anyone who has travelled to a profoundly foreign place can attest, that first trip is the one that lingers in the heart and memory. Sefton declares that it “was certainly the most interesting thing I ever did.”