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Mark O'Neill: Tracing grandfather's footsteps

By Xu Jingxi (China Daily)

09:08, April 17, 2013

Mark O'Neill at an event promoting his book, Frederick: The Story of My Missionary Grandfather, in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. (China Daily/Zou Zhongpin)

Journalist Mark O'Neill thinks his destiny and connections with China started with his grandfather, he tells Xu Jingxi in Guangzhou.

After a tempestuous two-month voyage, Frederick O'Neill finally landed in China on Oct 30, 1897. Chilly rains, muddy roads and a wagon greeted the then-27-year-old missionary who had left his hometown of Belfast, the industrialized capital of Ireland. Three years later, the young man arrived at Faku in Liaoning province, where he was commissioned as pastor by the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. He was to stay in the rural county for the next 42 years, persisting through turbulence, war and epidemics.

Almost as soon as he arrived, he had to flee on another wagon to Vladivostok in Russia when the tide of sentiment turned against foreigners during the Boxer Rebellion (1900).

Bullets whistled by him all the way, but it was typhoid that downed him at the refugee camp. O'Neill returned to Faku after staying at the camp for only a month because he "shouldered obligations for Chinese parishioners".

In Faku, he struggled to keep the local church going, along with its school and hospital when Northeast China became the battlefield between the Russian and Japanese (1904-1905), and when the county was invaded by the Japanese in 1931.

Neither war nor the pneumonic plague sweeping across Northeast China during the winter of 1910 was able to scare away O'Neill. He was finally forced to say goodbye in 1942 when the Japanese declared war against the Allies by bombing Pearl Harbor.

All these stories would have been buried in time if Mark O'Neill, Frederick's grandson, had not decided to trace his grandparent's footsteps through China, North Ireland, France and Japan, and finished his biography.

The experienced journalist, who's currently freelance writer, says he did not start out with the intention of publishing a book on history.

"I was just curious as to why my grandfather chose to endure the long separation with his children back in Belfast and stay in China most of his lifetime," says O'Neill, who never met his grandfather.

His father, estranged from his grandfather by the long separation, seldom talked about this "mysterious" figure.

A job opportunity in Hong Kong took Mark O'Neill to China in 1978. One month after O'Neill's arrival, Deng Xiaoping announced the opening-up and reform policy.

The journalist was assigned to work in Beijing in 1985. And in the spring of 1986, Chinese government opened 240 cities to foreigners. Faku was in the list.

O'Neill was finally able to visit the county that his grandfather had worked and lived all those years ago.

"It seems as if my grandpa had been leading me all the way to China. My connection to the country might be destined," O'Neill says.

While uncovering his grandfather's stories, he has also written his own about China. He was one of the first foreign reporters in the country and worked on the mainland for 16 years. He married a Chinese and has settled in Hong Kong.

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