Bill Willmott

What a Life—So Far!

In June 1949, the Canadian School in Western China held its last graduation ceremony, under the trees outside the Sunday school room. As the only—and last—graduate, I received a home-made blue-blue-and-white certificate from Principal Erwin Newcomb and expressed my earnest desire to return to China as a medical missionary. A few weeks later, I flew to Hong Kong on my way “home” to university. I caught up with the Bacons at the Church Guest House in Hong Kong, and together we caught the Northwest Airlines DC4 for Vancouver, an eventful flight that ended in Seattle because of fog.

In September 1949, I started university at Oberlin College, Ohio, and would have completed my degree there but for American Immigration, who cancelled my student visa the second year, explaining to the college president that “Mr Willmott’s presence in the country is deleterious to the best interests of the United States of America.” It was the McCarthy era, so active opposition to the Korean War, membership in the Young Progressives of America and the YMCA, and even chairmanship of UNESCO were considered subversive activities. So I moved to Montréal and completed a BA in sociology at McGill, where I was active in the Student Christian Movement, then entered McGill Medical School in September 1953.

Disillusioned with medical training, I quit medicine in January 1954 and became a lithography press apprentice briefly, then provincial youth secretary for the Canadian Communist Party (then called the Labour Progressive Party) for two years. In December 1955 I married Patricia Toby of Edmonton. In 1957, disillusioned with the Party, I returned to McGill to complete an MA in anthropology based on a summer’s fieldwork among the Inuit at Inukjuak in the Ungava.

My doctoral program at the London School of Economics was interrupted for 18 months’ teaching at UBC (where my first daughter was born), finally completed in 1964 based on a year’s research on the Chinese community in Cambodia. Then I returned to UBC to teach Anthropology and Asian Studies. Much of my extracurricular time was spent speaking against the Vietnam War. I married for a second time in 1964, Ann Berney from New Zealand, who brought three daughters to our marriage, and together we adopted a son (I lost my daughter when I separated from Pat.)

On my first sabbatical, we lived in New Zealand for a year 1970-71, and decided we would like to move here, so I made myself known to all six NZ universities. A year later a job came up at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. When the chair of sociology was offered to me, I accepted, and we moved here in September 1973. I taught at Canterbury until I retired in January 1998.

After Ann died, I married Diana Madgin in 1985 and helped her bring two daughters through their teens. We now share seven children (biological, adopted, step) spread around the world, six grandchildren and one great grand daughter. Three children and one grandson have visited China with us.

Throughout my academic life, most of my research has focused on Chinese communities abroad: BC, Cambodia, Singapore, and Pacific Islands. For eight years after retirement, I was attached to a Pacific studies research centre at Canterbury completing my final project. Now I am writing a biography of my parents, who spent 30 years in China.

Since coming to Christchurch, I have been active in the New Zealand China Friendship Society, so have enjoyed continuous connection with China in different ways. I was national president of the NZCFS for ten years, Christchurch Branch president before that. Diana has also been branch president, and we are both on the national executive today. Most enjoyable has been leading ten tours to China, including three garden tours with Diana. Our most recent tour (for family and friends) was in May 2008; we were bussing to the Guilin airport to catch our plane to Chengdu when the terrible earthquake struck. We were relieved to learn that none of our friends in and near Chengdu had been seriously affected, disappointed not to visit my home town.

Diana and Bill

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