John Holliday is the author of Mission to China, the story of how his English missionary ancestor, Walter Medhurst, brought his Christian beliefs to the Orient.
What was your upbringing like?
My early life was affected by the loss of my father when I was three. My mother and brother and I went to live with my grandfather. We were fortunate to have his support because my mother had no insurance due to my father having an incurable disease and there was no welfare state at that time.
Nevertheless, I had a very happy childhood although my mother and I had next to no social life for the next eight years, and she was working six days a week. Grandad would tell us stories about his grandfather who was a missionary in China and I remember playing with many Chinese artefacts around our house. I didn’t pay much attention to the stories he told me, but a seed was planted which would lead to an interesting harvest during my later years.
What’s your career background?
I trained as a radar technician in the Royal Air Force (RAF), which led to a career in the IT industry, starting as a customer engineer with IBM. I transferred to IBM Canada and it was there that I and three colleagues started our own company, providing hardware services to IBM customers throughout Canada. This experience provided me with the knowledge and education I needed to start another eight companies during my career in Canada and later in Australia.
How did this develop into writing?
The business ventures I started varied from near ruin to prosperous triumph, but all brought with them a host of fascinating characters that I met along the way. For this reason I decided to write about my experiences and I published the book as Toughing it Out: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur.
What inspired you to write Mission to China?
While writing Toughing it Out, I had a business opportunity to visit Indonesia and, remembering that my ancestor missionary lived in Jakarta for many years, I decided to investigate whether any legacy remained of his time there.
To my delight, I visited the church that he founded and I was hosted by the directors of the Parapattan Orphanage, which my relative Walter Medhurst founded in 1832. The reverence in which he was held and the obvious impact he had made during his life made me investigate further, searching for a biography which I felt sure must exist.
Research uncovered more information about his amazing achievements but I was surprised that no biography had been written, perhaps due to his sudden death upon returning to England after 40 years in the east. I am very proud of Walter Medhurst and writing his biography has been motivated by a desire to see him recognised for his achievements.
How unusual was it to do the work Walter did in Asia back then?
He engaged with ordinary Chinese people (in multiple dialects) at a time when relationships between governments were non-existent.
He also inspired and trained others including Charles Gutzlaff, Dr David Livingstone, James Hudson Taylor and Chinese reformers like Wang T’ao.
What impact do you hope Mission to China might have on people?
I hope that it provides readers with an example of the good that some people did at a time when emphasis was placed on negative experiences such as opium trading and the Taiping Rebellion.
Do you have some future projects in mind?
I uncovered information about another relative whose life would be the subject of an interesting biography. This was the granddaughter of Walter’s sister Clara Colby (nee Bewick).
She was born in England but became a famous suffragette in America. Along the way she married a Civil War general (a rather nasty character) and they adopted a native American child found under the body of her mother at the Massacre at Wounded Knee. She died rather tragically at the end but she lived a full and interesting life. It’s just research at the moment but will hopefully become a book.
What’s life like for you away from being an author?
I lead a very happy life in south-east Queensland. I am married with three children and four grandchildren, and I thank God for my good fortune.
Mission to China is published by Amberley (www.amberley-books.com)