Handing Chinese officials a battered black suitcase stuffed with important papers and documents more than a century old – it could have been a scene from a spy thriller.
This was Brunel University London’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Andrew George retracing the steps of his ancestry.
Andrew’s great great grandfather, Fred Rowntree was the Scottish architect who designed what was then called West China Union University in the early 20th Century.
The suitcase, which had languished under a bed in Andrew’s spare room for the past four years, was stuffed with Fred’s original building plans, drawings and photos.
They finally found their way back to what’s now Sichuan University last month, when Andrew hand-delivered them on a working visit.
“I think Fred would be pleased that I’m here,” Professor George said. “But I know he’d be blown away by the fact that I could get on a plane in London and then 16 hours later be in Chengdu.”
In a journey that took longer than 12 days, Fred sailed from Harwich to Hook of Holland, before travelling by rail to Hankou in central China, via Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow and Beijing. He boarded the steamer SS Shasi to Yichang. Joined there by a cook, he took a small boat to Wanzhou, before spending days being carried along a bumpy track in a Sedan chair before reaching Chengdu.
Fred later sailed back to Britain where he concentrated on designing the buildings through a series of letters, sketches, plans and photos sent back and forth. “It was all done by mail correspondence,” Prof George explained. “There were no emails then.”
The university buildings themselves are an incredible mishmash of styles inspired by Sichuan temples. The outsides are all black bricks and tiles, with red pillars and Chinese details and sweeping Sichuan-style roofs decorated with ancient dragons, phoenixes and strange birds, meant to protect the building from fire or evil spirits. Inside was a complete contrast. “This building is very much Chinese meets arts and crafts,” Andrew said. “It looks oriental outside with all the eaves, but has a strong arts and crafts influence – especially inside with the stairs and details.”
Today, these buildings form West China Medical Centre of Sichuan University – one of China’s top medical schools and where Andrew lectured research staff. Now an Honorary Professor there, Andrew shared his own research, which looks at ways to prevent the body rejecting corneal transplants.
Taking the scuffed suitcase and its contents, Sichuan Deputy Party Secretary and member of the University Party Committee, Professor Jing Jing said it marked a meaningful day for the University. She said the precious historical records recorded the extraordinary history of the period and are of great significance to the school. The British Consul General Cecille El Beleidi, also there, said these personal stories illustrate the deep long-lasting links between China and the UK.
“My mother asked me to give these plans to Sichuan University, where they belong,” said Andrew. “So that’s one mission accomplished and a firm foundation for Brunel’s growing ties with Sichuan.”
Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
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