by Jamie Chan
Editor’s note: Today’s guest blogger, whose father grew up in the Faith-Love Orphanage near Hong Kong, is researching a book on Dr. Verent J. Mills, who joined Christian Children’s Fund in 1947 and whose work spanned decades, wars and cultures.
I grew up in a family of fortune. We had two cars and a house with a pool like other upper-middle class households in central California. We spoke English and made friends with Americans as well as any Chinese-American family could. I doubt that if you looked at us, you could tell that my father grew up in a refugee’s apartment made of scrap metal and cardboard.
The most basic version of my father’s life story manifests the American dream: he lost his father at age eight. He was sent to the Christian Children’s Fund Faith-Love orphanage on the outskirts of the Hong Kong, where he lived until he was 17. He then came to the U.S., earned two Ivy League degrees and became a doctor. He says that Faith-Love was the best thing that happened to him; it remains the backdrop for some of his favorite memories, a few of which I suspect have sweetened over the years.
The man behind Faith-Love was Dr. Verent J. Mills. For some, he was a saintly figure whose work spanned decades, wars and cultures. But to orphans like my father, he was a preacher, a storyteller, a jokester and Santa Claus — the only father figure they ever saw in an orphanage run by mothers, grandmothers and young men barely out of high school.
Mills began his career in 1931 at age 19 as a missionary in Southern China. After a decade of rescue work during the wars that followed, he joined Christian Children’s Fund in 1947 as Regional Director of Japan, North China and Korea. He became Executive Director of the organization in 1970.
Recently, I decided to write Dr. Mills’ story in light of my father’s experience at Faith-Love. I began my research in Richmond this August with the help of Joan Losen, ChildFund’s unofficial historian extraordinaire. She laid out an assortment of materials for me — correspondences, newspaper clippings, plans for an orphanage, mysterious photos of men in Chinese pongee jackets. Mills would have been well over 90 if he were still alive. Looking through these documents led me into a world of formality and dignity foreign to a person of my generation.
As I continue my research, I am drawn to Mills’ role among orphans and their families, and his place within the urban chaos of post-1949 Hong Kong. Missionary accounts have been influential in the Western world through their depiction of otherwise inaccessible places.
Because Mills continued his work through the duration of war while many fled, his story brings the possibility of historical insight, if only in bits and pieces. I don’t know quite yet where this research will take me, but I do know that one trip to ChildFund was not enough.
In short, I will be back, and blogging about it once again.