In China when Mao's army won control




16-11-1922 - 18-12-2011


GERALD Gorman, who died last December aged 89, was the last civilian officer in the Australian embassy in Nanking.

In the turbulent late 1940s the embassy had moved from Chungking to Nanking as the Red Army advanced. Young Gorman arrived in 1948, with one of his duties being to act as cipher clerk, but by 1949 the ambassador had left and Gorman was moved to Shanghai.

It was a long way from the family sheep property where he grew up on the banks of the Murray in the Riverina, 13 kilometres from the nearest neighbour. The Depression years were not easy for farmers or anyone else but for children it was a pretty good life, if a little insular. Gorman later wrote: "We particularly distrusted the 'Victorians' (or 'people over the river'), the New South Wales government (in Sydney) and the English cricket team." They were taught at home, read a lot and swam all summer in the Murray.

Each Christmas their grandmother in Melbourne sent them boxes of books, Captain Marryat, R.M. Ballantyne, G.A. Henty, Dickens and Scott but also lots of P.G. Wodehouse.

Later, of course, school meant Xavier and the more rigorous Jesuits. From school, at the age of 17, he entered the navy office in Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. The navy at the time was the chief source of expertise in cryptanalysis and the legendary Commander R.S. Veale could be seen (in mufti).

For a time Gorman lived in Newman College, joined the university rifles and completed a degree. He remained in the navy office and applied for the transfer to Nanking in 1948.

With the collapse of the Nationalist government, it was expected in the embassy that recognition of the new regime would mean a transfer to Peking. The ambassador and the department recommended recognition but the government hesitated and then fell. The Korean War hardly improved the situation and it was to be another 23 years before an embassy was re-established.

The move to Shanghai was unusual. An office was established on the Bund but had no official status. Gorman became an unofficial immigration agent, working whenever possible to obtain entry to Australia for people anxious to leave China. It could be harrowing work as the political and economic pressures built up in Shanghai. Cables could be sent only in plain text via the Shanghai telegraph office and all office correspondence had to be handed over, unsealed, for examination by the authorities.

The work carried out by this unofficial office continued until 1951 and its range was impressive. For example, there were still several thousand White Russians in Shanghai.

"Of all the White Russians," he wrote, "99 per cent stated that they were all then prepared to leave on the shortest notice with hand luggage. The men's trades were: farmers and workmen (326), chauffeurs and mechanics (316), engineers (43), doctors and surgeons' assistants (25), carpenters, smiths, painters (119), office employees (140), clergymen (10), musicians (28), 'technics' (22), dentists (5), electrotechnics (72), radio operators (39), seamen (33), teachers (37), printers (12), confectioners (27), train drivers (10), 'agronoms' (12) and horse trainers (10). The women included housekeepers (530), nurses (133), teachers (14), dressmakers (303) as well as office employees (48), stenotypists and typists (118), dentist (15) plus some cooks, manicurists and pedicurists."

The Australian government co-operated with the international refugee organisation in relocating many refugees. There was, however, one restriction, Gorman later wrote, "of which none of us had any reason at all to be proud".

"This was the so-called 'White Australia Policy' whereby people from overseas who were of other than European race were then unable to enter Australia as immigrants. Like, I believe, a great number of other Australians at the time, I personally found this policy impossible to agree with.

"There were some occasions when it raised its head in one way or another in my work and I envied greatly the Canadians, Americans and British who were not distressed by similar policies. Its impact on our work was in fact relatively slight, as the Chinese authorities in my time would in any case have looked with extreme disfavour at any Chinese (other than 'overseas Chinese') who might seek to leave China to settle anywhere abroad. In particular, the Hong Kong border had been 'closed' on the Chinese side from late 1949."

On returning to Australia, Gorman joined the Defence Signals Branch, becoming a model intelligence officer, popular with his colleagues who well remember his generosity of spirit, brains, wit and humour.

Gorman married Marie Mornane. They had four sons including twins, and later a daughter. Marie died in 2010. They were married for 56 years and are survived by five children and nine grandchildren.

In his retirement, Gorman stayed in touch with the network of literary and legal cousins and relations who formed a significant part of Melbourne intellectual life. And he later wrote a memoir, The Nanking Embassy: Letters from two cities 1948-1951 (privately printed), which he modestly described as giving a worm's-eye view of the great events of the time. He also busied himself with research into the early Irish history of Clan Gorman and he greatly enjoyed a theological argument with the priests of Sacred Heart Church in Cotham Road, Kew.

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