Long-term expat exemplifies community spirit
Upon entering Lao Luo's home in suburban Songjiang District on Saturday we were greeted by stacks of slippers for people of all ages – there was also a wheelchair on standby for the needy.
The sheer number of the slippers, and their diversity, was evocative of his hospitality – though all visitors could not but be reminded of the exact time of appointment by the giant clock installed on the outside of gate. Lao Luo gets up before 4am, and he is over-scheduled.
This has been the home of Jacob von Bisterfeld for 14 years. His Chinese name is Luo Jiangqiang, and thus he is generally known as Lao Luo in this almost exclusively Chinese neighborhood.
Born in the Netherlands, Lao Luo moved to Wellington, New Zealand, with his family while still a child.
In 1982, soon after China's reforms and opening up, he visited China for the first time as a member of the first New Zealand trade delegation, as managing director of the Austrian Kraus & Naimer company.
In 1992 Bisterfeld came to work in Shanghai, first as vice president of a joint venture, then as teacher at a number of universities, including Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Shanghai International Studies University, and some middle schools, among them Jincai and Shangnan.
In March last year, soon after the COVID-19 swept across the city and ultimately led to a lockdown of more than two months, the neighborhood committee decided to launch a volunteer team.
Lao Luo reported to the neighborhood committee on April 1 and became a volunteer.
Armed with a surgical gown, disposable gloves, face mask and a face visor, rain or shine, Lao Luo would show up at the moment's notice, often during inconvenient hours.
In the regularly administered nucleic acid tests, he would go from block to block, shouting through a bullhorn for residents to come down for the tests, often repeatedly, for there were often laggards.
But this was a relatively easy part of the job. He still remembered vividly a rainy day when the volunteers had to sort through a pile of cabbage and then put it into parcels.
"It seemed the rain would never stop, and when we finished, at about 10pm, all the volunteers' clothes and shoes were soaking wet, in spite of the raincoats," Lao Luo recalled.
Goods, including baby formula and medicines that had been ordered online by individual residents, were also delivered at the compound gate at regular intervals by volunteers, on all sorts of conveyances, including baggage trolleys, pushcarts, or Lao Luo's bike.
On one occasion, the volunteers had to unload by relay a containerized shipment of government food boxes, each weighing 9kg, for the 2,500 residents in the whole compound.
Even Lao Luo's considerable personal library and collection of curiosities were turned to communal use, which was particularly helpful during the pandemic.
Residents, especially children, were welcome to drop into his home museum stocked with a rich collection of antiquities. These included Chinese books and newspapers more than half a centuries ago, one of the earliest Edison phonograhs from 1880, an organ dated from the French Revolution, and a crank organ from 1795 he had salvaged from an attic in a church in England, several music boxes, including one 2 meters high from 1895 that starts to sing only when enough pennies are dropped into it.
There was a vacuum tube radio Lao Luo assembled when he was 12.
When dulcet tunes and songs began to reverberate in the drawing room, he would join in his sonorous voice, his hands moving wildly to the rhythms.
During the lockdown period he also sponsored a video making and writing competition on the life of the lockdown. The first prize went to Jean, a resident in the neighborhood, who got a 300 yuan (US$43) GAP purchase card as a reward.
Lao Luo communal service earned him respect from fellow residents, and the attention of Chinese media.
He had been interviewed by Xinhua News Agency, China News Service, the People's Daily, Guangming Daily and CGTN, to name just a few.
In a stamped certificate issued by Songjiang District Organization Department, it noted that "Comrade Luo Jiangqiang has been involved in communal anti-pandemic work for 180 hours in 60 sessions, fighting shoulder to shoulder with grassroots cadres and masses, taking the lead in instituting pandemic screenings, neighborhood lockdowns and providing supplies to residents, thus becoming a trustworthy and dependable element for the grassroots organization and the masses."
As a matter of fact, Lao Luo was compared to a Dutch Bethune at that time, for the yellowish hair and the angular features they had in common. (Bethune was the self sacrificing Canadian surgeon who saved many lives during war-time China in the 1930s)
Jacob's students compare him with the more recent Lei Feng, an ordinary Chinese soldier in the 1960s renowned for his generosity and altruistic deeds. Lei is held as a role model for Chinese people.
The pandemic containment measures were lifted last December, and then, like everyone else, Lao Luo succumbed to the virus, and resisted violently, with terrible diarrhea.
"I thought I was dying," he said.
But he survived and his communal work resumed soon after.
After launching Songjiang English Salon in the Songjiang Youth Activity Center in 2010, a free spoken English tutorial, the tutorial was switched online during the pandemic, and now is carried on at his home during the weekends.
In 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010, Bisterfeld was a volunteer and host of no less than four Pudong Education Department English culture weeks.
To familiarize students with the cultural phenomenon of some English-speaking countries, Lao Luo almost single-handedly choreographed and improvised the gear needed for performances. This included Maori dance, Scottish bagpipes, and an encounter between native Americans and some cowboys.
Lao Luo still remembers vividly that when the cowboys were defeated and carried to a burial ground by American natives played by female students, one "cowboy" happened to be so heavy that the two girls had to give up on their trophy, and the boy had to make it to the burial ground on his own.
The wealth of volunteering experience is rewarding for Bisterfeld. Although his family is far away from him in New Zealand, and his children and grandchildren are all over the world – in Italy, Australia, and South Korea – he certainly doesn't feel lonely in his home in suburban Shanghai.