July 11, 2012
JENNIFER PAGLIARO/TORONTO STAR Parks Canada tour guide Kun Zhang demonstrates how visitors can pose with a cutout of a popular photo of legendary Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune. Zhang said parents who hope the picture will bring good luck for children they hope will become doctors too.
GRAVENHURST, ONT.—Hongxia Guo enters the historic yellow-clapboard homestead as if she is simply coming home.
In the front hall, the 43-year-old native of China who now lives in Mississauga pays a small fee for each of the guests she’s ferried here, before being ushered into the parlour where legendary Canadian surgeon Dr. Norman Bethune spent the first three years of his life.
In the heart of cottage country, where Muskoka chairs adorn every dock, thousands of Chinese nationals are making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of a man who they call doctor, martyr, friend.
A delegation from China will join Canadian officials on Wednesday — declared Bethune Day — for the grand opening of a new visitor centre at the site of the Bethune Memorial House.
While Chinese school children study the legacy of Bethune in textbooks, in Canada the name is more obscure, save in Gravenhurst, where the name appears on street signs, his likeness made into a bronze statue standing in the shade on the main drag and which has elicited one of the biggest draws for tourism to this region.
“We have to come here,” Guo said. “Dr. Bethune is our friend.”
Bethune was born here in 1890 to a Presbyterian minister and a carpenter’s daughter in the upstairs master bedroom of the home on former church lands. The boy spent three years of his early life in Gravenhurst, squished between Muskoka Bay and Gull Lake, before his family moved out of the small town — now home to 11,000 residents.
Any Chinese visitor to Gravenhurst can tell you the trajectory of Bethune’s life — how he served as a stretcher-bearer in WWI before conceiving of the first mobile blood transfusion service while working in Spain.
After declaring his allegiance to the Communist Party, and forgoing his roots in Ontario’s northern middle-class, Bethune became a medical messiah during the Second Sino-Japanese War, building model hospitals and medical schools while tending to wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
He would die for his work and the people he had grown to love, slicing his finger open mid-surgery and developing blood poisoning in a remote region in China in 1939.
But it took until the 1970s for Canada to officially recognize his work and sacrifice, as diplomatic arms were extended to China. The Canadian government purchased the Bethune stead in 1973, making it a heritage site.
Since then, tourism has been growing for the past decade and is on a steep incline with Canada and China solidifying Approved Destination Status for leisure tour groups in 2010, said Scott Davidson, Parks Canada’s site manger for the Bethune Memorial House.
The new visitor centre sees some 12,000 tourists already arriving each year — 90 per cent of them of Chinese.
“You feel a purposeful attachment to the site,” Davidson said.
For Chinese nationals who have revered the Bethune at the end of his life, coming to Gravehurst is like completing a journey of tribute.
“(Chinese nationals) see this as kind of the full story,” said Parks Canada tour guide Kun Zhang, who’s been sharing Bethune’s story in English and Mandarin for the past five years.
“You can kind of imagine little Norman was here,” Zhang said as she points out the artifacts — a baby’s crib and toys in the top floor bedroom, plates, jewelry boxes and portraits.
Visitors sit on rows of wooden pews to watch original black and white footage of the doctor on a large TV on a pedestal.
When they go, they take a $1 Bethune memorial button and leave a message of thanks in the guestbook.
“Dr. Bethune lives in our hearts forever,” reads one translated comment from the China Youth Volleyball Team.
It’s a legacy that’s celebrated at home too, said Tony Clement, federal treasury board president and MP for Parry Sound-Muskoka.
“When Chinese school children are taught about the value of helping humanity, the story they’re told is the Norman Bethune story,” he said. “I would like to think elements of his story are still very relevant to Canadians.”
Gravenhurt’s mayor, Paisley Donaldson said the town owes a lot to Bethune for the little time he spent here.
“The economic impact that we see from the influx of Chinese visitors into the community is incredible,” she said. “They worship Norman Bethune.”
As a result, the town has been infused with flashes of Chinese culture — restaurants serving heaping plates of chicken fried rice and bowls of wonton soup amongst the cafes and mom-and-pop shops.
“The hope is they will come back to spend more time here,” Donaldson said.
For Guo, Tuesday was her third trip to Gravenhurst — and it will likely not be her last. She represents one of many return visitors who act as ambassadors for visiting family and friends.
“They still learn,” she said of Bethune’s continuing legacy back home. “From generation to generation.”