What is a young woman fresh off the prairies of Dakota doing in Hong Kong…one of the most populated areas of the world?
That is the true story told by Ruth Smith Epp, about her first few years as a missionary in Hong Kong. The title of her new book is, “Foreign Devil Girl in Hong Kong.” Epp was that “Devil Girl.”
Epp’s father, the Rev. Vernice Smith, was called from Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, to pastor the Pleasant Valley Church south of Miller, where he pastored for about 20 years.
According to Epp, when she, her three younger brothers and her parents arrived at Pleasant Valley Church, they discovered a life quite different from what they were accustomed to in Canada. She recalls that her mother wrote that their new home had “five rooms and a path,” meaning there was no running water, plumbing or electricity.
Ruth, at age 10, began attending country school at Kintigh School just down the road from Pleasant Valley Church. She then attended high school in Miller, where she graduated as valedictorian in 1954.
Throughout her teen years, she taught the Bible to children and young people in the church. In her book, she tells of an Easter experience that changed her life, which directed her to follow a call to take her mission to China.
However, she received no formal missionary training. “My dad had unconventional ideas about missionary training, having had previous experience in the headquarters of a mission organization. He felt missionaries needed hands-on experience in working with people, teaching the Bible in un-churched communities and such. So I had lots of experience in that, along with Bible teaching which he provided at Pleasant Valley Church.”
She recalls, “Pleasant Valley Church knew that I had always felt a call from God to go to China, and they sent me as their missionary to Hong Kong in February 1959.” She had just turned 22.
“My reason for going to Hong Kong in the first place was because I felt called to China, and at that time China had closed itself off behind the Bamboo Curtain, so it was the closest to China that I could get. Other early missionaries came to Hong Kong for the same reason.”
She relates that on the trip to Hong Kong, the ship’s officers smiled in amusement and asked her what she thought a 22-year-old girl could do there.
She thought she knew—until she found herself a “foreign devil girl,” surrounded by poor, working class people, whose language, culture and life experiences were totally foreign to her.
She explains that “foreign devil” is the way Chinese have referred to Western people since they first started arriving in China, adding, “In this day and age they don’t usually man any harm; it’s just the customary way to say ‘foreigner’.”
Hong Kong is situated on China’s south coast. It is known for its expansive skyline and deep natural harbor. With a landmass of 426 square miles and a population of around nine million people, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world—and a cultural shock to a Dakota prairie girl.
“Most of the population are originally refugees who fled from China when the Communists took over in about 1949. A few of them came with money and started businesses in Hong Kong, but most came with nothing, and life was pretty tough.”
She worked with a female English missionary in a poor district, which was about 10 miles, as the crow flies, from the Communist China border.
Epp says Cantonese is one of the most difficult Chinese dialects to learn, and her “teacher” didn’t know a word of English. “My attempts to speak sometimes provoked outbursts of hilarious laughter. But such experiences showed me some surprising things about myself, and increased my determination to learn to speak Cantonese perfectly.”
Her fledgling experiences in Hong Kong taught her much. “Unexpectedly challenging questions were raised about the God I introduced,” and she admits at times she was hard pressed to find convincing answers.
However, Epp says God blessed her efforts to bring people to Him, and helped her as she took time to re-evaluate her own faith. At the time, God was her only confidante and friend, as she struggled to learn how to fulfill her mission.
Her book tells the story of the journey to Hong Kong via cargo ship, her first perceptions upon arrival, and her work among the poorest of the poor.
The young Ruth Smith spent four and a half years in Hong Kong before she returned to the United States for the first time in August 1963. During those years in Hong Kong, she had witnessed struggles with poverty, and the residents’ very real fear of an imminent Chinese invasion of the colony, which after World War II was again under British control and remained so until China resumed sovereignty in 1997.
While on furlough, she gave talks about Hong Kong and her work to many groups and organizations in the Miller area.
Ruth had met her future husband, John Epp, in Hong Kong, where he was helping with relief work for refugees. They were married June 4, 1964—the first couple to be married in the new Methodist Church in Miller.
Later that year, they returned to Hong Kong, where they both stayed on as missionaries until John’s retirement in 2005. Home is now in San Pedro, California.
The Epps have three children, John, Andrew and Florence, who all live in the U.S. They now have nine grandchildren and a step-grandchild.
“We lived at or near Pleasant Valley three times when we came home on furlough while the children were growing up,” Ruth says. “In fact, one time we lived in the parsonage because the church was without a pastor at the time. So our children have happy memories of being in South Dakota.”
Today, Ruth Epp still returns every year to Hong Kong to continue some of the work she began years ago.
She has also been busy writing and producing CDs.
She recorded two CDs, “Music From My Heart,” volumes 1 and 2, which are her piano arrangements of many old familiar hymns and a few newer ones.
And she wrote about two periods of time that were “quite traumatic” for people in Hong Kong.
Her first book, “Countdown Collage,” describes what it was like for Hong Kong people in the years leading up to 1997, when Communist China took back Hong Kong from Britain.
“Foreign Devil Girl in Hong Kong” tells what it was like for refugees in the early years after World War II.
That book is available at Amazon and other on-line stores. If anyone would like a signed copy, or a CD, they may contact Ruth Epp at 949 W. 26th St., Apt. 109, San Pedro, CA 90731.
Darlene Droz Hammer considers Ruth her best friend. They were schoolmates in country school and roomed together for two years in high school. “She had a very lengthy career over there, she put her whole heart in her work, for sure. She and her husband were there for 49 years, and she had the most positive outlook.”
Darlene, Joyce Fanger and Roger Marshall all journeyed to Hong Kong in 2007, when the Chinese people gave a thanksgiving concert upon the Epps’ retirement. Darlene and husband Jesse also visited the Epps two years ago in California. “We’ve maintained a very strong friendship,” she said.
Ruth Epps said, “I still think of Miller and Pleasant Valley as home, although I no longer have any family in the area, and many of the earlier members of Pleasant Valley Church are gone. I think we’ve only been back once since 2005, but I’m hoping we might make another trip there sometime this year. I’m still kept very busy though, so we’ll just have to see.”