Billy Graham Center

Interviews with Malcolm Maurice and Helen Irvin Sawyer - Collection 256

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Table of Contents

Brief Description of This Collection

Title Page and Restrictions

Biographies of Malcolm Maurice and Helen Irvin Sawyer

An Essay on the Contents of the Collection (Scope and Content)

List of Audio Tapes in this Collection


Transcript 1

Transcript 2

Transcript 3

Click to visit the exhibit Web page featuring this and other excerpts with transcripts, visuals and audio links.

Transcript 4

Brief Description:
Two interviews each with Malcolm (recorded on 9/27/83 and 11/14/83) and with Helen (recorded on 11/22/83 and 11/30/83). The Sawyers discuss their childhood, schooling, and working for the Christian and Missionary Alliance in China, 1948-1950 and in Laos, 1950-1975. Mission activities in Laos include church planting, training of pastors, and medical assistance to the Khamu and Hmong peoples. The Sawyers also opened a Bible school which included literacy education and they developed and expanded the literature program for the C&MA. Interviews also include information about their work in the Chicago area with Hmong refugees.
Vol: 4 Reels of Audio Tape

Collection 256
[May 9, 2017]
Sawyer, Helen Irvin; 1923-
Sawyer, Malcolm Maurice; 1919-2007
Interviews; 1983
4 Reels Audio Tape


There are no restrictions on the use of this collection.



Malcolm Sawyer was born April 24, 1919, in Laconia, New Hampshire. He was converted in 1930 through the influence of his uncle, James Sawyer. Partly because of the influence of Robert Ekvall and his mission work in Tibet, Malcolm later felt a definite call to the mission field while he was living in Old Orchard, Maine. This decision to be a missionary determined his choice of Nyack Missionary Institute for training, and it was there he met his future wife, Helen Irvin.

Helen Irvin was born in August, 1923, and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky in a family which included four brothers and sisters. The healing of her mother's tuberculosis of the bone, the family involvement with the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA), and the presence of many Christian guests in the household contributed to the subsequent involvement of all of her brothers and sisters in Christian work. Helen decided to become a missionary, and selected Nyack Missionary Institute, New York, for her schooling. There she met her future husband, Malcolm Sawyer. They were married in 1943.

After their marriage, Malcolm was required by the policies of the Christian and Missionary Alliance to serve a pastorate as preparation for the mission field. The Sawyers went first to West Haverstraw, New York, and next to Dixon, Illinois, where they stayed for two years. Both felt strongly called to go to China while in Dixon, and this decision led to departure for training in language and cultural studies in Montreat, North Carolina.

The Sawyers left for China from San Francisco in 1947, and arrived in Shanghai in 1948. Their first assignment was in Gansu Province near the Tibetan border in Labrang. They spent the following year in study of the Tibetan language, but were forced to leave in 1949 because of the communist takeover. The eldest of four daughters, Janet, was five and a half years old when they left after spending a few months in southern China.

Following a short period in Hong Kong in 1950, the Sawyers were sent to Saigon, Vietnam, and then to Dalat for French language study, where a center for Christian work was established to work with tribal peoples of Vietnam. After nine months of learning French, they were next assigned, in September 1950, to Luang Prabang in Laos for language study. The Sawyers remained in Laos between 1950 and 1975. Two more daughters, Karen and Susan, were born in Indo-China, and the youngest, Ellen, was born in the United States during one of their furloughs.

Their first assignment in Luang Prabang included work in church planting in tribal villages of both the Khamu and Hmong peoples and with Laotian Buddhist believers in the city. This evangelistic activity included training of pastors and dispensing simple medical supplies because of the absence of medical facilities in Laos. The Sawyers also spent one year working in a Bible school which included many students from the Hmong tribe.

In 1959 the Sawyers moved to Vietiane, Laos, to open up a Bible school and begin a program of Bible training. Between 1960 and 1971, the campus was enlarged and more extensive training provided for different grade levels as literacy increased. The Sawyers were asked to take over the literature department for CMA in 1971, and they worked with its expansion and with church planting until 1975. In that year Laos was taken over by communist rulers following the fall of Vietnam and Cambodia. The Sawyers crossed the border into Thailand, expecting to return shortly, but were unable to do this. They remained in Thailand for several months and then returned for furlough in July 1975 to Wheaton, Illinois.

Their next assignment was to Thailand to work with refugees in 1976. A year later they were transferred to Hong Kong until 1981. After their return to Wheaton, Illinois, both Sawyers became involved in working with Hmong refugees who had emigrated to the Chicago area. Their ministry was conducted through the College Church and Blanchard Road Alliance Church, both in Wheaton. They also conducted a ministry to Laotians in Hanover Park, Illinois, and in Chesterton, Indiana. As of 1985, the Sawyers lived in Wheaton.

Malcolm died in Crlisle, Pennsylvania on May 27, 2007.

Scope and Content:

Malcolm Sawyer was interview by Robert Shuster on September 27 and November 14, 1983. Helen Sawyer was interviewed by Stephanie Dixon on November 22 and November 30, 1983.

T1 (149 minutes) (Click to link to audio recording and transcript).

Grandfather's healing of TB and subsequent desire to share Christianity's blessings with family and all others; involvement of Malcolm's father's brothers and sisters in Christian work; Malcolm's conversion through his uncle, James Sawyer, 1930; impact of messages at school, Robert Ekvall's call for missionaries in west China; attendance at Nyack Bible College; meeting his future wife; healing of the hipbone of Helen Irvin Sawyer's mother and father's healing of alcoholism; their founding of Alliance church in Louisville, Kentucky; description of Helen's oldest brother's birth; other siblings of wife's family; Dr. Morris Irvin, Pittsburgh pastor; call to be missionary in Old Orchard, Maine, because of Ekvall's influence; China as first destination, 1947; study of Tibetan for one year in monastery town with seven thousand Buddhist priests; to South China in 1949 for a few months to study Mandarin; move to Saigon, 1949, to study French; next to Laos in 1950; flight into Vientiane, then to Luang Prebang to study language until 1954; return after furlough to stay until 1959; work with churches in northern Laos and difficulty of converting Buddhists; Khamu tribal people; twenty villages of Christians and Bible training school; move to north Vietnam in 1959 to open Bible school; problems rebuilding on former site and first graduation in 1963 for the Hmong people; continued work in Vietiane until 1975; work in Bible school, 1960-1971; building of Christian and Missionary Alliance school, third grade to high school; description of locations (from map) of the Lao, Hmong from northern Vietnam looking for opium; working on border of Thailand, 1970-1975; transfer to literature department of C&MA, 1975; leaving Laos after communist takeover, 1975; Sawyers' concern for people after returning to U.S.; Hmong refugees in Thailand; return to Thailand, 1976, to work with Hmong; start of sponsorship of Hmong through College Church and Wesleyan church members; results of original call to the mission field; Bible study, concentration on good preaching, and certainty of attendance at Nyack as God's will; meeting wife at Nyack; grandfather as a family spiritual leader; father's concern for making money and desire for Malcolm to be a farmer; many grandchildren now in Christian work; mother's unspoken support of grandfather's desires; other brothers and sisters and their careers; reasons for choosing Nyack; Wheaton College as choice of three Sawyer children; evaluation of training for the mission field at Nyack; teachers with field experience; careful screening of candidates; language school first in Montreat, then Toronto; two years of language study on the field; compulsory return in case of failed courses; discontinuation of private tutors for language study; description of courses required; early colonial pattern of missionaries before World War II; change to national staff and decisions after this; establishment of youth conferences and development of leadership; C&MA substitution of Christian hostels when Christian schools forbidden; concern over present conditions; gaps in training and need for more cross-cultural preparation; summer programs on field now available, more short term programs; change to concept of servants to national church; need to work with national leaders and to understand the culture; screening for mission work at Nyack; measurements for compatible temperament for mission career; two years as pastor in Dixon, Illinois, as requirement; C&MA conferences; direction to "go to China"; Helen's similar experience; to Montreat first and leaving for Tokyo from San Francisco; courses at Montreat; contemporary requirement of six weeks' study in Toronto; courses in Chinese culture taught by Miss Cummings from Nyack; plans for Tibet; only Chinese taught at first, and switch to Tibetan; arrival at Shanghai, 1948, by ship; rough voyage on Marine ship; other missionary passengers; disembarking in Tokyo and impressions of war-flattened city; impressions of Shanghai and numbers of people; one month stay for customs clearance; climate during Christmas holiday; attack of asthma; living in Hong Kong, 1948; return in 1980 on mission tour; help to find C&MA church from passerby; guards of secret police; visit to man's home at night; his imprisonment for twenty-one years and escape; episode of the man's being told to go out into the street when Helen Sawyer was passing; waiting taxi driver given note to return to hotel because of fear of riot; description of life in prison; deaths of Christians and "beautiful Christians" who remained faithful; recognition of a former church member, now heart specialist in Wheaton; threats from government if contacts are made with anyone out of the country; impressions of Chinese countryside; types of illness; landscape in central China; mountain terraces; meeting Ekvall on arrival in Tibet; response of Chinese people to Ekvall; use of government connections to get to Peking; arrival in Gansu province; C&MA mission and hospital; C&MA territory in southern Gansu mountains; western Tibetan country and living in Labrang; Moslem Chinese; C&MA's work since early 1900; pioneer work of Ekvall's parents; twenty-five other missionaries and the Sawyers; Chinese church and killing of any Tibetans who became Christians; governmental status of monastery in Tibet; medical treatment of Ekvall and use of this for witnessing; services in Chinese church; prayers each morning; learning the language from these contacts while studying Tibetan; work with Tibetan nomads; food supplies from hunting, gardens; description of Tibetan foods; continual dysentery from environment; absence of doctors and picking up some medical knowledge; head of C&MA mission, C. Carlson, supported by College Church in Wheaton; Robert Carlson on tour in China with Dr. Armerding; shooting of Robert Carlson; police questioning for Tibetans who came to the church services because of their medical treatment at the mission station; escape of some to Darjeeling; Betty Ekvall's death in 1950s; visiting Chinese Christian church; pantomime to ask for gravesite; life with Tibetan nomads to gain experience for future work; leaving China after only one year; lack of evidences of Chinese civil war on the Tibetan border; Moslem group defending the country and danger of being cut off from leaving the country; departure before arrival of Red army; slaughter of Moslems; Chinese church help from self-supporting policy of C&MA; independent from West and strong churches; missionaries' teaching in Bible schools; visiting at perimeter; strength of Hong Kong church; Chinese-run seminary; C&MA's program to establish new churches and move on; Sian, capital of Gansu province, and its English school to teach teachers; visiting classrooms; report on church in Gansu; 7000 in one area and promise of information for Sawyers on the Chinese church; persecutions; close relationship between missionaries and Christian leaders in the churches; attitude of non-Christian Chinese toward church; Buddhists' persecution in some instances, but church established for fifty years before this; jealousy between races and tribes and massacres for revenge; description of Sunday worship services; women's meetings; attendance only by those living close by; content of services; hymns and Psalms, Doxology; comparison of sermons with Western patterns; C&MA liturgical pattern used in most Chinese and Western churches; Tibetans' interest in philosophy; more practical attitudes of the Chinese; use of Buddhist principles to "prove" Christianity; government of mission station, then a dirt house; use of rooms by the families; schedule of language study and visits to Tibetan and Chinese homes; reincarnation and the dog which was killed; need to placate the village; yearly mission conferences; voting privileges, allocations, furloughs; Carlson family and daughter's leprosy and return in 1947; government through Nyack for missionary care and support; C&MA support with allowances for missionaries; servants in Laos to prepare all the needed foods, services; salaries of $60.00-$70.00 per month; relationships between missions and difficulties of interpersonal relations within missions; stresses between different national customs, forced living arrangements; requirement to attend non-English churches; difficulty of language study; loss of allowance to return if failure; care provided for children during language study; methods of handling personality conflicts; no doubts about missionary call.

T2 (118 minutes ) (Click to link to audio recording and transcript).
Trip to Saigon from Hong Kong; study of French in Dalat; next to Laos; minimum contacts with French colonial residents; tribal center, mission school, Vietnamese church in Dalat; tribal Bible school at Dalat; 60 different tribes and dialects in Indo-China; Vietnamese missionaries and their work with tribes; Gordon and Laura Smith: aggressiveness, fund-raising, liberal use of funds, leaving C&MA to work independently, casualties of Communist activity; Communism and cheapness of life; dislike of foreigners; missionaries not held for ransom; awareness of world political affairs; house arrest of Protestants in 1911 under French rule; French Catholics and tolerance for Protestantism in southern Laos; behavior of Protestant residents; attitude of superiority toward Americans; return in 1954 and hatred toward French, but respect for Americans; differences in attitude of Vietnamese toward French and Americans because of colonial rule; Americans at checkpoints; after independence; incidents of rains, jeep and Army vehicle; being struck by French Army officer and asking to be hit on the other cheek; later request for forgiveness; relationships between Protestant and Catholic groups; rise of conversions because of war violence; Protestant churches everywhere"; Vietnamese prayers for 10 millions converted; second-class citizenship of contemporary Christians; strength of C&MA churches; interaction with Catholic groups; government functions and attendance by Christians; learning tribal customs from older missionaries; more understanding of sociological-cultural contexts and altered approaches to mission work; creation of self-supporting, propagating ethnic churches and benefit because of political structure under communism; assignment to Laos because of greatest need; plane trip to Saigon and rainy runway; tutoring under a Buddhist priest; living with other missionaries after arrival and conditions during language study; weekend ministries with local pastors; scarcity of Christian converts in the city; success in outlying areas; response of villagers; teaching reading skills; U.S. government aid for tribes; predominance of the Khamu tribe; response of oppressed people to the gospel in Indo-China; attitude of Laotians to Khamu; rejection of tribal people in cities; medical treatment and compassionate treatment by American Christians as factor in conversions; prevalence of spirit worship over Buddhist principles; Laotian population in Warrenville, Illinois; episode of child in hospital in Elgin, Illinois, strings to keep evil spirits away, and effects of recovery on her parents; attending Lombard, Illinois, church; removal of strings and destroying other fetishes as evidence of loss of fear after conversion; training of pastors to teach prayer, singing of hymns instead of beating gongs, ministering daily through visits; no evidence of demon-possession in his experience in Laos; dealing with the situation in the U.S. by exorcism; use of continual prayer in Laos; description of initial and follow-up procedures when contacting a tribal group; medical supplies and their use, clinics; preaching in the evenings; work with nationals, teaching and performing baptisms; feasts and pageants, slide shows, youth programs; training youth in the city; C&MA principle of working always with national staff; their teaching of the culture to U.S. workers; futility of anger in mission work; sharing meals, living conditions in Laos; treatment of respect for Hmong elders; teaching value of Christmas pageant, festivals; music and instruments; use of Gospel Recording materials; travel with records and tapes; worship services; training of pastors to sing hymns and development of hymnology; differences of Western sounds to Eastern ears; using the sun's height to time medicines; length of sermons; use of church by many national groups; cleanliness as an issue; sermon topics; training of elders in preaching and Bible schools; pastor's leadership basis in training; polygamy and strictures within the church; forbidding new second marriages; U.S. government's treatment of polygamy in States; incident of Philadelphia man and two wives; reactions of Laotians to Christians; death threats, other penalties and problems; lack of difficulties for American missionaries with government; independence and its effect on American missionaries; booth at fall festivals; literature; attacks on pamphlets, insults in church; meeting with Lao in Elmbrook, Illinois, church and hostile man; two-headed bird response to Buddhist objector; good cooperation between other resident missionaries; C&MA as first in Indo-China until after the war; relations with Jehovah's Witnesses; Southern Baptists' arrival in early 1970s, later cooperation; cooperation with OMF and Swiss Brethren; help with housing and other activities; relationships with the Catholic church; mutual work with language translation; cooperative Easter services occasionally; conflicts with fetishes and crucifixes and subsequent change of emphasis to repentance; friendly personal relations with French Catholic staff.

T3 (122 minutes) (Click to link to audio recording and transcript).
Family members in Louisville, Kentucky; healing of mother' TB of the bone; full-time Christian work of all four brothers and sisters; father's occupation as iron molder and activities in Christian and Missionary Alliance; continual presence of guests in home; shool in Louisville, then to Nyack Missionary Training College; three years' pastorate with husband before mission field; impact of missionary from South America during Sunday School when she was twelve years old; rebellion because of desire to be a teacher; desire of her parents for the mission field; studies at Nyack; impact of World War II on Nyack; pastorate in Dixon, Illinois, during the war; application in 1946, permission granted in 1947; mutual decision to go to the mission field, yet fear for the children; same message given by God to each of them in different places; strong mission emphasis within C&MA, background of both Sawyers; language training in Montreat before leaving for China; sufficiency of preparation at the time; more linguistic training needed; rough trip in November on converted troop ship; stay for one month in Shanghai; move to Labrang on Tibetan border and five-day trip; weather conditions in west China; stay in CIM home; attention given their daughter, age three, by Chinese; pairing with Tibetan teachers for language study; completion of only one year because of communist takeover; methods of teaching by Tibetan monks from monastery; different characters of Tibetan and Chinese; difficulty of learning Tibetan; requirement to attend services in Chinese; moves from south China, to Hong Kong, 1950; transfer to Laos; separate interviews for each missionary to assign to other fields; leaving the Chinese field and transfer to Dalat; furlough after two years in Laos and return; Wheaton, 1953, on furlough; 1954-1975 in Laos; people's movement in tribal areas prevented travel; work in station; family of four daughters; Buddhist beliefs of Laotian people; characteristics of the people and their lack of response; evangelizing the tribal people; work in station with Bible school training; Hmong converts; learning language of tribes through students in the school; C&MA work first in cities; expansion of Bible schools to include Laotians, Hmong and other tribal people; differences between Chinese and Hmong languages; recent written language for Hmong and some Bible translation; lack of written language for the Khamu people; first assignment and work with twenty-five villages and new Christians; distribution of literature, church services, medical help and overwhelming need; short term Bible schools; training men; length of programs; building a school, dormitory, dining hall; ten-year stay in Luang Prabang; 1960-1975 in Vientiane; evangelism in schools; initiating women's meetings, youth meetings; description of literature work, methods with Sunday School quarterly lessons to accommodate illiteracy; involvement in international community; use of one building, work with national pastors; cessation of travel because of the war; clustering of refugees and help from Mission Aviation Fellowship flying programs to bring missionaries to the people; reaction of Laotians to Americans; differences of Hmong response; differences between numbers of Laotian and tribal converts; avoidance of communist areas; fighting around the house; continual flight of refugees; attacks but no deaths among missionary population; different mission groups in Laos--Overseas Missionary Fellowship, Swiss Brethren, Southern Baptists; cooperation with literature work, conferences, dialogues; Christianity as cause of converts leaving villages; churches formed from refugees; educated Hmong family in southern Laos; support given through the C&MA budget; speaking at conferences; C&MA financial policies for new churches; support of church conferences; missionaries as advisors only; evacuation of all missionaries; decimation of large church of Hmong because of flight to Thailand and United States; use of U.S. plane to fly out Hmong general; thirty thousand Hmong people in U.S.; Wheaton's Hmong population and difficulty of adjustment for hill tribal people; growth of church to become one of largest ethnic churches of C&MA; growth and government of the church in Laos; organization as independent church; dissolution; services similar to western pattern at first; now use of native music, language; writing music for services; meetings for women, youth, prayer services, evangelistic teams; training of pastors; problems of opium, multiple wives and subsequent discipline from the church leadership; methods of evangelism; desire for advantages of western culture as conversion lure; description of economy and family conditions; corruption of local leaders; status of women and leadership of missions to change this; work with women as part of C&MA approach to evangelizing; lack of effect of Laotian attitude toward women on her personal ministry; use of nationalism in presenting gospel to Laotians; totality of Buddhism in Laotian culture; food fairs; spirit worship of tribal peoples; Laotian attitude toward this; methods of evangelizing the Lao people; effectiveness of literature; Laotians living in America converted by literature distributed at fairs, also by radio broadcasts; differences of attitudes of Laotians and tribal peoples toward Americans; methods of evangelizing tribal peoples; changes in behavior and cultural practices; training of elders; Laotians' pressures from community when converted; liberation from Hmong fears on conversion; confession of Buddhist priest about his lack of change in his personal life in spite of his religious belief and practice.

T4 (107 minutes) (Click to link to audio recording and transcript).
Daughters; problems with Tibetan reaction to a blond child, differences in hygiene; education in schools for missionary children; reactions of her daughters; schooling in the United States; furloughs; excellence of education; continuous training for teaching staff; results of growing up in a different culture; Sawyers' attempts at compensation for separation; home routine; shared chores on children's vacations; difficulties of sharing time during Christmas vacations; social life with other missionary families; sources of knowledge about the U.S. for the children; life in larger cities of Indo-China; problems with five-year terms on the field; separation from their daughter; social life of Laotians; fairs as biggest event; lack of industrial base for economy; poverty; ethnic and tribal divisions of Laos; attitudes of Laotians toward tribal peoples; refugees from North Vietnam, Cambodia; mountainous areas; adjustments required of refugees; difficulties of city life and climate; status of Laotian women, tribal women; illiteracy and more recent education for women; Communist barring of missionary activity; C&MA's early work in French Indo-China as only Protestant group; former relations with a cooperative government; leaving in 1975; Christianity's acceptance by animists, rejection by Buddhists; government corruption as cause for ease of communist takeover; later disillusionment; anti-western feelings not usually expressed; Laotian response to communism through emigration; Laotian contacts with other countries since communist takeover; Russian removal of young men for training in China and Moscow; enmity between North Vietnam and China; strength of Buddhist influences in Laotian society; merit for alms in Buddhist religion; tribal animist customs; toleration by Laotians, but not acceptance of Christianity as attitude of most nationals; gratitude for freedom from fear of spirit-worship after conversion; Buddhist nominalism; problems of Laotian converts with families and former obligations; conversion of family units; frequent moves for Christian converts because of hostility; lack of government persecution; health problems of Laos' population; lack of doctors, medicine; opium as a medicine; other sources of drugs; poor hospitals; necessity of families to accompany sick to hospitals; division of school years; subjects taught; languages used in Laos; government attitudes toward missionary schools; lack of Christian schools for Laotians; diligence of tribal peoples in learning languages; subjects taught in regular schools in Laos; money system; black market; effects of war on economy; U.S. aid to Laos; uses of U.S. aid; return of trained hill people to assist tribal villagers; leaving Laos in 1975; previous period under three-pronged government before communist takeover; demonstrations against presence of missionaries, threats; flight across into Thailand; evacuation from Thailand and return to U.S. on furlough in July, 1975; husband's return to Thailand for refugee camp work; assignment in Hong Kong for four years after period of helping Hmong people in U.S.; husband's occupation with accounting, her work as a teacher in a Christian high school and Bible seminary; description of simplicity of rural life of refugees and desire to leave without knowing of destination and its problems; difficulties with apartment life, illiteracy, poverty; numbers of Laotian Christians in U.S.; lack of interest by Buddhist believers in Christianity; influence of concerned love as most effective for conversion; reaction to Americans' presence; scope of C&MA involvement with Indo-China; difficulty of continuous contact and concern with Laos since take-over and parallel to years of China's isolation; attempts of some relief organizations to get into Laos; hopes for native churches; communists' presence at services; her concern for existing churches; hopes for literature and Bibles to be made available.


The materials in this collection were given to the Billy Graham Center Archives in September and November 1983.

Accession 83-106, 83-133, 83-147, 83-151

December 18, 1985
Frances L. Brocker
J. Nasgowitz
October 31, 1995
Paul A. Ericksen

Accession 83-106, 83-133, 83-147, 83-151
Type of Material: Audio Tapes

The following items are located in the AUDIO TAPE FILE:

T1 - Reel-to-reel tape, 3-3/4 speed, about 107 minutes. One side only. Interview of Malcolm Sawyer by Robert Shuster on September 23, 1983. Sawyer discusses childhood, schooling, work in China and Laos for Christian and Missionary Alliance.

T2 - Reel-to-reel tape, 3-3/4 speed, about 78 minutes (1.36 minutes of introduction at 7-1/2 speed). One side only. Interview of Malcolm Sawyer by Robert Shuster on November 14, 1983. Sawyer discusses mission work in China, language study, Gordon & Laura Smith, and transfer to Laos.

T3 - Reel-to-reel tape, 3-3/4 speed, about 76 minutes. One side only. Interview of Helen Sawyer by Stephanie Dixon on November 22, 1983. Helen Sawyer discusses her childhood, schooling, mission work in China and Laos.

T4 - Reel-to-reel tape, 3-3/4 speed, about about 63 minutes. One side only. Interview of Helen Sawyer by Stephanie Dixon on November 30, 1983. Helen Sawyer discusses her family of girls, their schooling, Laotian and tribal people and conversions, cultural situations, and contemporary Indo-China.

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