Long before the 1970s and ‘ping-pong’ diplomacy, Mark Voyage had already made countless business trips to China. As an Australian pioneer of business trade with China, he established relationships with state-owned factories and in turn introduced Australian retailers and local importers to textiles and soft furnishings manufactured in China.
His first trip was in 1962 and he saw Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin when these cities were underdeveloped and well before any mass tourism and economic evolvement. Over many years, he criss-crossed the country by train and questionable aircraft to visit factories in small towns, often with poultry and livestock as his fellow travellers.
In 1966, Voyage was confined to his hotel room in Shanghai during the start of the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guards marched into the city, hassling locals and foreigners. He surreptitiously filmed the march through the main streets of the city from his balcony window on his movie camera. When he tried to leave the city, the Red Guards mistook him for an American and surrounded his car, forcefully rocking it until his Chinese friends finally convinced the guards that he was an Australian businessman.
The following year, he was presented with an official armband by the Red Guards.
In 1969, on a train trip from the Hong Kong border to Canton, one of his fellow travellers was Australian Francis James. Voyage recalled the commotion when the Red Guards held up that train and arrested James, later interred in China on charges of spying.
Voyage was often interviewed and consulted by journalists and government watchers about trade with China. A 1970s report in The Herald about businessmen at the Canton Fair described him as one of the “three of the half dozen or so men who are really big in Australia’s trade with China”.
Mark George Voyage was born on November 30, 1930, on the Greek island of Rhodes, the fifth of six children of Georgios Voyiatzis and his wife, Maria (nee Lacherdis). In World War II, the occupation of Rhodes by the Italians and then the Germans, and the following blockade of the Dodecanese islands by the Allied forces meant famine and hardship for the family and Mark lost many friends from the local Jewish community, who were transported to German death camps.
Young Mark was an enthusiastic sportsman and played soccer, basketball and water polo and was involved in rowing and yachting. Several photos of early rowing teams that include him still hang in the rowing clubhouse in Rhodes.
As Italy had formally annexed Rhodes, his education was in Italian schools. When Rhodes came under British Administration in 1945, he enrolled in a British private school and learned English as well.
He then worked in the Ministry of the Interior and ended up issuing passports, eventually writing his own, although his director would not sign the paperwork until he had played in the final match of the local soccer competition. On the recommendation of his older brother, Anthony, he decided to follow him to Australia, but intended to stay only for a while.
Arriving in Melbourne, he immediately joined the Kew Swimming Club and also played water polo and basketball. His first jobs were at General Motors during the day and in a milk bar in the evening. After four years, he moved on to Sydney where, in 1955, he married Betty Simonides of Bondi.
True to his name, Voyage was a traveller. As well as his business trips, he and his family holidayed all over the world. Although he never did return to live on Rhodes as he had intended, he and Betty visited every year. Away from work, Voyage loved Sydney Harbour and took out his boat most Sundays. He also enjoyed golf.
Voyage was a proud Greek and held all things Greek close to his heart, but he was a proud Australian and loved this country and the opportunities it afforded him.
Mark Voyage is survived by Betty, daughters Maria, Vaia, Dianne and Ioana, 11 grandchildren, his sons-in-law and sister.
* This obituary was written by Mark Voyage’s daughter Maria and was published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.