CERS has been involved with culture conservation for over two decades. It started as documentation of many indigenous cultures unique to China's minority nationalities, many of which were in the process of disintegration, assimilation, or simply eclipsing in modern times. We gradually moved into the design and implementation of culture projects, at times involving entire local communities. We preserve both material and intellectual culture. In the former we sometimes conserve and restore entire ensembles of architecture, up to twenty houses or more in some projects. In the latter we document and support collections of ethnic music and legends. CERS is also an important repository of many old records, select pictures and films.

August 2017 Cruise on Hm Explorer on the Chindwin River in Myanmar


When I learnt in 2013 that the China Exploration and Research Society had built a boat in Myanmar in order to explore the huge rivers there, I immediately felt I must find an opportunity to embark on HM Explorer to discover the parts of the country that the boat makes possible to access.
We had some familiarity with Myanmar. My wife Anthea had been invited in 1979 to join a group of five other women to visit what was then known as Burma. The tour was organised by Caroline Courthauld, wife of senior Jardines executive Willian Courthauld. Caroline is a writer, photographer, documentary film producer and researcher. She is a former chairman of the Keswick Foundation.
The group flew to Rangoon (now Yangon) via Bangkok and stayed at the historic Strand Hotel. Visits to the famed Shwedagon Pagoda were made both at dusk and the following morning. They then flew to Mandalay on a Fokker Friendship turboprop plane and stayed at the Mandalay Hotel
The next day they visited wood carving, cheroot, alabaster carving, antique bronze and begging bowl factories by boat and pony trap via Ava, Sagaing and Amarapoura.
A visit to Maymo, the British Hill Resort 67km north east towards the border with Yunnan in China, followed. This included the Botanic Gardens, the Old Town, the win, teakwood logging, Schwenandaw Monastery, Kuthodaw Pagoda and the embalmed body of the monk Zawtika.




You may someday find it useful,” I said as I handed over a box of snake bite medicine to Sharon. “Last time I was here, I saw two bamboo vipers within five minutes. One of them was right at the edge of our house. Those are extremely poisonous.” I added as I turned the box to look at the ingredients and the dosage printed on the back.
“Hmmm, look at that - lizard skin, centipede, poisonous plants and more. I guess it takes something toxic to remedy snake bite venom,” I pointed to the ingredients. “And dosage; twenty pills for a start, down to ten later on,” I read out from the small print on the box.
“But just a minute - do not use if pregnant. Huh! Why not? In that case, maybe it is also good for abortion,” I quipped. “I don’t think I would ever need it for your suggested application,” Sharon finally snapped back, sort of barking.




But, but....I’ve been eating chicken feet, my favorite dim sum dish,” I stuttered a bit as I revealed this to Danchen, my close friend. Danchen, a very knowledgeable Rinpoche and retired Vice Party Secretary of Tibet, wrinkled his forehead a little in disgust. Then he continued to explain to me something I was totally ignorant about, despite having visited the Jizushan, or Chicken Foot Mountain, twice in the past.


I first came here twelve years ago, during the last Year of the Rooster pilgrimage in 2005. Then I came again in 2007, escorting several Hump pilot friends when they were into their 90s. On that trip they saw on the ground, for the first time, the pagoda they had seen from the air uncounted times while flying during World War II. The pagoda was their check point, navigating them to Kunming after passing the high mountains of the Himalayas.





I watched the reef go by as it rose vertically 20 meters above me and dropped 90 meters below me into the blackness. Suddenly, I realized I was completely alone in the blue. The strong current had pulled me around a corner in the wall. I could no longer see my dive buddy or the rest of the team, and for a second, a wave of panic swept over me. It was big, big ocean for a tiny person to be alone in, 30 meters below the surface of the sea.


The currents at Tubbataha were strong and it was easy to get swept ahead of the group if they stopped to check out something along the wall. And there was plenty to stop for – a White-tipped Reef Shark or an enormous Marble Stingray resting on a ledge, a parade of young Grey Reef Sharks, a Green Turtle swimming along the top of the wall, a school of cobalt blue Yellow-tailed Trevally or Pyramidal Butterflyfish descending the wall head first.




X, Happy is here!” CERS Philippines Project Manager Joceline shouts out loudly. I finally get the chance to meet Happy, the man Joceline often praises and feels happy about. In his sixties, Happy is a strongly built old man with a healthy tanned skin tone and beard growing on his chin and cheek. He effortlessly paddles his fishing kayak approaching us with speed. “Are you able to speak Hong Kong Cantonese?” I greet him with an excited loud voice and a big smile. A typical Cantonese gesture to greet someone you never expected, especially for me, in the middle of exotic Sulu Sea. “Of course! I am a Hong Kong boy from Shau Kei Wan.” He shouts back.
It is 12 days to Christmas Eve. The CERS research boat HM2 has just completed a 26 hour, 268 km eastbound voyage from Palawan Honda Bay to Cagayancillo Island, home town of Joceline. We have planned this trip over a year to achieve multiple tasks that include filming the Island’s Annual Children’s Day Parade when over 300 children dress up beautifully, sing loudly and dance and march across the town. It is a kind of tradition unique to fisher folk culture that I feel resembles the “Tai Ping Ching Chiu - 太平清 醮 ” of Hong Kong but is far less known by the outside world. We are also documenting the changing life of local fishing families in which most adults inevitably leave their own seas to work overseas. Last but not least, we have to test the newly acquired drone camera for capturing aerial views of the CERS research boat HM2 sailing into unknown territory.


The Magic of Not-for-Profit


National Treasures, a dying tradition, a country neighboring China, a not-for-profit project, and certainly great fun to be involved; it all fits perfectly with CERS. And this is not even to mention the significance of the project in terms of education and conservation. CERS, with the blessing of Her Majesty The Royal Grandmother Of The Fifth King Of Bhutan, is now on board for sponsoring the production of a documentary film.
Tashigomang (Many Doors of Auspiciousness), according to the French diplomat and a scholar in Asian Studies specializing in Himalayan studies, Dr. Mathou, can be considered as an indigenous Bhutanese tradition or perhaps a genuine Bhutanese national treasure, even though the invention of this vanishing tradition has been closely related to Buddhism as a whole since the 16th century. However, it is in Bhutan that the Tashigomang has been, in Dr. Mathou’s word, “part of the local culture in the most comprehensive way,” which contrasts with other Buddhist territories where it has totally vanished.


The Blue Eyed Monk


We leave the Old Town in Zhongdian bright and early on a Thursday morning on a kind of cultural and spiritual exploration.
Because of road construction, we must travel south down to the Yangtze, then follow the river upstream. We finally leave the river’s banks at the bridge to Qi Zhong, where we cross into Weixi Lisu Minority Autonomous County. A new bridge across the Yangtze, slightly higher than the old one, is nearing completion just upstream. We have lunch near the New Bridge Hotel, and the cook and proprietor, Hou Cui Yin, tells us that she is a member of the Malimoso Minority. It is a minority that is not recognized by the government, but just lumped together with the Naxi. Although Weixi is called a Lisu Autonomous County, the population here includes almost as many Naxi, Tibetan, Bai and Han people.


Return to Naga Head Hunter's Territory


I have flown a lot on Airbus. As for AirTruck, only twice - the first time was four years ago and now again. It is something I wasn't quite looking forward to, except the destination where this truck is taking me, to the once-a- year Naga Festival along the Myanmar border with India. These AirTrucks are more cool and definitely more bouncy than Air Jordans, the Nike shoes bearing Michael Jordan's name. It is called AirTruck because the passengers sit on top, enjoying the cool air from above. And in this case in the winter of the Naga hills, it's cold air. As for bouncy, it is an understatement for lack of a better word.
1619-naga2 1619-naga3
Covering myself with a hat, neck cloth and face-veil to shield the sun and the dust, I resembled some kind of an insurgent or terrorist. Insurgents there are indeed in these hills, extending into the at- times turbulent territories of Nagaland on the Indian side of the border. On the Myanmar side however, things have settled down quite a bit. The many military sentries four years ago are no longer in sight, or at least not as blatantly visible as before.


China 30 Years Ago
Though I have worked in China since 1974 for over 40 years, this year marks CERS’ 30th and it seems appropriate to revisit that special year 1986 with a gallery of photos from that era.
The year started off with my coverage of the lower Yangtze for the National Geographic, followed by the first CERS expedition to China’s southern border provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan.
Returning to visit the Dong and Miao minorities during a festive month yielded some superb pictures, as well as ethnographic objects and costumes to enrich our growing photo archive and artifact collection. The visit to the Dai people of Xishuangbanna and the Dehong Jingpo people followed with additional results.


Head Hunter No More
The heads are being counted, fewer and fewer. But these are not the heads the Tsou people historically hunted when they raided their neighboring enemies. That custom has been abolished and died almost a century ago. It is the head count of their own people, dwindling now to fewer than 4,000 individuals.
“If the current trend continues, our people will be extinct in a few generations.” Dai Su-yun sounded her alarm, chatting with me over a fine cup of tea that she carefully brewed for us. We are here to inspect our project among her people.
Dai is the wife of An Da-ming, one of the most successful tea farmers in the Alishan region at Dabang, which is the heart of where the best Taiwan teas are grown, as well as the heart of the indigenous Tsou people of Taiwan. Though Dai is very concerned about the future of the Tsou people, she herself is not of Tsou ancestry, but married into the family. The fate of the tribe, of the ethnic group, and even of her husband, is no doubt in jeopardy.


Teak Pretending To Be Plam
The forest is dark. The old moon has ebbed and the new moon has yet to show his face. There is a whisper as the wind dies down. “Mom, I am scared, it is so dark out,” the tiny sapling raised his head and looked at the taller tree. Mother looked down and brushed her child with her arm of large leafs. “Child, don’t worry. In time you will grow up and see the sky, the moon and even the stars,” said the mother with a loving voice.
As she looked away, however, tears started dropping from her eyes. In her heart, she had no way of knowing whether her child would ever grow up as tall as she. Looking down at her own girth, marked with a white ring, she knew her own days were numbered. “Is it raining, mom?” The small voice asked. The mother quickly wiped her tears and looked down again. “No my child, it is just a few stars falling,” she said with a gentle smile. She must keep her child’s imagination alive.


Two Foreign Pilgrims On The Inner Kora of Kawakarpo
As an anthropologist studying Tibetan pilgrimages since 1990, I was lucky enough to be able to do two outer circumambulations around the sacred mountain Kawakarpo in 2003. That year was a Water-Sheep year and the sixtieth year in the Tibetan sexagenary (60-year) calendrical system, considered to be the most auspicious one for the pilgrimage, since it is said to be the mountain god’s birth year.


Outermost Islands Off Taiwan
Outermost Islands Off Taiwan
My flight is subsidized. It has to be. For a new ATR prop-jet with 72 seats, there were only eight of us passengers. Four in the crew, including two pilots, provided a ratio of 2:1 in service. This is off-season. I was told that during June and July, many tourists arrive, from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China.


First Time Joining The CERS Family
First Time Joining The CERS Family
Friends and colleagues asked why, with a newly minted MBA, I wanted to quit a prestigious corporate job with great prospects for the future. Finally I have my answer after spending two weeks on a field trip with CERS. There is no more “TGIF” for me, but instead it is “Thank God Everyday Is Friday.”
Waking up with fresh air and a colorful sunrise, exploring the Chindwin River on the HM Explorer, our research vessel;I never felt it was tiresome. I was so lucky to listen to so much of the views and obser vations of Wong How Man along the trip; things that I never learned in business school. We worked morelike a family than just a team. All the boat staff are so eager to learn and help each other. My traveling experience with CERS opened my eyes and heart to doing many things in the future. I’ve gotten a great chance to enjoy the beauty of Myanmar, my own country, and to know more about its life and culture.



Wong How Man
Zhongdian, Yunnan

Statue of Damuzong. It seems strange that I should be making my first pilgrimage to Damuzong’s meditation cave only after it was burnt down by fire last year. Damu was considered to be the First Patriarch Master who brought Buddhism from India to China. I’ve been looking up at this cave from far below, from some 1000 meters in elevation lower down at the foot of the mountain, for well over ten years. Every time, several times a year, we drove past the foot of this pinnacle peak rising west of the Yangtze River, on our way from our Zhongdian Center to the Golden Monkey/Lisu Hill Tribe site.



Zhang Fan (translated by Roger Yung)

Exploring deep inside unknown cave. Palawan is considered to be the best preserved islands in the Philippines. In 2011, the National Geographic magazine named it the world’s best place for scenic photography and diving. When our team first arrived at Palawan’s Puerto Princesa Airport, the first thing that caught my attention was an advertisement about the region’s caves and underground rivers. As a cave explorer, I was so excited. I said to the team, “Bingo, we hit the right target, because our whole team is now coming to explore these caves.”



William Bleisch, PhD
Aboard the HM Explorer on the Ayeyarwaddy, Myanmar

Bamboo raft at foot of Second Defile. The sound of chainsaws echoes through the canyon almost throughout the day. The Second Defile is being logged.

The dreadful background noise makes me cringe reflexively, but the visual scene is still spectacular. The mighty river narrows to a deep ribbon of dark water that snakes between towering hills. The bare rocks of the cliffs stand out from the deep green of the forest, several large trees towering over their neighbours. Birds are abundant and diverse. We even see a small flock of hornbills flying high overhead.



Wong How Man
Liannan, Gunagdong

A Yao baby today. “Please, please join us for lunch. We are cooking anyway,” said Tang Mai De San, the 32 years old son-in-law of the family. I declined his truly warm hospitality as it was not just me, but seven of us in my team, and it would add undue work to their family’s very last day at this ancient house.

Tang had just arrived by motorcycle at this now remote hamlet. And the road, it was only completed less than ten years ago. Soon it would be abandoned and lay to waste. Likewise electricity arrived last year, and after today there would be no need for it anymore.


Musings on fish and commitment while floating in the Sulu Sea

William Bleisch, PhD
Palawan, The Philippines

Five-banded Seargent Major, Abudefduf vaigiensis. Back on the boat, I found myself spontaneously bursting into song, singing all the sea shanties I could remember at the top of my voice.

My father was a fisherman all of his life;
And he courted a mermaid one fine night;
And out of this union, there came three;
A porgy and a sea horse, and then there’s me!

We were on the island of Palawan, the southwestern frontier of the Philippines. For our first explorations, we had come to El Nido on the northern tip of the island, traveling by car instead of boat, a change plans at the last minute when it became clear that our new CERS research vessel, the HM Explorer 2, would take months to register. Without our own boat, we were constrained to join one of the tourist circuits. “Today you are doing tours A and C,” declared the tour guide, before he quickly rattled off the names of our destinations. He was obviously all too-familiar after many repeated trips. The beaches and near shore were crowded with visitors, mostly young Filipinos from the city, together with a few trendy young European and Asian tourists.


And audience with Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother of Bhutan

Wong How Man
Paro, Bhutan

Royal Grand Mother, her sister Tashi and nephew Dasho Benji, with How Man at Her Royal Palace. “That is a very auspicious sign,” said Lama Neten with a sliver of smile, finally. It seemed at last we had broken the ice as he looked very serious and solemn when I first met him the night before, at a home down the hill.


Though only 49 years of age, his demeanor was like that of an old teacher. After all, he is the abbot of a monastery with 120 monks, most of them boys. And they reside in this monumental castle of Gasa Dzong, the seat of one of the twenty Dzongkhags (Districts) of Bhutan and the northernmost, largest and highest of all the Districts. Below him, but above him in elevation, he controls another twenty smaller sub-monasteries, most sitting at dizzying height of the plateau bordering Tibet.



William Bleisch, PhD
on the trail below Api Himal

A musk deer, one of the first images recovered from our camera traps in Api Nampa. The third avalanche stopped us, but it was the fourth avalanche that convinced us all that we had been right to turn back.


I am in the Api Nampa Conservation Area in western Nepal again, back to try to retrieve the camera traps that we set high up near the source of the Chemaliya River last October, just below the cliffs of Api peak itself. We need to retrieve the traps to see what wildlife they have caught and also to bring them down the mountain before thousands of caterpillar fungus collectors enter the protected area later in the month. Unfortunately, a bit of freak weather has left several feet of snow accumulated in the upper reaches of the valley.



Prof. Yu Shuenn-Der

Grandma uses pebbles to count her circuits around the stupa. We meet Grandma on entering Guji Station. She is chanting her mantra and processing in a circle around the village’s white stupa. The eldest among her siblings, whose parents passed away when she was only nine years old, Grandma is now 78. She has remained single and spent decades taking care of her families. Now her great grand-nephew is of age to inherit the family responsibilities and she can finally retire. She spends most of her day time circling the white stupa, 250 rounds in the mornings and 200 in the afternoons; each session takes three to four hours.



Wong How Man
Khamti, Myanmar

Last navigable stretch of the Chindwin River. Momentarily a few leafs drifted down and floated on the stream where rattan and vine branches intertwined overhead. At another open bend of the river, half a dozen water buffaloes lay sunning themselves while as many white egrets stood on their backs. It was all so very romantic and simple; like childhood revisited, when simplicity reigned before the onslaught of gadgetry and other complexities. How could I not feel like a child when looking up at giant trees and forest?

The red spotted clouds before sunrise this morning seemed indicative of a special day. Bill’s boat was in front. I wasn’t sure if he felt the same, as he was turning 60 on this day, but then I was 65. It seemed strange that I was just made a grandfather for the first time and yet felt like a child. But many images, real or imagined, returned as if I was barely a few years old, maybe a boy of five. Perhaps that was what serenity really meant, to feel like a child again.



William Bleisch, PhD
Boten in Lao PDR and Xishuangbanna in China PRC

Camilla Mitchell and Mr Deang with elephant dung. The fashion models towered over the watching crowd as they walked the red carpets dressed in mini-dresses or denim short shorts and low cut shirts. A troupe of talent brought in from Thailand expressly for the re-opening of the newly positioned Boten Commercial Complex, their curvy figures and slinky moves seemed somehow manufactured and out of place. It seemed doubly odd, because this was all happening deep in the middle of a rainforest.

Boten was once a tiny Lao jungle village surrounded by vast forests. Its location on the main road between China and Thailand right next to the Lao-Chinese border, however, turned it briefly into one of the fastest developing communities in Asia. An enormous casino-hotel complex was built there a few years ago, and it was wildly successful. Too wild by many reports. High rates of crime, including kidnapping and murder, some of which involved Chinese nationals, reportedly led to a request by the Chinese government to the Lao government to shut it down.



Don R. Conlan
President (Retired) and former Chief Economist
The Capital Group Companies, Inc.

Vineyard of Myanmar. The mise en scéne is best set by a few quotes from an excellent book The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U, the grandson of U Thant, the beloved former Secretary General of the U. N.:

(Morning: 19 July, 1947): “Aung San’s Executive Council - the interim government - was made up of many, if not all, of the country’s most promising new leaders. The Council...decided to meet at the Secretariat...The Secretariat is today surrounded by a high wall as well as an outer fence...but in 1947 there was no real protective barrier...the car that sped in...carrying men in army fatigues...was unchallenged by the sentries on duty. Three of them, armed with Sten guns, then raced up one of the stairways...opening fire immediately. Aung San...was shot first with a volley in the chest...Only three of those in the room survived. Aung San was dead.”



Wong How Man
Lanyu, Taiwan

Fishermen by the coast. “I’d like a window seat,” I demanded to the agent as I checked in for my flight. “Every seat is a window seat,” the agent snapped back. Soon I walked out to the tarmac where a small plane was parked waiting. It was a well-used plane, a Dornier 228, something I knew familiarly as STOL, meaning Short Take Off and Landing type of airplane. Narrow as the plane was, indeed all 19 seats had a window next to the passenger. I’ve only flown private jet with such configuration.

As the twin propellers revved up, I could hear the high-pitch engine noise next to me and some small forward jerks. The pilots must have kept the brakes on hard, waiting for the right moment to release it. Momentarily the plane pulled off with a bigger jerk, and shortly thereafter we were airborne. Out the east coast of Taiwan, the intermittent clouds were hanging low. I was told this entire month had seen rain, all the way from Taipei to the coast here in Taitung. For the last two days before I took my flight, no plane left the airfield for the islands due to bad weather condition. The sun must be shining on my behalf just as I arrived.



John Studley

Farmer family. My quest for the indigenous “wild” divinities of explicit “nature conservation” began in August 1999 next to the Upper Yangtze, in Bengda County, Sichuan Province.

It was triggered by the assertion of a Khampa farmer;

“If we take care of the local forest and animals Jo Bo will be happy and bless our community. If not he will be angry and our crops will fail, our livestock will die and we will suffer”

The farmer went on to describe the role of Jo Bo, the resources and villages he presided over and the geospatial extent of the domain he inhabited. I was surprised that the farmer spoke of a divinity being happy and blessing the community, but I realised immediately that he was describing an animistic phenomenon1.



Wong How Man
Jinping, Yunnan

Market street scene at Lao Gai on the Vietnamese side of border across from Hekou. Sign Post Number One. Here is the starting point of China’s long inland border which stretches for over 22,000 kilometers, as well as the beginning of its lengthy 14,000 kilometers coastline. The Post was first erected in the final years of the Qing Dynasty as a demarcation between China and the French colony of Tonkin in northern Vietnam. A kiosk was built over it to shade it from the weather, be it sun or rain, just unlike what the two countries have gone through in their relationship over the years.


From Hainan to World Stage

Wong How Man

Iconic scene of the Red Detachment lead dancer.Finally I look at history in the eyes, and hold history in my hands. Her hands are so fragile that I cannot help but hold them lightly. Wang Yunmei was born during the Qing Dynasty; to be exact, on May 23, 1910, a year before the Chinese Republic was established by Dr. Sun Yat Sen. Today, she is 103. Sitting next to her, I feel the diminutive size of her body does not reflect the giant place that she holds in China.

Wang isn’t just any Centenarian; she is an icon who hailed from a tiny village with a dozen or so households in Hainan Island. Circumstances would catapult her and the group she belonged to into center stage in Beijing, China and even the world. Wang Yunmei is a member of the Red Detachment of Women, a guerrilla force of about a hundred amazons formed in 1931. It was an intelligence-gathering cum fighting brigade of the early Red Army on Hainan, this tropical island off Guangdong Province with almost the size of Taiwan.



Wong How Man
Hong Kong

Ho rendering his calligraphy in Guilin.Exactly 80 years ago, right before Chinese New Year, Ho Chi Minh was released from Hong Kong’s prison. Dressed up as a wealthy Chinese merchant and taken out to sea by the Governor’s private launch, he boarded a ship, entered First Class cabin and set sail for Amoy, today’s Xiamen. Ho had just finished a twenty month prison term at Victoria Prison, acquitted through the effort of a dedicated English lawyer, and was on his way to freedom. He spent the lunar New Year of 1933 in Amoy. Why the special treatment?