PRESERVING CULTURE & HISTORY
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.

AVALANCHE!

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.

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NO MORE FAMILY DIVISION: ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP BY CONSENSUS IN GUJI

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.

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HEADWATER OF THE CHINDWIN

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.

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OPEN BOTEN: ELEPHANTS AND GLAMOUR ON THE LAO-CHINA BORDER

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.

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OBSERVATIONS OF BURMA; ECONOMIC AND OTHERWISE

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.”

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ROUNDABOUT ORCHID ISLAND

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.

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WILD DIVINITIES AND WILD LANDSCAPES

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.

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ALONG VIETNAM’S BORDER

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.

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THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN
From Hainan to World Stage

Wong How Man
Hainan

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.

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HO CHI MINH’S CHINESE CONNECTIONS AND POEMS

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?

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NAGA NEW YEAR
A former headhunter’s festival

Wong How Man
Khamti, Myanmar

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Tribal chief with hornbill beaks on headdress. Young Naga warrior with ornaments. Lady with tattooed face. Naga family with multiple children.“Mind your head,” said my interpreter as I entered a Naga home. Too late, as my cap shaded my view of the low-hanging doorway and I banged my head. But that phrase of warning rang deeper and went back centuries into time immemorial for the Naga living along the border of Myanmar with India, up near the foothills of the Himalayas. Headhunters the Naga were, up until at least 1983, perhaps even into the 1990s, as one account puts it.

Thus visitors in the past always had to “mind their heads” when traveling among the jungles of the Naga hills. When the Naga hit, like guerillas coming out of the jungle, they took no hostage, just heads. Some of these raids among villages netted not just one head, not even a dozen heads, but hundreds. Feuds among neighboring tribes could last for generations, at least until the British colonial power finally extended their rule and penetrated the remote region with an attempt to pacify the area and put an end to such barbaric tribal warfare.

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TRAIN RIDE IN MYANMAR

Wong How Man
Lashio, Myanmar

Train crossing the famous high Goktiek bridge over 100 meters above the canyon below.“Your tickets are for upper class,” said Klai Klai my driver. With that he handed me a scrubby and coarse piece of paper, a printed form with some handwritten Burmese on it. Our names were written on it, together with our passport numbers behind.

Momentarily something flashed into mind. Is upper class like the many pick-up trucks around the country, with people sitting on the roof? Or is it like some of the Indian trains I have seen in pictures with passengers sitting on top? After all, Thirty-six US Dollars for the three of us to ride from Mandalay to Lashio, a lengthy sixteen hours ordeal on a local train, hardly promises to be an Oriental Express or Road to Mandalay experience.

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TAIWAN’S EARLY HEAD HUNTERS, THE TSOU PEOPLE

Wong How Man
Ali Shan, Taiwan – 9 December 2011


CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Early Tsou man with teeth knocked off (circa 1930). Anmo of the Tsou people today. Ritual house recreated today in Ali Shan. Thatch-roofed home of the 1930s. An Da-ming’s face has a shiny copper-tone to it, just like his cousin An Xiao-ming, whom we called by his nickname Anmo. Whether such tan skin came from long exposure of working under the sun or was their natural complexion I could not tell. Strangely, both men’s wives have much fairer skin though they too share their load of chores in the field. For Shu-yun, wife of the former, it is their tea farm, whereas for Hui-ling, Anmo’s wife, their field of crops and vegetable. The men’s features are more robust, with eyes sunken below the brows, high nose lines and cheek bones.

Both are of the Tsou minority of Ali Shan, deep inside the mountains of Taiwan. The Tsou has a population of barely 5000 individuals and are indigenous to the island. Under the Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, followed by over half a century of the Nationalist rule, many of the traditions and customs of the Tsou people were eclipsed. First to go was the old tradition of head hunting by the Tsou, once a proud occupation of the Tsou warriors against intruders or when faced with outside threats. Dutch and Portuguese explorers and early settlers described such “barbaric” and horrifying behaviors in their encounters with the Tsou. Today while recounting such acts by his ancestors, Anmor spoke with no sign of inhibition or regrets. Instead I could almost sense an air of pride in his tone.

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THE LAST PEOPLE’S COMMUNE

Wong How Man
Garcho, Tibet - 10 July 2010


During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, the People’s Commune was hailed as the epitome of a society model. Entrance with signage to local government“People’s Commune is Good” was a political slogan that ruled the day. I came to China early enough (1974) to have visited many communes, from large ones like the Red Star Commune outside of Beijing, to small ones like the Three-Eight Commune in the countryside of rural Guangdong, deriving its name from its earlier market days of 3 and 8 of the monthly calendar.

But such exposure to the social fabric of China’s more “progressive” days has long become tiny threads of memory. Ever since Deng Xiaoping unleashed his economic reforms in 1979, and subsequent distribution of land to its tillers in the countryside, the communes have become a word of the past, existing only in history books. I thought the once-revered practice of co-operatives had disappeared altogether. That is, until I visited the most remote part of northern Tibet on a recent expedition.

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EMERGING SUZHOU’S DISAPPEARING ACT
Thirty-five years before and after

Wong How Man
Suzhou, Jiangsu Province – 26
July 2009

1974 - The Grand Canal at Suzhou"Above there is heaven, and below there is Suzhou and Hanzhou.”
For centuries, this adage has circulated widely, reflecting the two cities’ serene beauty.

I first visited Suzhou in 1974 and again in 1977, 1986 and 1988. I am back again after a 20-year absence. In 1988, I was disappointed at the fast-changing scene which dulled many of my earlier memories of this unique city with its myriad canals and bridges.

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EASTER IN TIBET

Wong How Man
Cizhong, Yunnan - 12 April 2009

Yao Fei offering communion at EasterFather Yao Fei sports a crew-cut and stands about five foot four inches. Despite his short stature, when dressed in a long white gown, he stands tall among his followers. Here in this mountain enclave, Fr Yao leads as well as serves his Tibetans devotees of Christ in a pristine valley along the Mekong River.

He has been here for just over a year, as shepherd to his flock in a village where 80% of the population is Christian, rather than Buddhist – a religion to which almost all Tibetans traditionally adhere. Yao’s original home is Inner Mongolia but he was trained and later ordained as a priest in Beijing 18 years ago. He became a Catholic at the age of 20 and is now 45 years old.

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75 YEARS AGO GERMAN PILOT GRAF ZU CASTELL
PHOTOGRAPHED CHINA FROM ABOVE

Wong How Man
Hong Kong - 14 December 2008

Old city wall of Xian as seen from the airBetween 1933 to 1936, German pilot Graf zu Castell flew for Eurasia, an airline founded in 1930 between the Chinese government and Germany’s Lufthansa Airlines. The purpose of this airline was to provide aerial access and service to remote areas of China. The cooperation was very successful and a route was opened between many cities during its first year, connecting Shanghai, Nanjing, Jinan, Beijing, Linxi and Manzhouli. Later more connections were opened from Shanghai to Nanjing and Loyang, and onward to Xian, Lanzhou, Suzhou (in Gansu), Hami, Urumqi, reaching as far as Chuguchak at the Russian-Mongolian border.

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