03 June 2010

Some background

My grandfather, Chang Kan Chien, designed and built bridges on the Burma Road during China's war with Japan (known to Western history as the Second Sino-Japanese War and in China as the Anti-Japanese War) in the 1930s and 40s. After Japan overran the Chinese seaports in 1937, China had no way to receive allied supplies for its war efforts. The Burma Road was built to connect the Chinese railhead at Kunming with the railhead at Lashio in Burma, then a British colony. The road crossed over 700 miles of rugged Yunnan landscape, including three major rivers, ridges rising thousands of feet, and miles of mosquito-infested jungle. Two hundred thousand Chinese men, women and even children carved the road out of the imposing terrain using not much more than their bare hands. My grandfather helped to direct part of that effort.

Known as CK to his American descendants, my grandfather was born in 1904 at Chongming, Shanghai, China. After graduating from college in Beijing in 1920, he came to the U.S. for advanced training in engineering. He graduated in 1925 from RPI with a degree in civil engineering, and was awarded that college's prestigious MacDonald Prize. Before returning to China in 1927, he worked in the U.S., helping to design and build the Peace Bridge between Buffalo, NY and Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada, along the way. He married my grandmother, Alice Ryder (whom he met while a student at RPI) in 1929, and founded the Eastern Asia Foundation Company, Ltd., in China in 1933. In 1937, when the Japanese invaded China at the onset of the Anti-Japanese War, CK sent my grandmother and their three sons, Alan (my Dad), Philip and George, back to the U.S. for safety while he remained in China to assist with the war effort. His work included designing and constructing bridges on the Burma Road, including a notable bridge across the Mekong River. In 1940, after this bridge was bombed by the Japanese, the story goes that CK was returning by plane from Chungking to Kunming to assist with the rebuilding of the bridge when his plane was shot down by the Japanese.

On the trip to Yunnan province, a major goal will be to visit sites where my grandfather left his mark, particularly the bridge across the Mekong River (or Lancang River as it is called in China) and hopefully his burial site, which has proven to be elusive, but which we hope is in the vicinity of Kunming.


Peter Alan said...

Sources for this information were : Men of Shanghai and North China, 2nd ed., The University Press, Shanghai, China. 1935., and Tan Ying-Peng. The Building of the Burma Road, McGraw Hill, 1945.

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