23 October 2010

You can't get here from there

A colleague was speaking to my wife the other day, and said that she heard that Blogger blogs may be banned or blocked in China. She did a little investigating and found out that it may be true. So this might be the last time I'm able to post until we get back from China. Just in case, though, I'm getting a little practice in by typing this one on my iPod Touch.

We are safely all in Emerson, NJ., our staging point for our flight tomorrow. It's then when we head out on our great adventure. This morning, my brother and I gathered the last information about our grandfather's academic career when we visited the library at RPI and photographed the large maps, charts and drawings at the back of his thesis. It was remarkable to hold the volume in our hands, knowing that he had once held it proudly. We had to take great care opening and refolding the papers because the had grown so fragile with age. I'm glad we digitized them before the became too brittle to handle.

It's hard at this point to put into words what we are all thinking. We who have not yet been to China are full of questions for those who have been before. For example, I wondered aloud what one has for breakfast in China (fried chicken feet is apparently an option). That prompted a long discussion of what our food options will be. Choices I will be looking for: noodles, fried rice, and broccoli.

We're watching a DVD of home movies of China that were made by a friend of my grandmother's while he was in the navy in the 1930s. The picture is a little fuzzy and my father is recounting the events of his escape from Shanghai, which was under bombardment at the time, to Hong Kong and beyond via freighter. Many of these stories I am hearing for the first time. Already, this trip is proving to be the opportunity to learn more about my dad and uncle than I have ever known or asked about. I am so grateful for this opportunity, and I will do my best to document it to share with my girls, first, and my wife, friends and extended family.

16 October 2010

Getting close, now

With only a few days until we depart for China, the list of things to do doesn't seem to be getting smaller.

A haphazard pile of things to bring is slowly gathering in my suitcase, which lies open on the living room floor, and into which I've been tossing random items over the past week as they came to hand or came to mind. There are a couple of long sleeved shirts, a pair of pants with legs that zip off (I want to have shorts if I need them, but also want to keep exposed skin to a minimum). There are a handful of games: No Thanks, a deck of cards, Farkle, San Juan, and a print-and-play game called Pocket Civ, which might be good for the airplane.  I'm trying not to let those take up too much space, being conscious of my tendency to bring way more games than it would be possible to play on any given trip. Besides, I have a ton of games on my iPod Touch, and the international adapter set for the charger, should taking in the bustling and historic ancestral land to which I'm travelling prove boring. Methinks I'm over-preparing.

In my backpack so far is my passport, small binoculars, a shrinkwrapped tin of spearmint Altoids, and my camera bag.  In my camera is a new 16GB Class 6 SDHC card, which should give me plenty of speed for video recording and lots of pictures. I just ordered a pair of headphones with a mic to use with my iPod Touch. With it, I hope to be able to use Skype or Google Voice to "call" home using VOIP. I'll also have my phone, but I won't use it except for emergencies due to the $1.99/minute roaming charge to call home from China.

I've applied for an absentee ballot since I will miss the general election. I've received a PDF of my grandfather's thesis, although a trip to RPI is in order the day before departure so my brother and I can photograph the large maps and drawings that weren't included in the PDF.

Things still to do: Get cash. Trim down the contents of my wallet. Wash some clothes in our new washer, which arrives on Sunday--the old one died over a week ago.  Stock up the iPods with music, games, a good Chinese phrase app, and maybe a recorded book.  Pack some more clothes appropriate for the weather in China. The long range forecast our first day in China says Beijing will top out at 58 degrees F, with a low of 38--very similar to what it is here in central NY in October. (The Kunming high is forecast to be 67, Dali 57. Although far south of Beijing, both are at much higher elevations--6,207 ft for Kunming, and 6,535 ft for Dali).

I have to pick a book to read on the plane. I finished Deborah Fallows book, Dreaming in Chinese. I highly recommend it to all of my traveling companions. It's a quick read with many observations and insights into the Chinese language and culture. I enjoyed it very much.

And the list goes on. There will seemingly always be one more thing that could be done before the trip. I haven't yet reached the tipping point, where the preparations that have been made outweigh what remains that could be done. The goal this week, then, is to reach that point, and avoid the moment when I will say, "D'OH! I forgot blahblahblah," at a point where it's either too late or too far to go back and get blahblahblah. However, as the trip looms larger in the windshield, so to speak, it becomes harder to plan for. I'm nearing the point at which the it will cease to be some future event for which preparations can be made, and will become something that is happening, regardless of preparations. Palpability, if you will. The moment is not far over the horizon. It's not 5:00pm on Friday or noon on Saturday, or even the moment of takeoff on Sunday. It looms around some nearby corner--one I will reach sometime this week. It will fill the whole windshield, and I'll be in the middle of it, and unable to think of anything else because it will here, it will be happening, a long-awaited event.

11 October 2010

Interest grows

Less than two weeks until our departure! As the time approaches for the Chien family visit to the Chang Kan Bridge, local and regional media interest in our visit is growing.

When I say "local media interest," I'm talking the TV station in Baoshan, near the bridge, and YNTV, which is a regional TV network in Yunnan Province. (If you know Mandarin, you can look at Yunnan TV's own website here.)

The original plan (and still the plan) is to have a ceremony at the Chang Kan bridge on October 29, the 60th anniversary of my grandfather's death.  My uncle and my father have written a statement commemorating my grandfather and our visit, which they plan to read at the ceremony. Our tour guide, Jasmine, has arranged for the ceremony to be covered by the Baoshan TV station. Recently, though, Yunnan TV got wind of our visit and has asked if they can conduct an hour-long interview with us on the day of the ceremony. They also upped the ante by proposing that they follow our entire trip, from our arrival in Beijing to our departure nine days later! 

This is an unexpected level of interest, and we're debating how much access we want to give the media. My uncle asked us all to weigh in on the proposal, but I haven't yet heard whether a consensus has been reached. On the one hand, it's nice to have so much interest in our visit from within China. We are honored in the interest in our grandfather and his family, and are pleased at this opportunity for a cross-cultural human interest story. It is very pleasing that CK's accomplishments and sacrifice are remembered in his homeland. Plus, if the coverage would mean we'd get a copy of the footage to take home, it could be a very nice way to document our visit.  

On the other hand, having TV cameras in our faces as we try to enjoy the sites in China is a bit more of a fuss than we were expecting or, frankly, are prepared for.  In their proposal, YNTV promised not to intrude too much on our trip, and that the coverage would not reflect badly on CK or our family. This is reassuring, but the thought of having cameras in our faces and having to be "on" throughout the trip is a little unsettling.

Meanwhile, we are preparing for the YNTV interview. My uncle has already sent copies of old family photos he has to the network.  More background material has been found in the form of old home movies that were made when a family friend visited my grandmother and grandfather in China in the 1930s. (How cool is that?!) Finally, my brother visited the library at RPI, where my grandfather received his engineering degree in 1925.  He was able to look at my grandfather's thesis, for which he won the McDonald Prize--RPI's award for the top graduating thesis of the year--but was unable to check it out. The librarian told my brother that the thesis may be available for inter-library loan, so I'm attempting to get the thesis so I can somehow copy it before our departure. If that fails, a colleague has sons who attended RPI and may be able to use their alumni privileges to borrow it.  If I can get my hands on the thesis, I will scan it if the binding will stand the strain. If not, I plan to photograph it.

We hope to bring digitized copies of all of this material when we go to China, in order to provide the TV stations with information they can use for background for whatever story they do about us.

03 October 2010

More information about CK and the bridge

As the trip approaches, it is clearer than ever that the bridge we are seeking--the Chang Kan bridge over the Mekong (aka Lancang) River in Yunnan P.--does still exist.

My uncle unearthed temporarily forgotten translations of information from websites in Chinese that were given to him while he was in China on his family's visit in 2009.  The translations provide information about CK's education, his engineering endeavors in China, and his death, as well as information about the bridge and the area surrounding the bridge.

An article called "Bridge expert Chien Chang Kan" says that, from 1934-37, CK was a supervising engineer on the Qiantang River bridge at Hangchou. This bridge was the first bridge of steel construction over a major river in China, and, according to the information translated for my uncle, the first double decker bridge in China, having a road bed on top of a rail bed. My grandfather was "very much dedicated to its construction," and was "on the site from the beginning to finish," according to the translated Chinese website.

At almost the same time the Qiantang River bridge was being completed, the war with Japan broke out. The article goes on to say that the Nationalist government in Chongqing entrusted CK with the construction of a new bridge over the Mekong River for the Burma Road. The old bridge over the Mekong (or Lancang River, as it is called in China)--the Gongguo bridge--was not strong enough to handle the volume of traffic that was to travel the road. The bridge that CK designed and built had a span of 135 meters and was "China's first suspended road bridge with cables." Starting in February of 1939, it took 21 months to design and construct, being completed in November, 1940. In the process, many young Chinese engineers received valuable training, and CK's design for the bridge was replicated for many other crossings on the Burma Road. Unfortunately, before construction was completed, CK was killed when a plane he was traveling in was shot down in a Japanese air raid near Qujing, northeast of Kunming, and the bridge was destroyed by Japanese aerial bombs only 42 days after it was completed. The bridge was rebuilt, although not to the original specifications: The deck was remade with wood, the load bearing capacity was reduced, and the surface of the bridge reduced to one lane.

Another article, entitled "The Forever Unbreakable Cable Bridges on the Burma Road—The Gong Guo Bridge and The Chang Kan Bridge," corroborates some of the information from the previous article, and provides additional detail. The Chang Kan bridge was built 700 meters upstream of the Gong Guo bridge. The original Chang Kan bridge was completed November 4, 1940. All the materials for the bridge were obtained from the U.S. and were brought in over the Burma road. (An interesting detail: to bring the suspension cables in, coils of cable one meter in diameter were suspended on a pole between two workers and walked in from Burma.) From October 18, 1940 to February 17, 1941, sixteen bombing attacks were made on the Gong Guo and Chang Kan bridges. The bridges were severely damaged several times, but each time, the Chinese were able to rebuild the bridges in days.

A brief article, "The Chang Kan Bridge," states, "Before the current Yong Bao Bridge was built, the Chang Kan Bridge was the most important traffic bridge between the Baoshan area and the Dali area on the Lancang River." The article concludes by stating, "The Chang Kan Bridge is still in use."

A final article gives details about the Baofeng area--the area where the Chang Kan bridge is located. Baofeng Township is located in Yun Long County, Dali Prefecture, Yunnan Province. Most of the people living in the Baofeng area are of the Bai minority. They live and farm on the side of the steep mountain banks of the swiftly flowing Lancang River and along the Bi River, a tributary of the Lancang that runs through the township.  The area is widely forested, both with native trees and vegetation and with cultivated olive, chestnut, walnut, eucalyptus and bamboo.  The article states, "The Chang Kan Bridge lies in the south of the town—local people call it the 'unbreakable bridge.' The remains of the anti-aircraft positions are still present on top of the mountain."

While the websites are unknown and the translations are undated, they provide a clearer picture of the area we are to visit and evidence that the bridge is still there, waiting for us to arrive.

[Edited for grammar, spelling and clarity 10/4/10]