When a young Wong How Man decided to find out more about his cultural heritage, he quickly ran into difficulties--the majority of research material on China was more than 40 years old. Not one to back away from a problem, he took it upon himself to fill that gap.
Now 53 years old, Wong specialises in the exploration and conservation of remote western China. His credentials are impressive: in a career spanning nearly 30 years, he has discovered the true source of the Yangtze River; identified the world's northernmost rainforest, which is located in eastern Tibet; led expeditions for the National Geographic Society (NGS); and founded the China Exploration and Research Society (CERS). His work is regularly featured on CNN and the Discovery Channel, and in 2002 he was voted one of 'Asia's Heroes' by Time magazine, a distinction he shares with film star and producer Jackie Chan.
However, dreams of becoming a swashbuckling explorer weren't on the agenda of the adolescent Wong, who was born and raised in Hong Kong. In the late 1960s, while studying journalism and fine art at the University of Wisconsin, his political and moral sensibilities were awakened when protests against the war in Vietnam swept across US campuses. "It honed my skills for becoming active as a participant rather than taking a back seat," explains Wong. It also sparked the beginning of his interest in China. "It was an outward journey, seeing all these new things in America, but also an inward journey because I started realising I was different to everybody else and it got me closer to looking at what China is all about."
Finding out what China was all about proved a little more difficult than he'd anticipated. "I discovered there was a 30- or 40-year gap in writing about China," he says. "Because of the political climate, serious expeditions were pretty much off-limits for at least a century and a half." After graduating in 1973, he decided to visit China and see for himself what it was like. He began working as a photojournalist for a variety of Asian magazines and the US journal Architectural Digest, but it wasn't all plain sailing. "It was the end of the Cultural Revolution and control was still extremely tight. As a young journalist coming back from America with long hair, I met a lot of resistance," he says.
Nevertheless, he was undeterred, and his big break came in 1982 when he led the first of six major exploration and photojournalism expeditions in western China for the NGS. In 1985, an expedition lasting several months and crossing thousands of kilometres culminated in his being credited with the discovery of the true source of the Yangtze River.
Describing Wong as proactive is an understatement. "He is like a ferret, he has to get his nose into everything," says naturalist William Bleisch. But according to Wong, that is the best way to get things moving in China. "I am not a very patient person," he explains, "but I have learnt over the years to keep many options open. If Tibet is closed, you go for Inner Mongolia or the Silk Road. When the Silk Road becomes tight you move somewhere else."
Wong readily admits that he was often so disheartened by red tape and harassment that he was ready to pack up and go back to the USA, his home for 25 years. But he credits a selective memory for his perseverance. "Every time you go home you forget about all the pain. I guess it is in my nature that I don't remember bad experiences very well. I block the mental pain and cherish the wonderful experiences and after a couple of months I feel the urge to get going again."
In 1986, Wong founded the China Exploration and Research Society in Los Angeles, his home at the time. "There is only so much exploration a magazine can support in the same area. By then I felt very strongly that my area of interest was remote western China. If I had been given an assignment anywhere else in the world I would have turned it down. …