Wong How Man (黃效文) brooded in his hotel room. His car had been impounded and his movements restricted. His original plan of studying a small tribe along the southern border of Tibet was going nowhere. All around him people were whispering about revolution.
It was the summer of 1989.
“There are times when things tighten up,” he said in an interview with the Taipei Times. “Not that I like it, but you learn to live with it.”
The short tale illustrates a frustration Wong often encounters in China where crackdowns in one region have repercussions across the entire country.
“You are not talking about political danger,” he said. “Its just the horrendous red tape and the limitation of what you are allowed to do makes you feel like you have bound feet. You can’t fully explore and exploit the situation.”
Wong never made it to his planned destination and left 10 days later. But, he said with a mischievous grin, he’s learned a few lessons over the years on how to navigate through China’s nebulous bureaucracy.
“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,” he said.
Wong should know. The Hong Kong-native has been traversing China’s remote regions, first as a freelance journalist and photographer, then as an explorer and later as a conservationist, for over three decades. The former exploration leader for National Geographic and current president of the Hong-Kong based non-profit China Exploration and Research Society, was in Taipei last week to give a lecture about his life and work titled Rewriting the Wonders of Global Geography for the Lung Yingtai Cultural Foundation (龍應台文化基金會).
The US-educated Wong has long expeditionary credentials. His achievements include discovering a new source to the Yangstze River and identifying the world’s northernmost rain forest. The self-proclaimed progressive, however, soon realized that it wasn’t enough to explore and document the people, flora and fauna of China’s remote regions. Wong saw that with China’s rapid modernization, much of what he was photographing was soon going to disappear.
“Today’s explorers can’t escape becoming conservationists,” Wong said.
In 1987, Wong founded China Research and Exploration Society (CERS), a Hong Kong-based non-profit organization that today operates over a dozen conservation projects in China. One project seeks to preserve the “hanging coffins” of Yunnan Province, some of which are 1,000 years old, while another is restoring the crumbling murals of a Tibetan nunnery.
Wong says explorers are in a unique position to preserve far-flung cultures and environments because their exploration takes them far off the beaten track.
“Despite the fact that we are not trained conservationists, we are a few years ahead of the problem — sometimes even a decade. So that is where our advantage is. Other conservation groups see a crisis and intervene, so it generally becomes a little more … confrontational,” Wong said.
If rapid modernization is threatening the existence of remote regions, Wong says the economic principles underlying Western capitalism should be used to save them. He said China Exploration provides a model for other, smaller conservation organizations to follow.
“We want to produce the best value for what we want to conserve: added value. That’s why conservationists must start thinking like an entrepreneur. I think in this age, good conservationists simply have to go learn management,” he said.