Interview with Dr. Wong How Man
By Constantin Haub
Author: Constantin Haub
An Interview with Dr. Wong How Man
Q: Dr. Wong, it is a great honor for us to host you here at Boston College. As you know, BC is a Jesuit university, and I understand that you have some personal experience with the Jesuits, as I was told that you attended a Jesuit school.
Could you tell us about the influence of the Jesuits in your own life, and how this influence may have shaped your pursuit of such a fascinating career in exploration and research?
The one thing that I’ve learned is that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Overall Jesuits are very knowledgeable, very disciplined, which at times in history got them in trouble. The Jesuits have a long history in China, since father Ricci’s time all the way down. My school hit over 100 years in its history, which for Asia is a long time. My father taught all his life at this school… What school was that?
The Wah Yan school in Kowloon. My father went to Wah Yan in his own days besides teaching there so it is a tradition that actually runs in the family. However his education was suspended because of the war, he was studying medicine while staying at Ricci Hall. In those days when you come out of the Catholic school, you stay at Ricci Hall at Hong Kong University. The director is still, and always is a Jesuit father. For me it was tough because it was a school that cherished discipline…and I can’t say that someone who becomes an explorer is a not great disciplinarian.
Q: What made you want to become an explorer? At what point in your life did you decide to choose this path?
I was never into being an explorer. I certainly read about other explorers, be it Kipling or Livingston...they liked being explorers…I became an explorer through the backdoor. Basically I’ve been doing what I still do today and was recognized as an explorer before I realized that maybe what I do actually fits the definition of an explorer. Its not like I set a goal of wanting to be an explorer or a doctor or an engineer, none of that.
In the beginning even at National Geographic they all started calling me ‘How Min Polo’ and I felt embarrassed and quite uncomfortable. So its different, as I said people set that as a goal and they probably feel great when they’ve arrived there. For me, I say I arrived from the back door because finally I sit squarely on that and feel comfortable about it. Just like I think there are scientists that are inquisitive and pursue science for science…they weren’t pursuing a noble prize. They’re just curious…those prizes are just dressing on the side…Did you have any role models?
It was all on my own. In retrospect, while doing the research, to compliment my work, the geographic places I needed to go to were broadening my knowledge of certain disciplines that I knew I needed to learn…that’s when I came to admire some of these early explorers that went to Tibet and China…but I wasn’t distracted by people going to lets say Africa or elsewhere. So for me, for a long time, I was very focused on just remote China. Definitely all the contemporary explorers from the last two centuries, the 19th and 20th, were ones that I would have read about and that’s how I came to know that many of the early explorers…they were not very physically fitting, just very knowledgeable. These are people of science, people of the humanities but not the mountaineer type, the outdoorsy type…basically they were just pursuing knowledge. What drives you to pursue knowledge?
Just curiosity. There are those that do it because of academic reasons…today people are more used to setting goals that are within academic disciplines when they go out to pursue something. In the old days explorers didn’t particularly place themselves within those disciplines even though they may have been armed with those certain disciplinary backgrounds.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your expeditions in China and as well as in other parts of Asia?
The last river source we covered was the Salween in 2011. We have a series of river sources of Asia actually on a board that we’re going to work on one after another. Next month we are going to hit our fifth one, the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, and we will not just cover the source but also the mouth to have a contrast. Getting to the mouth is generally very easy, like flying into Shanghai for the Yangtze, or Ho Chi Min City for the Mekong. Finding the source is a different method; it takes a lot of logistics.
Just two weeks ago we were in Kat Man Doo, Nepal, for an economic forum, which even included the former foreign secretary of India, who was also previously the ambassador to the U.S. We were discussing river sources, as we all know water is becoming a very important issue in many countries. Most people are concerned in terms of environmental issues…like rivers being polluted and damaged, but you need to be a little more analytical. If you’re living down river there are so many different populations that rely on the rivers resources…so obviously the further down you go, the dirtier it gets…but even then it can drive a turbine. You have to look at the segmentation of what part for what.
While China in Tibet controls most of the river sources of Asia…more than just the Yangtze, Mekong, Yellow, Salween, Irrawaddy, Indus, or Ganges…you name it, it’s a huge basin. It’s a land locked country and that’s why a lot of people say Nepal is poor because they don’t have access to the sea. Historically, maritime trade was important, as you needed access to the sea-lane…but Switzerland is also land locked so its really how you play it right. Nepal has to learn how to do that. By the time water becomes even more of a rare resource, they will control being at the foothill of the Himalayas, and thus they control a lot of water sources that India needs…but if they are not careful, India will just come and wipe them out. But then how come Switzerland was able to do it…I’m not saying I’m a political or economic expert, but those are the things you need to figure out… just like Switzerland was able to sustain itself for so long.
Nepal is sandwiched between to huge countries, China and India…but what is the best part of the sandwich? We all know it is what is in the middle. So its how they are really going to think instead of using the old method.
And as an explorer we are used to looking to see if there is an alternative way, instead of always thinking in a linear way. If I am going solo as an explorer, I can take risks, no problem. But if I have a whole team with me, including occasionally with interns. Then I have a huge responsibility. We do it very calculated. In the back of my head I always have plan B and C ready.
Q: What really inspires you to continue exploring today?
When you’re just looking at Mt. Everest, that’s a different kind of inspiration. When you get to the top of a mountain what additional knowledge do you contribute? Except to yourself or to show endurance. So I think the traditional explorer is all about knowledge and not about conquest. When I see a mountain, I only want to go to the lowest pass to see what is behind it…rather than go to the peak and come right back down.
This traditional knowledge based exploration is very different from today’s mountain climbing style, and that’s why many of those that I admire are actually physically handicapped, but it doesn’t become a deterrent for them. The world is all about efficiency these days…explorers don’t choose the most efficient route. So a lot of what we do is counter to what we are taught these days. I don’t think people go to Myanmar because it is efficient and fast…you go there exactly because it turns back time. It hasn’t changed for so long and there is a lot more we can do to preserve. But at the same time you don’t want to hinder the march forward. They have to catch up. Selectively we still have a chance to conserve. Before it becomes head to head with development. Once you get to that kind of frontline you have to calculate all the other stakeholders…it’s not longer just your own agenda. If you act early enough, there are ways to give development a different type of direction.
Q: I know how important environmental conservation and exploration is to you but I wanted to know a little bit more about your thoughts on cultural and heritage conservation. Could you tell me a little bit about that and some examples of what you have done to help preserve this precious part of China’s history?
Generally speaking, for people to appreciate culture, you don’t have to have the language or historical background like me. For example, it is not that I’m not curious in South America, I went through Central and South America, driving all the way from Canada to Panama and hopped onto South America. That was an eight-month expedition in 1975/76 right after I came out of college…but there is little I can give back now because I don’t have that cultural perspective or language background. So more and more I’m purpose driven to where I can actually add value. That’s why if I see an old or dilapidated house, I feel I can add value. If you already see something nice, you cannot add much value, you’re only using the value.
In culture, generally speaking when we are older, we appreciate culture more. So now if we are doing nature conservation projects, it is more engaging for the young people because they have energy in surplus…culture projects take longer, young people don’t have the patience to wait around, they’re more into fast return. The whole economy teaches you that. Everything is about return and everything should be fast. But if you’re talking to a conservationist in architecture for example, they are very meticulous, very time consuming. My good friend, a Filipino, who is a master conservationist on scroll paintings, spent 12 years as an apprentice in Japan. So if you’re going to tell young people to come intern for 12 years, they turn their back, they have better things to do. I’m not going to go into specific projects. I think it is more important to define the philosophy.
Overall in conservation, people who are into it are more or less selfless. Those are the people that not only just feel a mission…they are obsessed. Every time I engage in a conservation project, which we have several of going right now…it is always easier to walk away from it. In the beginning I may be excited or passionate about it, but at some point when you go back three, four times the passion is going to be gone, but the commitment is there. It’s not as simple as ‘here’s a problem, lets fix it,’ I’m not a repairman.
Q: Given about what you said about the temperament of the explorer. That he or she should not be someone looking for a financial return or transactional experience, but instead one that is pursuing knowledge. How would you talk to young people who aspire to be explorers in the modern era? Do they need all the modern technology and big data to pursue their goals?
All the technology and all the ways to raise money are all just tools. As I’ve always said: you show me a three-year-old, and I’ll show you an explorer. It’s how to maintain the spirit. I don’t think there’s only one definition for an explorer. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t join the explorers club. For me it just came very natural. It’s not just about being in a club. My mom is at the age of 88 and I still don’t think she realizes what I do.
Q: What advice can you offer students who want to pursue their dreams, as you have done, in today's complex world?
Just do it and don’t listen to other people’s opinions. Most people actually hold you back rather than help you along. Even for me, its not like I have a dream and fulfill it…its just basic curiosity. If I am only exploring for myself its rather self-serving…at some point I felt we can actually do something about it. That’s why we ended up with so many conservation projects.