Su-Lin, the First Live Panda in America
As told by Quentin Young
I caught the first live panda that was seen in the Western world. After that I found something of far greater value
‘SOMEDAY,’ I thought, ‘I will do something like that, or even better than that.’ My brother had just returned from a giant panda hunt into the interior of China. He joined an expedition led by President Theodore Roosevelt’s two sons, Theodore, Jr., and Kermit. I was fourteen years old at the time and in high school in China—my brother and I are of Chinese descent, but he was born in the United States. Later, when I was twenty years old and in college in Shanghai, my brother came again to China. “I’m going into Tibet to do some hunting,” he said. “Do you want to come with me?” Did I! This was in 1934.
Because of his having been with the Roosevelt expedition, he was now able to organize his own expedition to collect rare animals for zoos and museums. The expedition was very successful. In 1935 we went on another expedition and collected many live animals and tried to shoot a giant panda, without success.
My already fulfilled boyhood dream to “do something like that, or even better than that” was to have an even greater fulfillment: A first in specimen collecting!
The key to its accomplishment was the arrival in China of Mrs. Ruth Harkness. She was a fashion designer from New York City and had been the wife of a well-known animal collector. He was the first person to bring back the giant Komodo dragon from Dutch East Indies in the South Pacific. (Dutch East Indies is now called Indonesia.) And he was confident that he would be the first to bring back the first live giant panda from China to the Western world. Instead, he caught a disease in China and died there.
Now his widow, Ruth Harkness, arrived in China to finish what her husband started—to bring a live panda back to the Western world. Everyone ridiculed her. “You can’t go. You don’t know where the pandas are. Others have tried to bring out a live panda; none of them succeeded. What makes you think you can? Lady, you’re crazy!”
But she was determined. She talked to the United States consulate. They told her, “If you want to go to the panda country you’d better look for the Young brothers.”
The next day I met with Ruth Harkness. We talked, we came to an agreement, and we began our preparations. I’d met her in the beginning of September 1936, and we left on the 26th of that month.
So we started on our trip up the Yangtze. We changed boats several times, from the 2,000- to 3,000-ton riverboat at the start to a 150-ton flat-bottom boat, and finally we even used rafts. At times, about 1,000 miles inland, coolies on the banks pulled the boat. The most spectacular part of the river trip was the famous gorges of the Yangtze. Cliffs rise straight up for over 1,000 feet.a
At Chungking we leave the Yangtze and go by car to Chengtu. But from there to Kwanhsien everyone walks except Ruth. I insisted that she ride in a sedan chair, called a wha-gar, carried by coolies. Kwanhsien is the last outpost. From there we start climbing. We no longer have the carriers. Everyone walks. Two days north to Wenchuan—the last place to get food—then a turn west into panda country.
The second day out from Wenchuan we came to Tsaopo, a small village reached only by a very difficult foot trail. Yet what is so phenomenal about these tiny villages tucked away in the mountains is that you find a junior high school and elementary schools. Some of the villagers of Tsaopo even claimed that pandas sometimes walk right into the classrooms!
We established our field headquarters in Tsaopo, in an old castle. From Tsaopo, another day’s trip farther west, I set up our base camp and set some panda traps. I left Ruth there and moved farther in and higher up, to what I called Camp 2, my camp, and set more traps. Ruth and I communicated by runners between the two camps.
But Ruth wanted more excitement. She wanted to visit my camp. It wasn’t a good place for her, but she insisted, and I went down to get her. It’s a good thing I did—she would have missed The Big Moment of the trip if I hadn’t!
The hunters were going ahead of us because it was a very difficult trail and Ruth couldn’t keep up. I was behind helping her, pushing her up. I had given orders not to shoot any pandas. First thing is to catch one alive. Only after that do we start hunting for a panda to present to the Chinese government. However, this eighty-two-year-old hunter up ahead of us saw a panda and got excited. He started shooting. A panda was wounded. It was a she. She ran away, with the hunters after her.
I came into an opening of the forest and heard whimperings, like a little puppy. I followed the source to a big hollow tree. And there, on a bed of bamboo leaves, I found it. A BABY PANDA! It was the wounded panda’s den, and the baby she had left behind. I’d never thought of catching a baby. As I picked it up I thought, ‘What’s it good for? Only a pound or so. So young its eyes aren’t open yet and its black markings are still not quite distinguishable. We have no way to feed it. It won’t live!’
Ruth Harkness came up, puffing hard, and wanted to know what the shooting was about. “Did they kill a panda?” I didn’t answer, only held out in my cupped hands the tiny ball of fur. “Here’s what you came to China for.”
She couldn’t absorb it at first. Finally, hesitantly, unbelievingly, “A baby panda?” She was breathless. She took it from me, cuddling it, cooing softly to it: “Oh, Baby, Baby.” She held it close. She was so happy. But I thought it was silly. The way she held it, the way she talked to it. “What’s it good for?” I demanded. “It’s gonna die. It’s of no use. Let’s go!”
I wanted to find out about the mother panda that had been wounded. But Ruth was totally preoccupied with the little one. “Oh, forget about that,” she said. “Let’s go back to camp.” And off she started down the trail. I could only follow, with the little panda inside my shirt.
Back at base camp she rummaged through her things, and finally pulled out a bottle with a nipple on it. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know she had brought along that! But Ruth had heard me talking to someone back in Shanghai about the problem of transporting a 300-poundb giant panda out of the interior of China, so she came prepared to care for a baby. She mixed the milk, put it into the bottle, snapped on the nipple, poked it into the baby’s mouth and it drank, greedily!
It was a dramatic moment, high up in those mountains near the Tibetan border. A historic moment, as it turned out. Ruth cuddled the baby and watched it feed. She named it Su-Lin, “auspicious and elegant.” That’s what Su-Lin means.
Shortly thereafter Ruth Harkness and Su-Lin started on their journey to the United States. They arrived in December 1936. Su-Lin was an immediate celebrity. Everywhere she went cameras flashed, reporters wrote stories, broadcasters were busy spreading her fame. Her picture graced the packages of Quaker Oats. Su-Lin, the first live giant panda ever to come into the Western world.
Unfortunately, her stay was not a long one. She remained with Ruth for several months before being presented to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. But, alas, she died at the age of one and a half years. Rather sadly, she may now be seen at the Field Museum there in Chicago, stuffed.
The following year, 1937, Ruth returned to China and I went with her again to catch another live panda. Su-Lin was still living then, and Ruth wanted a mate for her. I did get a second one—this one weighed forty pounds. It was named Diana, after the girl who later became my first wife. Later Ruth renamed the baby panda Mei Mei.
Years pass. War with Japan. I join the Chinese army, move my family to Indonesia and am jailed by the Japanese. After the Japanese surrender I reorganize the Overseas-Chinese in Indonesia and work at the Chinese consulate. But when Indonesia recognizes Communist China in 1949, we have to close down the consulate. I join the Nationalist Party and lead an Overseas-Chinese branch there and keep them loyal to Nationalist China. Because of this service I am called back to the party headquarters in 1953, now in Taiwan. I am given special academic training, sent back to Indonesia, end up in jail once more in 1958 during their leftist regime.
Not long after I was released from prison my first wife died of cancer. I raised up my two children until both of them were married and established, and by this time I had married my second wife, Swan, a Chinese born in Indonesia. Together we returned to Taiwan. That was in 1968.
Well, after all my services, sacrifice and suffering for the cause, I thought I would have a good job in Taiwan. Instead, what I heard was, “You are getting old, we need young people.”
Swan wanted to go to church to pray. “All right,” I said. “I’ll take you to church. But I know how they are.” The Protestant movement had been strong in China. I’d been with the missionaries, had been an Anglican, a Baptist, a Lutheran—I’d tried them all. I didn’t want any more of it.
The next day when we were to go, somebody knocked at our door. It was an English lady from the Taipei branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She started speaking Chinese to my Chinese wife, who understood no Chinese—only Indonesian, Dutch and English. So they talked in English. A Bible study was started in our home. When she started going to the Chinese-language meetings at the Kingdom Hall I had to go with her to translate for her.
Gradually I saw that this religion was different. They didn’t ask us for money. And even when it was raining hard, the lady came for the study. She came for a long time and never asked for anything. I was beginning to learn many things about the Bible. While my wife was studying, I got involved in a study of my own. It came about in an unusual way.
Jim Good, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was president of RCA Taiwan. He was in charge of more than seven thousand employees, president of the second-largest single foreign industry in Taiwan and naturally was well acquainted with many high government officials and ministers. His wife, Hazel, was also a Witness, and she wanted to learn Chinese. I was now working at RCA in the personnel department and editing their in-house publication. So I taught her Chinese. And she taught me what? The truths of the Bible.
I didn’t make it easy for her. I raised many difficult questions. If she couldn’t answer them she would say, “I’ll give you an answer when I come next time.” She answered all the tough questions. Some of them had to be strange ones for her. “Why doesn’t the Bible mention the Chinese?” “Why weren’t the Chinese the chosen people instead of the Jews?” “And why is the dragon so bad in Revelation?” To the Chinese it’s a sign of prosperity. Well, you can see that I made it tough for her.
After a year of studying, my wife was baptized. This was in 1970. Thereafter my aging brother, now retired from US armed forces, wanted us to come to the United States to spend our remaining years with him. I was baptized there in 1974. Differences in belief made it difficult for us to live with my brother. My wife and I moved to southern California, and we are now happily associated with a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses there.
When I was fourteen years of age and in high school, and my brother had been on his expedition with the Roosevelt brothers, I had thought, ‘Someday I will do something like that, or even better than that.’ I’m glad that I fulfilled that boyhood hope. But I rejoice far more now in another hope: The hope of living forever in a paradise earth, caring for all its plants and animals, and living with people who show love for one another and who are united in their worship of Jehovah God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
I pray that by Jehovah’s undeserved kindness I will also realize this most marvelous hope of all!
a 1 foot = .3 meter.
b 1 pound = .45 kilogram.
[Blurb on page 13]
“Others have tried to bring out a live panda; none of them succeeded. What makes you think you can?”
[Blurb on page 14]
I didn’t answer, only held out in my cupped hands the tiny ball of fur. “Here’s what you came to China for”
[Blurb on page 15]
Instead, what I heard was, “You are getting old, we need young people”
[Blurb on page 16]
I raised many difficult questions. “Why weren’t the Chinese the chosen people instead of the Jews?” “And why is the dragon so bad in Revelation?” To the Chinese it’s a sign of prosperity
[Maps on page 13]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Scout Camp No.1
Valley of Tsaopo-go
[Picture on page 14]
Su-Lin in China
[Picture on page 15]
At the zoo in Chicago