The first giant panda ever captured alive and exhibited in a zoo now sits mounted in a glass case at Chicago’s Field Museum, next to its distant evolutionary cousins, the raccoon and the lesser or red panda. It died in 1938 when it was 16 months old and never attained the size of the other two pandas on display, one of which was killed in 1929 by Kermit Roosevelt and Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., sons of the ex-president. The Roosevelts' trophy was the first giant panda shot by Westerners, which seemed a heroic feat at the time. But with the 1936 debut of the live and playfully puppylike giant panda at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, the brothers’ accomplishment was rendered almost shameful. Colonel Roosevelt met the young animal shortly after it was captured, and as he played with it, someone suggested it be displayed next to his Field Museum pandas when it died. Roosevelt snorted back, “I’d as soon think of mounting my own son as I would this baby.”
Presumably, the younger Roosevelt was never stuffed, but the baby panda was. Three and a half feet tall, it sits stiffly in a corner of the case, buff-colored and chocolate brown, its expressionless gaze masked by the distinctively clown-like patches around its eyes. Until recently, the card beside it in the case said only “Su Lin, Gift of the Brookfield Zoo.”
Two years ago, while on a kindergarten field trip to the museum, my older daughter Jessie stopped her class and her teacher in front of Su Lin and announced, “This is the panda that my father’s friend Quentin Young brought back from China.” Later when I related that boast to Quentin and his wife Swan at their home in San Diego, Swan rooted through a dresser drawer until she found a tiny metal charm in the likeness of a panda, which she presented to me and said, “You tell Jessie that this is the panda that Mrs. Quentin brought back from China for her.”
The truth is, Quentin didn’t actually bring Su Lin to Chicago. That task fell to Ruth Harkness, who had commissioned the 1936 expedition. Quentin Young embarked on a troubled odyssey from his native China to Macao, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Taiwan, St. Louis, and San Diego.
But a five-year-old could appreciate the fairy-tale simplicities of their adventure: Long ago (though not so terribly long from an adult’s point of view) a woman traveled to a distant country, and a handsome young Chinese man took her up rivers and over mountains to capture a strange and beautiful creature that no one had ever seen before. They quarreled and fell in love, sort of, and then found the mythic animal, even though everyone said they wouldn’t. And the woman triumphantly brought the animal back home and became famous, although it meant leaving her new friend behind. No one lived happily ever after.
Upon her return from China with the panda, Ruth Harkness ceased to be an obscure New York dress designer and became a famous explorer, a profession doomed to frivolity by the approaching world war. The giant panda ceased to be a mysterious species known only to a handful of zoologists and big-game hunters and became an international obsession. Su Lin was invited onto the vaudeville circuit, visited by celebrities ranging from Al Capone to John Barrymore. Within a year, there were seven other giant pandas in captivity in Chicago, New York, London, and Hanover, Germany. Within two years, three more came to Chicago and New York and St. Louis.
Quentin Young ceased to be an explorer and naturalist when the Japanese invaded China a few months after Harkness’s departure, and he reluctantly followed his older brother Jack into a career of espionage. And so in the end, the story ceased to be a fairy tale and turned modern, more like a tragic, improbable television miniseries script, full of spies and bandits and historical figures.
That a woman (a dilettante explorer) and a boy Chinaman (the pejorative of the day) had succeeded in capturing an animal that Great White Hunters had pursued for many years touched off accusations in zoological circles that Harkness and Young had stolen the baby animal from a rival American hunter named Floyd Tangier Smith. The dispute lingers today, to Quentin Young’s great distress.
Though Young was 22 at the time, he and his brother Jack, then 26, were among the more experienced naturalists in China, and they traveled through time and cultures. They were college educated ethnic Chinese, but their family had spent two generations in America — Jack was born in Hawaii — so they were neither Americans nor Chinese, yet both at once, “people adrift,” as Jack says.
Following the practical habit of the day, they chose English names to ease communication with English-speaking imperialists, who could not or would not deal with their Chinese names. Tai Jack became Jack Theodore and Ti-Lin became Quentin, both out of admiration for the Roosevelt family, whom Jack knew well. Their grandfather changed the spelling of the family name Yang to Young; coming from English lips, it was closer to the Chinese pronunciation and less grating to Chinese ears.
The brothers were dashingly handsome in their youth, a head taller than their Chinese contemporaries, wearing generous black pompadours combed straight back and well-tailored, modern suits over athletic bodies. Though they were sophisticated men living in Shanghai and New York, they moved easily into the Dark Ages of rural China of the 1930s. The sepia-tinged snapshots in Quentin’s photo albums depict village magistrates, warlords in full costume, a princess from a tiny kingdom called Kantze Sikong, vultures tearing apart human corpses in Tibetan funeral pyres, half-naked Lolo slave girls assigned to serve them, bandits he and Jack captured and delivered in chains to local authorities.
The Youngs were an enigma to the Tibetans and Lolo tribesmen who, as a matter of pride and profession, took advantage of foreigners and “downriver” Chinese. “They didn’t know what to do with us,” says Quentin. “We didn’t look like Americans, but we knew the foreign devils’ language. We ate what the foreigners ate, but what they did too — rice, salt fish, tofu.” Uncertain and intimidated, the locals helped them collect, shoot, or capture giant pandas, golden monkeys, takin, rare Chinese pheasants, and Tibetan flora for American museums or private collectors.
Today, despite their age — Quentin is 76 and Jack is 80 — they are still big and little brother, much to their frustration, still as hotheaded as in their youth. In 1934, while crossing a high Tibetan mountain pass in a blizzard, they argued so bitterly that they pulled guns on each other and would have shot if Jack’s first wife, Su Lin, for whom the panda was later named, hadn’t thrown herself between them.
Though they might not admit it, they also share the loyalties of family. “He is always my little brother,” says Jack. “I always want to take care of him — that’s what my mother told me.” Jack is smooth and spry, with a full head of gray hair and ice-water eyes behind a cordial smile and a friendly, outgoing manner.
Though they barely speak, once when Jack was asked a probing question about Quentin’s personality, to avoid answering, he smiled, reached for the telephone and said, “Let’s call him, shall we?” He dialed the number, and when Quentin answered, he handed over the receiver. End of conversation.
Jack retired from the U.S. Army with the rank of colonel. He was an intelligence specialist and spent much time behind enemy lines in China during World War II, in Korea, and in Vietnam. He lives in a rolling, woodsy suburb of St. Louis in a 100-year-old house; inside, among the artifacts of a dangerous life, he has a snow leopard skin draped over the Vietnamese furniture in his living room.
Quentin lives with his second wife, Swan, in a two-room apartment in a San Diego neighborhood close enough to Miramar Naval Air Station that occasionally Navy jets drown out conversation. He is bigger than Jack, about five feet, eleven inches, 190 pounds on a solid frame (to Jack’s five-eight or so). His hair is dark gray, well trained, still combed straight back. His eyebrows arch quizzically on a high forehead. He’s still handsome, but the fatigue of the years shows in his face and his demeanor. He’s had one stroke. He speaks of not living much longer. His voice is hypnotic, soft, almost a whisper. His English grammar is flawless, though it tends toward Oriental rhythms and cadences, unusual pauses and stresses, and interspersed yuhs, short and breathy. Then, with a surge of passion it rises: “Listen to this story!” he booms. “I don’t want it. I want to get rid of it!”
When I first became interested in Ruth Harkness, I had no idea whether Quentin Young — who figured so prominently in her book The Lady and the Panda — was alive or dead. But I hoped he was alive, partly because there are no other eyewitnesses to the tale but mostly because Harkness had painted him larger than life, virtuous and stalwart. It seemed likely that if he were alive, with his background, he would be in the United States. Harkness died in 1947, but her younger sister, Harriet Anderson, could still be tracked through obituaries and small-town librarians who read telephone listings to me over the phone. Anderson had Quentin Young’s phone number.
He seemed distressed at being found, and for several weeks, we negotiated a meeting, to no avail. Then he suffered a small stroke and, worried that he might not live long enough to tell his tale, he called me. When we met, he sized me up carefully. He is no longer the smiling and fearless young fellow in the pictures from his exploring days. His hard life shows in the progressively more somber faces in his photo albums — after his incarceration by the Japanese during World War II, after torture by Sukarno’s secret police in Indonesia, after a movie deal gone bad. Given his loyalty (or stubbornness), his moral convictions and passion, he would probably go through it again.
Quentin is a compiler. He reads most of the day — history and politics in Chinese and English — and he takes note of everything. He has been a journalist several times during his lifetime: He chronicled his adventures for English-language dailies in China before the war, edited Chinese-language newspapers in Indonesia (as a cover for espionage) and Taiwan (as a propaganda vehicle), and edited a bilingual house organ for RCA in Taiwan. He had intended to write his own life story, assembling lists and mementos, cataloguing his hundreds of photos. He quotes dates from Chinese history, names from Chinese politics, places, mountain elevations.
But as a secretive man by profession, he worries about which facts can be told and which can’t, for reasons of personal or national security or just plain discretion. His memory faltered, and he tried to get dates down on paper, but in his failing health — perhaps contributing to it — the details began to overwhelm him. He resembles the character in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Fumes the Memorious,” whose memory became so intensified by a bump on the head that he had to take to his bed so as not to risk experiencing anything new; each moment of his life took hours to recall, as he inventoried every minuscule detail.
Some people waltz through life oblivious to near catastrophes, ignorant of what others do for them; some pick up after those people and take on the responsibilities of and for the world. Quentin is one of the latter. He shepherded an inept Ruth Harkness through the wilds of Szechuan and squeaked his family through the chaos of World War II in the South Pacific. He did everything his country asked, too much, though he sometimes regrets the time it took away from his family. He has extended his trust despite bad luck and betrayals, ever more carefully, perhaps, which is why he scrutinized me so thoroughly. But then he adopted me. “You are my little brother,” he told me.
One evening my car broke down and Swan and Quentin helped me jump-start it. I forgot to call Quentin when I got to my hotel that night and went out for a beer instead. The next morning I received a message from Quentin, who had tried several times to reach me to make sure I was all right. He hadn’t slept for worrying. He was frazzled and asked if we could postpone our next meeting so he could get some sleep.
“It is because he likes you,” says Swan. “If Quentin likes someone, then he has to take care of them.” Swan calms Quentin. She is Indonesian-born, almost Polynesian in appearance but of Chinese ancestry. She didn’t learn Chinese until she was 42, when she and Quentin moved to Taiwan in 1968; they had married seven years after the death of Quentin’s first wife, Diana. Swan is a truly joyful woman; Quentin takes comfort from her, and she is the sworn keeper of the story, in case something happens to Quentin.
“Quentin has a feeling that he wont be living that long to tell everything,” she asks. “There is not a night that he doesn’t tell me about the past, about history, about his family. I ask myself if I can remember it all.”
Swan and Quentin and I would go out together in Swan’s car. She drives like a Californian, rollicking and swerving in her tiny Chevy. Quentin would ride shotgun through their community, which has only recently been carved out of a canyon, and he would half-jokingly point out landmarks, mostly American franchises. “There’s a Taco Bell, Sizzler, Pizza Hut,” he’d call out. This man who had fought through the hell and the marvel of 20th-century Asia saw these chains as modem and exotic. It was as if Indiana Jones now lived near the mall.
Quentin Young’s grandfather, Young Tak Cho, was born in 1858 in Tsui Heng, the ancestral village of Dr. Sun Yatsen in the province of Kwangtung in south China. Like many Chinese men, he migrated to San Francisco during the 19th-century gold rush, and Quentin’s father, Young Tung, was born there in 1883. Young Tak Cho moved his family to Hawaii, where his fellow villager Sun Mei, older brother and principal supporter of Sun Yatsen, owned a sugar plantation and ranch. Young Tak Cho managed the ranch and was treasurer of Dr. Sun’s revolution.
Around 1900, Young Tung, Quentin's father, returned to China to find a wife. Chen Shi, Quentin’s mother, had bound feet and was educated in traditional fashion by a tutor who sat behind a screen so that he wouldn’t see her and compromise her honor. She was a woman of substance and arrived in Hawaii with two slaves, a nursemaid, and a cook.
Quentin’s three brothers and one of his two sisters were born in Kona, and when the family left Hawaii in 1914, at the approach of World War I, Chen Shi was pregnant with Quentin. He was born on shipboard a few days out of Hong Kong, so there is no record of the event. When he applied for U.S. citizenship in 1979, he did not have a birth certificate to prove that his father had been born in the United States.
Young Tak Cho settled back in the ancestral village Tsui Heng. Young Tung went to work for a brother who was superintendent of an iron mine near Hankow, 1200 miles up the Yangtze River from the coast. The Chinese lost the mine to the Twenty-one Japanese Demands of 1915, so Young Tung opened an automotive supply store to service American cars.
In Quentin’s earliest memories, he tied colored strings on dragonflies and released them so they trailed streamers as they flew. When he was two or three years old, he ventured too near a pond while dragonfly hunting and slipped in. Fortunately, a neighbor passing thought he saw a dead pig submerged in the water and pulled out the unconscious child.
In 1926, Young Tung closed his automotive business. Chiang Kai-shek’s armies had routed the warlords who controlled central China, and as they retreated through Hankow, they cleaned out Young Tung’s inventory, paying with worthless money they had printed themselves. Young Tung took his family home to south China. Quentin had attended English-language missionary and YMCA schools until that time, but there were no schools for him in Tsui Heng. When he was 16, his father sent him to a government institution where he took a short course to become a school teacher, and then he returned to the ancestral village to teach mathematics, physical education, English, and Mandarin Chinese (the local dialect was Cantonese) to students older than he.
Neither Quentin nor Jack ever speaks of their sisters. The first two sons of the family were substantially older than they and absent for most of their lives. Albert, 12 years older than Quentin, had estranged his parents by repeatedly inviting his friends to dine at local restaurants and having the bills sent to his mother. When he was 15, his parents shipped him to San Francisco to live with relatives. He was both a free-lance writer and gourmet cook and became houseboy to the writer Dorothy Parker. When he and Jack and Quentin were old men and reunited in the United States, he would point to passages in her work that he claimed to have written while Parker was drunk and on deadline. Albert died in 1981 of a heart attack while on a winning streak at the gambling tables in Reno.
The second brother, Sun, who was born in 1907, received a master’s degree in political science from Georgetown University. He returned to China hoping for a career in diplomacy but was only offered a lowly position in a South American consulate, which he felt was beneath him. He married the niece of a warlord who helped him get a professorship in a local university. When the warlord fell, Sun lost his job. As a member of the Liberal Party, he was on the wrong side of both the Communists and the Kuomintang. Quentin last saw him in Macao in 1938; he received a letter from him in the early 1950s, postmarked Hong Kong, but when Quentin later tried to find him there, he had disappeared, presumably done in by one side or the other.
The family boiled down to Jack and Quentin — precocious, Americanized children of some social position. They grew up in Western enclaves among the diplomats and the administrators of the foreign concessions left over from the Boxer Rebellion. Unlike their Chinese contemporaries, they had guitars and BB guns and Western-style clothing they ordered from Montgomery Ward catalogues, their link to America. As high school students, they spent summers camping in the province of Sikong, 700 miles to the west. On their return trips home to Hankow, they floated back down the Yangtze River.
Knowing the Sikong countryside was their gratuitous entree into careers as explorers and naturalists. Jack had received a scholarship from the Chinese government to study journalism at New York University. He worked part-time at the Chinese legation in New York to pay his living expenses. There he met Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who visited the legation to obtain travel permits for the William V. Kelley-Roosevelts Eastern Asia Expedition for the Field Museum. Jack, then 19, boasted of his familiarity with their proposed destination and asked to come along in some capacity.
On October 4, 1928, Kermit Roosevelt sent a telegram to Dr. S.C. Simms, curator at the Field Museum, saying, “Young Chinaman who although American born has spent all his life in China and has been in Yunnan and Szechuan is most anxious join expedition as interpreter and ready to do any sort of work to justify his going.” Then he asked the museum to put Jack through a two-week primer on preparing specimens. Kermit also mentioned in his telegram that Jack came highly recommended by the head of the Chinese legation.
Simms wired back: “Doubt if Chinaman can be trained in two weeks to be of value to the expedition” other than as an interpreter, but he suggested Jack go along if it seemed politically expedient to respect the legation’s recommendation.
Jack Young arrived in Chicago on October 11 and quickly charmed his museum mentors, but his schooling was brief. On October 31, he sailed from New York, en route to Bombay and Rangoon, listed as attendant to a shipment of 565 mules.
On the day after Christmas 1928, the expedition left Rangoon in a 50-mule caravan through Burmese rain forests and over 16,000-foot-high passes in the mountains bordering Tibet. At night the cold was so intense that the mules fled to lower altitudes and had to be rounded up in the morning. Bandits, the dispossessed soldiers of the Communist or warlord armies, took potshots at the coolies and mule drivers. In isolated backwater villages, they encountered long-haired Tibetans who resembled American Plains Indians, Lolo tribesmen with cantaloupe-sized goiters hanging from their necks; French missionaries playing tennis in their ankle-length, black clerical robes. Jack figures respectably in the Roosevelts’ 1929 account of the expedition, Trailing the Giant Panda; in its photos and in film footage of the trip now in the Field Museum archives, he looks handsome and modern next to the rather walleyed Roosevelts with their Smith Brothers beards.
Whenever the caravan camped, Jack set a line of traps to collect shrews and other small mammals. When they quit the trail at about four each afternoon, he’d skin and measure the animals that had been trapped or shot the day before. The smaller animals could be preserved in jars of Formalin; the larger ones were skinned, their skulls and leg bones saved, their skins rubbed with salt to extract moisture and rolled up tightly for several days, after which they were hung to dry.
The Roosevelts were eager to shoot giant pandas, and so the expedition split. Jack stayed with Suydam Cutting, a wealthy New Yorker, an adventurer by avocation, to go about the mundane business of collecting while Kermit and Colonel Roosevelt pushed ahead, asking villagers and local hunters what they knew of beishung, the white bear, as the Chinese called the giant panda. Most often the natives made up stories, if they understood at all. The Roosevelts, like most Westerners, knew little more.
In 1869 a French missionary, Abbe Armand David, had obtained four black-and-white panda skins from Szechuanese hunters, and he sent them to the Natural History Museum of Paris. By the late 19th Century, half a dozen skins had reached Western Europe, and naturalists debated whether the animal was a bear or a raccoon or just a hoax. But there were no sightings of live pandas by Westerners until 1916, when, according to rumor, a German animal trainer named Hugo Weigold bought a live giant panda from hunters. The animal died before Weigold could get it out of the mountains.
On April 13, 1929, just north of the village of Tachow, the Roosevelts sighted a giant panda emerging from a hollow spruce tree on a snow-covered mountainside, shaking off sleep and fleeing toward a bamboo thicket. They shot simultaneously, or so they claimed, and brought the animal down. (Quentin Young dismisses their claim saying, “How could they both shoot at once? Panda move very quickly, and the forest is very thick. You see a flash of black and white, and you shoot.”)
The Roosevelts bought four other panda skins from local hunters, and one of those also ended up in the Field Museum diorama. By journey’s end, they had walked 1000 miles in seven months and had collected 12,633 specimens, including red panda, water buffalo, serow, bharal sheep, sambar, boar, and golden monkeys.
Jack wrote about his adventures for the China Weekly Review, an English-language newspaper in Shanghai. He was $2000 to $3000 richer for his travels and convinced he should be a naturalist. In a 1929 letter to the Field Museum, Jack wrote that he was leaving NYU because he had been accepted into a zoology program at the University of Chicago, and he asked for a job at the museum to work his way through. The museum turned him down because of Depression budget constraints. Jack stayed at NYU, but he had already established his credentials as an explorer.
When the Roosevelts’ book was published, one of its maps depicted a Mt. Koonka, south of Tatsienlu, and guessed its elevation as 30,000 feet. If it were that high, it would be the tallest peak on Earth. Jack and three Ivy Leaguers he’d met at the Explorers Club in New York — Terris Moore, Richard Burdsall, and Arthur Emmons III — wangled money and equipment from the American Geographical Society and formed an expedition to scale the peak, also known as Minya Konka, and accurately determine its elevation. Colonel Roosevelt, who had finished a term as governor of Puerto Rico and was then governor of the Philippines, cut the red tape of obtaining permits, and the expedition landed in Shanghai in January 1932.
On January 28, two weeks after the explorers’ arrival, the Japanese bombed Shanghai in a punitive attack for anti-Japanese boycotts in China. Jack Young disappeared immediately to fight with the Chinese defense forces; the three Americans were drafted to defend the American district of the city, in case the invading forces reached that far. Late on the third night, Moore recalled in the account of that expedition, Men Against the Clouds, that as he walked guard duty, he heard a familiar voice in the darkness. It was Jack Young asking for ammunition, which Moore gave to him, hoping he wouldn’t have to account for it, since the Americans never had to do any shooting. Jack fled back into the night to return to the fighting. Moore speculated on the damage his shells could do in the rifle of an experienced big-game hunter.
In June the expedition started in earnest. Emmons and Burdsall formed an advance party to Tatsienlu on the Tibetan border. (Generally, references to Tibet in this period have less to do with political borders than with the predominance of Tibetan peoples. Tatsienlu was in the province of Sikong, which has since been absorbed into Szechuan.) They established the first of their camps at the base of Minya Konka and took preliminary surveys of the mountain.
Moore and Jack Young followed some weeks behind. One night as they slept, a group of soldiers (whether they belong to the Communists or to some warlord was never elaborated) stole one of their horses. Jack organized a posse and overtook the soldiers, firing shots over their heads. He recovered the horse and turned over the villains to the magistrate, much to Moore’s delight.
Moore and Burdsall reached the summit of Minya Konka without oxygen and without porters and found its elevation to be only 24,900 feet. (Later, Jack claimed to be the last Chinese Army officer to leave Nanking when it fell to the Japanese in December 1937; one of his last acts was to go to the Academia Sinica, the Chinese National Museum, to rescue the Nationalist Chinese flag they had planted on the summit of Minya Konka.)
Jack climbed to staging camps at 20,000 feet. His principal mission was to shoot animals for Chinese museums as a payback for permission to carry out the expedition. When he returned to New York in 1933, he brought with him a giant panda skin, complete with skull and leg bones, and offered it to the American Museum of Natural History for the price of $100. He had a letter of introduction from Kermit Roosevelt; he dropped Suydam Cutting’s name; he suggested the museum ask Dean Sage, a wealthy patron and later a successful panda hunter himself, for the money. The museum bought the animal, and Jack wrote another line in his resume as big-game hunter, naturalist, and explorer.
Professionally, these titles carried more glamour than promise of financial success. The prominent collectors were idle rich with the time and money for long cruises and extended sojourns in exotic locales. Foreign travel was a years-long proposition, not the middle-class conversation piece it is today.
During this time, Jack was living on a shoestring, collecting for several museums and zoos on speculation, hoping that altogether he’d come out ahead. The museums, for their part, made excuses and vague promises of remuneration. A note in the American Museum files mentions a payment to Jack of $17 for 67 rare fish to be added to the museum’s collection, which could hardly equal the cost of shipping them from China. Records of the New York Zoological Park indicate that Jack had to bargain fiercely to get a fair price for a pair of live Tibetan bear cubs he’d sold to the Bronx Zoo.
But the Sages and the Cuttings also financed the expeditions of others, and in 1934, Suydam Cutting donated money to send Jack back to Sikong to collect Tibetan plants and mammals. Jack invited Quentin, who was just 20 and a physical education student at East Asia Junior College in Shanghai.
Quentin had saved money from his teaching job to go to college, then found he had calculated incorrectly and didn’t have nearly enough. His girlfriend Diana Chen, who came from a rich Chinese family in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), was a well-known track star in China, training for the 1936 Olympics, and she had earned a full athletic scholarship that she never told her family about. Instead, she gave the money they sent to Quentin so he could stay in school. Quentin was not proud of being supported by a girlfriend, and he jumped at the chance to make money working with Jack. Besides, he enjoyed camping and hunting, and he hoped that some of Jack’s status and notoriety would rub off on him.
Jack also brought his new wife, Su Lin, a college-educated Chinese American from New York; the expedition was their honeymoon. The English-language Peiping (Peking) Chronicle published a photograph of the striking threesome in jodhpurs and calf-high boots: Quentin had a full head of hair and a stoic half smile; Jack, referred to in the accompanying story as “the intrepid Hawaii-born Chinese explorer,” was beaming broadly. Su Lin stood between them, barely as high as Quentin’s shoulder, looking cute as a modern co-ed.
They walked ten days from Kiating to Tatsienlu with 10 to 15 coolies, stayed in villages as high as 14,000 feet, negotiated passes so narrow they had to remove the packs from the horses to fit through. In skin boats, they crossed the raging Yangtze where it cut narrow hairpin channels through the mountains. “When you go there,” Jack said, “you either come back or you don’t. We never thought about it.”
Su Lin shot a bear and once astonished the natives by swimming in a stream. “At times the wives of the Chinese magistrates, at whose houses we usually stopped whenever possible, would flee upon sight of me,” she told the Peiping Chronicle. “Evidently I appeared to them some wild Tibetan woman, except that, in addition, I wore riding breeches and carried a rifle.”
They were climbing a high mountain pass through a blizzard at dusk, through snow so deep that a horse foundered and they had to dig it out. Jack asked Quentin to go ahead with some of the coolies to set up camp. Because of the storm, they couldn’t reach the top of the pass before darkness set in. They had barely begun to gather fuel and set up the tent when Jack arrived and took Quentin to task for not having finished the job.
They argued. Quentin listened to the tirade and then said, “I’m not going to do it unless we all do it.” And Jack answered, “Go home. I don’t need you anymore,” which made Quentin lose his temper. He drew his .38 Colt revolver. Jack had a .45 automatic, and he said to Quentin, “Don’t use that, otherwise I’m going to kill you.” Su Lin stood between them until they came to their senses. “If you want to fight,” she said, “I am here.”
“Nobody said anything later” Quentin recalls. “We went about setting up the tent, but we didn’t talk for days. Then Jack knew: This little kid brother of mine is grown up, and I can’t fool him anymore. He always kept his dignity, but he didn’t [order me around] anymore. I knew I should listen to him, but he wouldn’t go too far. After that it was okay.”
In ten months, they collected 1000 animals — tufted deer, serow, Tibetan brown bear, a civet cat, a musk deer, a Tibetan vulture shot off a funeral pyre — and 3000 plants, which they sent to the American Museum. Jack asked for $300 for the collection, though he claimed he had spent $3000 on the expedition. The museum balked at the sum. A takin that Quentin shot went to the Field Museum; they shot snow leopards. Of the animals they brought back alive, two white-eared pheasants found their way to a San Francisco private collector, F.E. Booth, of the Booth Fisheries, who financed Jack and Quentin’s next joint venture.
In Booth’s behalf, the brothers trekked again to Tatsienlu and into the Tibetan borderland. It was not an uneventful mission. “Once in a while, we’d run into some Tibetans in a big caravan,” says Jack. “They’d size us up, we’d size them up in the middle of nowhere. We always had the drop on them because of our superior armament. We had automatic weapons. All you had to do is fire a few rounds, and they’d run like hell.”
Late one night, five bandits snuck into camp brandishing swords. “I don’t know why the dog didn’t bark,” Quentin says. “They must have given him something. There was a light. I saw one of them and fired a shot. Jack woke up, the cook woke up, everybody woke up, and we scared them off. The cook [because he spoke the local dialect] shouted, ‘Don’t run away. We saw you and we’re going to kill you. You stay where you are.’ Three stood still. We tied them up, and the cook watched them with the shotgun until daybreak. We chained them up and threw them in jail with others from the same gang.” In one of Quentin’s photographs the bandits stand shamefaced, tied together by their necks, outside the magistrate’s office.
Jack recalls that often they’d ask the local magistrates for safe passage. The magistrate would then send his men into the villages to take hostages and hold them in jail as insurance until the travelers had safely finished their business.
The Sikong expedition snared several dozen birds, which were then caged in woven baskets padded with cotton because the birds were so wild they would beat themselves to death against the sides of cages. On the journey out of the mountains, Jack stowed half of the birds beneath an iron bridge in the village of Lutingkiao and left coolies to watch them. The area was full of bandies, and the Long March, the Communist Army’s escape from Chiang, was passing through the district. When Jack returned for the rest of his birds two weeks later, he found nothing but the bones left from somebody’s feast, and he assumed he’d fed the Communists.
Of the remaining 30 birds, 19 survived the trip to Shanghai. Nine lived through the crossing to San Francisco, and one survived until mating season and reproduced. And with that, the expedition was a triumph.
Ruth Harkness, in pursuit of giant pandas, reached Shanghai in May 1936 and wrestled half-heartedly with Chinese red tape, dysentery, and her own existential doubts until the late-August afternoon that she received a telephone call from Jack Young. Arthur Sowerby, editor of the China Journal, had asked Jack to contact her. Sowerby had sensed Harkness’s determination to carry out her panda-hunting mission and also saw that the task was beyond her abilities and experience. So Jack and Ruth met in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, where Harkness was staying. She was quite taken with both brothers, and her appraisals ring true.
Jack, as Harkness described him, was “a slim, wiry young man, whose black eyes sparkled, and whose whole frame seemed to vibrate when he talked of the snow-capped mountains that lie range on range west of Chengtu, rising to meet the high Tibetan plateaus.” Jack was already committed to an expedition in Burma that hoped to scale Nanda Devi, and so he suggested that Harkness talk to Quentin and arranged a meeting.
Quentin she described as “the tallest Chinese lad I have ever seen ... just under six feet tall [with a] rather slouchy, long-legged stride.... Quentin, in contrast to his brother’s nervous, quick speech and movements, his bubbling enthusiasm, was shy and quiet.” But once the three agreed to go hunting together (more than money, Quentin wanted to shoot a giant panda for the Academia Sinica), Harkness became even more impressed with Quentin’s meticulous organizing skills as he prepared for their long journey to the interior.
Ruth Harkness had come to her mission through a peculiar history of impulsive decisions. She was a small woman, just five feet four inches tall, with long black hair that she never cut but wound around her head or wrapped in a turban. She was not a beauty — in photographs she has a rather long and pinched face — but she had a dramatic flair, a sophisticated charm, and an eye for clothing, all of which gave her a striking presence. “We always thought of her as dashing Aunt Ruth,” her niece Jane Jones recalls, and so it was no surprise to the family that she should go to China and come back with a baby giant panda.
She was born Ruth McCombs in 1901 in the western Pennsylvania town of Titusville, which one of her ancestors had founded shortly after the American Revolution. Her father was a carpenter. Her mother, a stern woman, probably lost patience with a strong-willed daughter who liked to scandalize the family by skinny-dipping in the creek.
“When she got in trouble, she could look so helpless’’ says her younger sister, Harriet Anderson, who still lives near Titusville. “She wasn’t helpless at all, but she would get people to help her that way.”
Because the family was not well off, Ruth took a factory job in Erie to earn money for college, then enrolled at the University of Colorado. But she disliked the small-minded social system of fraternities that dominated university life and fled to Cuba to teach English.
In 1925, Ruth McCombs moved to New York, where she worked as a stylist and fashion advisor for a number of retail shops in Manhattan; in 1929, she turned to designing clothes. She had been a friend of William Harvest Harkness, Jr., for about ten years, when on impulse they went to city hall and were married. “I don’t think there was anything romantic about it,” her niece recalls, “but it was just what I would expect of her.”
Bill Harkness was a small man with slicked-back blond hair and a mustache, an Ivy Leaguer with no profession and enough money to devote himself to adventures.
In May 1934, he had returned from the Komodo Islands in the Dutch East Indies with three Komodo dragons, or monitor lizards, which he sold to the Bronx and Washington zoos.
Thirteen days after his marriage, Bill Harkness sailed for China to capture giant pandas. Ruth asked to accompany him — perhaps that was her sudden motive for matrimony — but was told that women were a hindrance on an expedition. This dismissal might have influenced her decision to continue the hunt after he failed.
When they first talked of the panda expedition, Ruth thought Bill had said panther. “In common with most of the world, I had never heard of a Giant Panda,” she wrote, and in the Eastern accent of the day, it would likely be pronounced “pandar.” Indeed, after the Roosevelts shot their specimen in 1929, they sent a telegram with that spelling to the Field Museum: “Jointly, shot splendid old pandar.”
Since the Roosevelt expedition, three giant pandas had been shot by Westerners, one by Dean Sage in behalf of the American Museum (he and his co-adventurer, William Sheldon, had also fired simultaneously, or so they reported), one by the American Brooke Dolan for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and a third by a German named Ernst Schaefer. Schaefer’s was a baby that he spotted in a tree, and though he had an unprecedented opportunity to capture it alive, he chose instead to blast it from its perch. In her book The Lady and the Panda, Ruth Harkness also wrote that Jack Young had shot a panda for the Royal Asiatic Society Museum in Shanghai before her 1936 trip, which of course didn’t seem to count in the rather imperialistic world of naturalists, since Jack was not a Westerner. But Ruth might have had her dates confused; other records indicate that Jack shot a giant panda in 1937, which would have been after her trip but before the publication of her book. Years earlier Jack had sold the panda skin he’d bought to the American Museum before Sage’s kill, and though Jack’s proved to be a better specimen, Sage’s made for better news copy.
Sage was still in China when Bill Harkness and his four adventuresome companions arrived. In a letter to the American Museum, he referred somewhat sarcastically to “their modest ambition ... to capture eight giant pandas alive.” The response from the museum curator, who knew Harkness, was that Harkness and his “sidekick [Lawrence Griswold] ... seemed to be fairly reasonable in their plans and expectations. Whether one can really bring out giant panda alive, of course, is a questionable matter, and probably the press has played up the expedition on extravagant terms.”
The Chinese government refused to grant travel permits to Bill Harkness and company for several months, and when they did, the expedition was turned back at Kiating because of Communist activity in Szechuan. Harkness dropped from sight. Historical accounts have described him as an “all-American boy”; in fact, he was something of an alcoholic binger. In an April 1935 letter to the American Museum, Jack Young reported:
Remember Harkness and Griswold? Well, the Chinese authority refused them permission and for awhile Harkness disappeared completely — even Griswold couldn’t find him and no reason accounted for. The American consulate got all hot and bothered. Finally, after three weeks of searching, they, with the help of the settlement detective force, located him in the Palace Hotel under an assumed name. Before his discovery, news of his disappearance reached Harkness’ wife in New York. She thought he was kidnapped by the Chinese bandits. She went to the State Department — so the story goes — to demand them to protest to the Chinese Government. While all this was going on, Harkness was probably polishing the floor at some local joint with some blonde Russian girlfriend. Anyway, he told Consul Cunningham that since permission for his expedition was refused, he wants to enjoy life and doesn’t want to be bothered. Just now, F.T. Smith and he are joining up and plan to go upriver after the dozen of live pandas together. What next — Heaven knows!
Apparently, neither the authorities nor the established naturalists took Harkness seriously. His associates dropped out of the expedition, each for his own reason, and so he became partner in bad luck with Floyd Tangier Smith.
Smith came from a prominent Long Island family, studied at Bowdoin College, and spent part of his childhood in Japan. He worked for the American Oriental Banking Company in Shanghai but gave up his banking career to collect animals for the Field Museum. By the end of 1932, as head of the Marshall Field Chinese Expedition, he had collected 3081 mammal skins and skulls, 1489 birds, 1177 frogs and lizards, 15 turtles, 836 fishes, and 101 invertebrates. He also provided live Chinese pheasants for the Bronx Zoo and had contacts with most major museums and zoos.
Smith kept a network of local hunters on retainer in the mountains northwest of Chengdu, though he himself probably did no hunting or trapping. His relationship with the Field Museum was shaky; he was plagued with mishaps, and hi$ correspondence with the museum is full of his disdain for the ^ Chinese, his problems with * bureaucrats, the incompetence of his assistants. His own incompetence apparently showed through the blame-laying, because the Field Museum terminated his expedition and cut him loose to collect on a free-lance basis. Nor was his collecting profitable; one accession slip at the museum shows that for a 1932 shipment of 1449 specimens, including a giant panda skin he had bought and seven takins, which are still on display at the museum, he received only $2800, less than $2 per specimen. So when Bill Harkness came to China, Smith was only too happy to attach himself to his financial resources.
In May, Smith obtained permission for them to travel, but they postponed the trip because Harkness had medical problems. Smith headed upriver toward Chengdu alone; Harkness followed later by airplane but took ill and in late September returned to Shanghai. His doctor ordered him into the hospital for an operation, and on the day of his admittance he disappeared again, this time for five weeks. A rattled Smith consulted the doctor and learned that Bill Harkness had a potentially fatal throat cancer, so he alerted the settlement police and posted himself outside Harkness’s bank, where he correctly assumed Harkness would come, sooner or later, to withdraw money. He was “not dissipating or behaving in any way that did not appear to be normal but had merely been moving from one hotel to another, continually reading one book after another day after day,” Smith wrote in Harkness’s defense to the Field Museum, though it was unclear exactly whose honor he was so unconvincingly defending.
Harkness seemed to recover sufficiently to continue the panda hunt, so Smith sailed for Chungking. When he got there, he learned that Harkness had undergone emergency stomach surgery and had died on the operating table on February 16, 1936.
Back in New York, Ruth Harkness received a terse telegram saying her husband had died and asking if she wanted him sealed in a casket for $850 or cremated for $100. She chose cremation and booked passage to Shanghai. As she later told the New York Times, “I inherited an expedition, and what else could I do?”
Poor, flustered Floyd Smith was recovering from malaria and from the emotional trauma Bill Harkness put him through when Ruth Harkness materialized to announce that she was going panda hunting. At first he assumed she would give him autonomy over the expedition and the money and allow him to follow his own course. Ruth Harkness was not interested in collecting a range of species for a range of institutions, however, which was Smith’s (and every other naturalist’s) method of operation. Furthermore, she intended to take part in the expedition.
Smith reported to the Field Museum that “plans for the moment are completely at loose ends as the widow of Mr. Harkness, who wished me to carry on with the original expedition had ideas that were completely impractical from my point of view (and from hers too if she did but know it) and any continuance of that activity had to be abandoned....”
Ruth Harkness did not like Smith. Quentin Young said she felt he had somehow been responsible for her husband’s demise. With thinly veiled sarcasm, she always referred to him in her book as “Zoology Jones.” She admitted that he was colorful, and she enjoyed the yams he told, though she described him as “a boy of 55 or 60 [he was 54], a soldier of fortune, with adventure and success always just around the comer.”
Jack Young had met Smith once and found him to be personable but suspects that he tangled with Ruth Harkness because he had tried to sell off Bill’s equipment and supplies to maintain his own lifestyle as a Great White Hunter, which included a cook and houseboy. Quentin never met Smith, claiming that Smith avoided him on several occasions.
It’s unclear whether Jack took Ruth Harkness any more seriously than he had taken her husband, but he graciously invited her to his home to help her and Quentin plan their expedition. Harkness was encouraged when she met a very petite and feminine Su Lin Young. When Jack and Quentin asked if she’d be able to stand the fleas and bedbugs at public inns they’d stay in, Harkness pointed to Su Lin and said, “If she could do it, then I can do it.”
Ruth Harkness believed that she was avoiding the red tape that Bill had encountered — at least that was her intention — but Quentin and Jack arranged that Quentin would deliver a panda skin to the Academia Sinica. Harkness smiled at Quentin’s selfless passions and his nationalism, that he wanted to shoot a panda for the glory of China, to show that a Chinese was just as capable as any Westerner. He disliked foreigners; after all, he had seen a sign in a Shanghai park that read, “No dogs or Chinese allowed.”
If Smith thought it foolish that she’d rather put her trust in a 22-year-old Chinese, Harkness had the sense to realize that she needed someone who spoke several Chinese dialects and knew the culture as well as the terrain. Jack’s and Quentin’s successes hinged on their low profiles and on their knowledge of traps and skinning — the Great White Hunters left all that to coolies and local hunters. Smith, on the other hand, with his colonial arrogance, was easy prey for every magistrate and petty bureaucrat looking to extort all manner of bribes, from toilet seats to silk stockings. Harkness, furthermore, recognized Smith’s colonial racism and wrote that she had seen enough of foreigners in China that she didn’t want to work with one.
Besides, she was impressed with Quentin’s quiet efficiency. “The longer I know the lad,” she wrote, “the greater the possibility seemed to me, that one day he would do something really great for China. His management of things for me had been nothing short of remarkable in one so young and supposedly inexperienced in organization; it will not be a matter of surprise to me if Quentin is some day one of the men with the power and thoughtful intelligence to help in the shaping of his country’s destiny.” Ruth Harkness was falling in love.
On September 26, 1936, Ruth and Quentin boarded a Standard Oil steamer for the 1500-mile trip up the Yangtze River to Chungking. They planned to travel to Tatsienlu, where Quentin had contacts, but Ruth needed to detour north to Chengdu to recover one of her husband’s supply caches. They changed craft several times as the river narrowed, and they finally reached Chungking on October 11, then motored 300 miles to Chengdu in a car provided by Standard Oil.
Their contact in Chengdu was an Italian postal commissioner named E.A. Cavaliere. (Foreigners controlled the mails and other services usually maintained by national governments as one of the concessions after the Boxer Rebellion.) They stayed five days in his home, where Ruth hobnobbed with foreign dignitaries, to Quentin’s relief, because it gave him time away from her constant needs.
To Quentin’s dismay, Cavaliere rearranged their trip. His agents had reported panda sightings near the village of Tsaopo, where Smith operated. Quentin was annoyed, because he’d have to establish new contacts and work with hunters he didn't know. But he was being paid, so he stoically agreed. They left Chengdu on October 16 in a caravan of 16 coolies and a fat cook named Wang. Harkness rode a wha-gar, a seat suspended from poles carried on the shoulders of two coolies.
Almost immediately, they discovered that many of their coolies were opium addicts. Some ran away as soon as they got paid enough to buy their smokes. When they reached the mountains, Quentin gave up trying to discourage them and instead allowed them to smoke so they could better withstand the difficult climb. One night in an inn, Ruth sampled the drug herself, despite Quentin’s protests. After that it made no sense to discipline the coolies.
Quentin carried a rifle at all times to bully and cajole the recalcitrant coolies, and he urged Ruth to carry a gun as/well, but she refused. On the third day, a contingent of soldiers chasing bandits passed the caravan. A short distance down the road, they caught up with the bandits, engaged them in a gun battle, and killed one of them. When Harkness counted the bullet holes in the dead man’s face, she decided to carry a revolver after all.
The next day, another squad overtook the expedition, sent by the local government as their escort into the mountains. They slept at local inns with paper windows and no doors, rooms crawling with lice. They fought off late-night bandit raids. While they camped in a cave with eight Chinese and Tibetan hunters, Harkness awoke one night to find one’s “flea-ridden head resting comfortably in the middle of my stomach.”
In Wenchuan, a hunter named Wang approached them to offer his services. He was on Smith’s payroll — funded with Bill Harkness’s money — and they turned him away for a wrinkled, ancient Tibetan hunter named Lao Tsang. When Ruth asked Quentin how old he thought Lao Tsang was, he responded, “At least Ming Dynasty.”
Next stop, Tsaopo, a village of 45 to 50 dirt farmers and herb diggers who also hired out as hunters to the various expeditions that came through. They had little use for pandas themselves — the meat was too rubbery to eat, though the pelts made good mattresses — and they were amused that foreigners were so interested in them, but they were willing to go along with the joke.
Quentin set up Ruth’s cot in a deserted lamasery while he scouted the terrain and established camps in the forest. It was also a chance to get away from her. Harkness demanded constant attention. She questioned the quiet young man mercilessly about minor details of their travels, about culture, and about things he felt a stranger should never ask. Of course, she was writing a book; she would type into the night, and only later, when he read The Lady and the Panda, did he realize the breadth of what she saw and felt about China. “I wish I had told her more,” he now says.
She drank heavily, and when she was drunk, the porters would ask Quentin to take care of her. They called her “Yang Tai Tai,” which in Mandarin means “Mrs. Foreigner”; and since Quentin’s family name was Yang (with a different inflection), it led to confusion among the coolies as to whether they were married. Somewhere along the trail, they began sleeping together. Quentin claims he was uncomfortable with the relationship, since he had a conservative steady girlfriend in Shanghai. Ah, but Harkness was the boss, the trail was long, and Quentin was pliant.
Harkness was 35, Quentin 22, and even though he had been educated in American schools, the cultural gap was great. “She was not my race,” he says. “I did not like her looks, her turbans. I would ask her age. ‘You’re not supposed to ask that,’ she’d say.” Quentin lowered his voice to imitate Ruth Harkness. “ ‘I’m your big sister.’ ” Then he softened: “Who knows? If I did not have my girlfriend in Shanghai, I might have followed her back to America.” But then he found a portrait he’d taken of himself standing next to his tent, serious, staring into the distance in a pose reminiscent of a superhero. A Nationalist Chinese flag flies from one tent pole, and Diana’s name is written in the snow across the top of the tent.
Ruth was delighted when Quentin returned from the camps. She would now have someone to speak English to, and she had run out of cigarettes; so she smoked his and all of his pipe tobacco as well, rolled up in toilet paper. Then he took her into the hunting grounds.
Jack Young has said that “panda country looks like a Chinese landscape painting — all mists and bamboo and jagged mountains.” Ruth later described it as “a beautiful forgotten world crisscrossed with deep ravines and perpendicular cliffs.” Rhododendrons grew to 30 and 40 feet, and bamboo tangled beneath a high conifer ceiling. Ruth Harkness was enchanted. She was also a burden.
Quentin tried to get her to stay in camp, but she insisted on following him up rocky trails through bamboo thickets. Once she lost her pants to bamboo thorns, and Quentin covered her with his shirt. He sought out the most difficult trails hoping to discourage her, but “she stuck to it like a leech.” And if he was annoyed at being held back, he also had to admire her persistence. Though she was inexperienced, she never complained.
On November 19, as they were climbing through a snow-covered bamboo forest at 12,000 feet, they heard shots and shouts of beishung — panda. Quentin had given the hunters strict orders not to fire if they sighted giant panda. He charged, raging up the hill after them, but when he realized he had left Harkness far behind, he stopped in a clearing and called down to her. Then he heard a baby’s cry from a hollow tree. Ruth reached the clearing in time to see him pull a handful of black-and-white fur from the upside-down V of the panda den. It weighed less than three pounds and had not yet opened its eyes. Harkness took it from him, and instinctively it went for her breast. In her pack she had a baby bottle, something Quentin had never thought to bring.
Quentin assumed they’d leave the baby in the tree, because he was sure it would die without its mother. He had come for an adult panda and would lose face if he returned with one that weighed 3 and not 300 pounds. Ruth was enchanted with the cub and insisted they take it. Quentin cradled it inside his shirt, and they slid downhill to camp on the seats of their pants.
The hunters had sighted an adult, presumably the cub’s mother, and claimed the adult had escaped them. But Quentin believes they killed it and ate it and sold the pelt. Harkness named the cub after Jack Young’s wife, Su Lin, which means “a little bit of something very cute.” The hunters estimated that it was about ten days old; it was probably closer to three weeks, as giant pandas are born hairless — Su Lin had a furry coat — but their eyes stay closed until they are almost a month old.
That night the hunters sacrificed a rooster to thank their god for a successful hunt. Harkness buried her husband’s ashes beneath a rhododendron tree, and Quentin planted a slender bamboo stalk on the grave. Back in Wenchuan, on their way home, Smith’s man Wang held a feast in Ruth and Quentin’s honor. But they suspected Wang might incite soldiers to detain them, since their catch would cause him to lose face with Smith. So they slipped away in the middle of the celebration and hurried to Chengdu.
Quentin deposited Harkness in Chengdu and returned to Tsaopo to shoot his panda for China. As a last tender gesture, she presented him with her wedding ring and asked that he give it to Diana. Then she boarded a plane for Shanghai.
Harkness basked in celebrity at the Palace Hotel, coddling her prize anthropomorphically and entertaining the press until her voice gave out. Then, as she boarded an ocean liner on November 27, Chinese customs officials stopped her and confiscated Su Lin. Harkness contacted everyone she knew in Shanghai and camped in the customs shed to feed her baby. Finally, although Chinese authorities did not want the first of the species in captivity to leave China, they realized that the country had no means to care for it. Harkness was allowed to sail on December 2, bearing a customs voucher for “One dog $20.00.” She locked herself in her cabin just to be certain nothing else went wrong. Before the ship sailed, an overzealous customs officer stopped a woman boarding with a poodle and argued with her until half-convinced that her animal was not another panda.
Harkness and Su Lin arrived in San Francisco on December 18. They traveled east by railroad, though the airlines competed with each other to transport the panda. When the train stopped in Chicago, Edward Bean, the director of the Brookfield Zoo, and his son Robert, who was curator of mammals, tried to persuade her to leave the animal with them. Harkness intended to present it instead to the Bronx Zoo. She reached New York on December 23 and installed it in her apartment at the Algonquin Hotel, opening all the windows to let in the winter air and better simulate the Szechuan climate for Su Lin.
Harkness gave press conferences, and Su Lin yelped and bawled on cue for amused reporters. Harkness was asked to endorse a number of products — Kodak film, Klim powdered milk. One Quaker Oats advertisement quoted Harkness saying, “I happen to love a life of adventure. For years I’ve considered Quaker Oats a splendid breakfast for active people.”
Then the Bronx Zoo refused to take the animal. Giant pandas have bowed hind legs and toes that point inward, and zoo officials worried that the beast had rickets. Su Lin went to Chicago in February.
The Brookfield Zoo put Su Lin in a special nursery tended by Mary Bean, a licensed nurse and the daughter of the director. On weekends Su Lin drew as many as 40,000 visitors to the zoo. John Barrymore, who was in town for a production of My Dear Children, came to visit. Helen Keller stamped her feet in delight on meeting her. And Mary Bean was asked to accompany the animal on vaudeville tours for $300 a week. It’s easy to see why Su Lin became such a big zoo attraction. In newsreel footage, the panda clowns amicably in a basket, then chews on her keeper’s arms and grabs at his legs like an oversized cat.
In March 1938, 13 months after coming to Brookfield, Su Lin choked on a twig. She coughed it out but seemed to become ill. On April 1, the most famous animal in America died, apparently of pneumonia. Zoological researchers dissected the body, which provided a basis for the first extended study of giant pandas. The autopsy showed that Su Lin was male, not female — giant pandas’ genitals are so recessed that it is difficult to tell the sexes apart. At the time of his death, he weighed 132 pounds.
When the researchers finished their examination, the zoo donated the body to the Field Museum, along with the bodies of a kangaroo, a kangaroo rat, and a macaque. The Field Museum paid $150 for the entire grisly shipment.
On December 3, 1936, the day after Ruth Harkness sailed from Shanghai with the world’s first captured giant panda, Floyd Tangier Smith sounded an alarm. Whether it was a false alarm has remained in question to this day. In 1936, the New York Times reported:
Mr. Smith alleges he had received word from Chaopo, Szechwan, his headquarters, that his hunters had located the mother panda three months ago and watched her build her nest. They knew the baby panda had been born, Mr. Smith said, and they were only waiting until the little panda had been nearly weaned, when they intended to capture both. Mr. Smith charges that Mrs. Harkness’s hunters learned the location of the nest from his men and that her hunters walked up and took away the infant panda before its eyes were opened.
Three months later, in a letter to Dr. Simms at the Field Museum, Smith no longer accused his hunters but named Harkness in the “rape of the panda....” He wrote:
The story of its capture is pure bunk, designed to hide the fact that she bought it in my camp, contrary to her promise not to go there since she did not travel ten days from Chengtu; she did not establish any collecting camps of her own; she was not inspecting traps when the panda was found and had not set a single trap for the catching of pandas; but she did go direct from Chengtu to Chaopo when she learned that a panda had already been captured there and bought from men that I have been paying for the last four years who were holding it for delivery to me when it might be possible for me to return….
Smith apparently based his conclusion on the reports his hunters fed him. Harkness and Quentin Young had worried that his hunters and of course Smith himself would lose face at her success in finding the elusive creature. Harkness, in her book The Lady and the Panda hinted that another panda hunting expedition had passed through Tsaopo only weeks before her arrival, which certainly heightened the drama of her tale, and much has been made of that tidbit by academic researchers, but it simply wasn’t true. Smith, at the time, was in a Shanghai hospital suffering from nervous and emotional problems, which he blamed on infected teeth.
Smith wrote to Simms:
I have been living through a strange experience which now seems like a long succession of nightmares with brief periods of wakening, but actually characterized by fits of sudden loss of consciousness or by more frequent and prolonged periods of extreme physical and nervous exhaustion when I was quite conscious but unable to do anything at all.
Both Jack and Quentin Young say that Smith never went into the bush, though in his writings it seems he at least went to his hunters’ lowland camps. In one 1935 letter, he admitted that a heart ailment kept him from going to the high altitudes where pandas live. In fact in autumn 1934, he collapsed from altitude sickness while at a camp and had to be carried out on a stretcher. Smith was clearly not well, and over years of correspondence he complains of endless illnesses. In July 1936, it was malaria and a microorganism, in August sciatica, and at other times tuberculosis, hemorrhoids, an infected hand, and “nerve fag.”
Smith was either the world’s unluckiest adventurer or just prone to hyperbole. The datelines on his long-winded letters flash drama — “On the Yangtze River,” they read — and his every crossing of the Pacific he reported as a stormy one. He accused his Chinamen of mislabeling specimens and of selling them. His camp was burned down by bandits, though his headman saved his life, he claimed, so he could later show mercy when the headman, who was in his 50s, ran off with a 17-year-old girl and disappeared inconveniently, further delaying a shipment of specimens.
If Smith wasn’t seriously deluded, then he lied desperately. In a 1935 letter to Keith Spalding of Pasadena, for whose wife Smith collected live birds, he wrote:
And another bitter pill to swallow at this time is the circumstance that Jack T. Young, the man I trusted and financed to get the white birds from Tatsienlu, very joyfully took the money; succeeded in collecting 24 birds all winter ... succeeded in getting two to America, for his own account, on my (or rather your) money. But those two were picked up by Mr. F.E. Booth of San Francisco, who immediately thereafter financed Jack Young to go back for more.
I am not concerned at all over the possibility of his being able to make anything of a success out of this sporadic venture since all he knows is what I taught him (and I gave him the best that I could out of my 15 years of trial and error experience) after which his best efforts over a whole winter, in a place where birds are thick, amounted to no more than two delivered. Which two, incidentally, belong to me (by rights) or, rather, to Mrs. Spalding.
Aside from the striking resemblance to Smith’s later claims against Ruth Harkness, the letter continued with a paranoid harangue that Jack Young, being Chinese, would pull strings and have Smith’s permits revoked. When Smith’s letter was read to Jack some 55 years later, he was taken aback because he had only met Smith once and had never had any business dealings with him, nor was he operating in the same area as Smith. The letter may have ended up in the Field Museum files as evidence against Smith, because the Field knew full well that they had trained Jack Young and Smith hadn’t.
Quentin took particularly ironic delight in the accusation against his and Jack’s pheasant expedition. After hearing Smith’s letter, he closed his eyes tightly, threw his head back and mouthed a long silent moan of frustration and disbelief. “He thinks that nobody can go there because he is the king of that place,” he said. “That it was his area. Whose area? This was China, and we are Chinese!” which was exactly the antiforeign sentiment — probably well deserved — that Smith feared.
From the museums’ point of view, Smith and the Young brothers were pipsqueaks. Jack Young had brought an excellent giant panda specimen to the American Museum and received $100; Dean Sage, who contributed to the museum, on the other hand, brought back a headless and footless specimen, difficult to mount, that raised great media interest. Floyd T. Smith sent a collection of 1580 small mammals and a takin to the Field Museum and received $400; the Roosevelt brothers drew salaries of $20,000 each and a $15,000 draw against expenses for their year-long expedition.
Jack Young talked the American Museum into giving him $2700 for a 1937 expedition he planned, but on the eve of his departure, he went into the hospital for an appendectomy. Before he could depart for Tibet, he was taken into the Chinese Army to fight against the Japanese. That September he evacuated his wife Su Lin, and when she arrived in New York, the museum contacted her and took her to task for her husband’s vagrancy, regardless of the inconvenience of a world war. Jack finally assuaged the museum by sending a golden monkey he claimed Quentin shot for him. Quentin has no such recollection and points out that he was in Hong Kong working for a bank at that time.
Smith’s accusations, according to Quentin, came from losing face, from realizing that he had been cheated for years by his own hunters. As long as they were being paid, they pretended to hunt. And finding pandas was not as difficult as Smith had been led to believe. In fact, Smith had two pandas of his own by the end of the year. One apparently died en route to London, where a more composed Floyd T. Smith told the BBC he had been responsible for the capture of the only three ever taken alive, one of them, “the baby panda recently sold to Chicago.... It had been brought to Chaopo at a time when I was absent some several days before a party of travelers pitched their camp about 15 miles up the valley from Chaopo, and it was sold to them at a tempting cash price.”
In 1938, with the help of missionaries near Tsaopo, Smith’s hunters captured six to ten more giant pandas by building a corral around the trail to a water hole. When the docile animals entered, the hunters shut the gates. Smith was in the hospital again and sent his wife to oversee their transport back to Shanghai. All but three died either in transit or after arriving in London on December 24. The New York Zoological Society offered $2500 for one, but Smith turned them down, saying he had gotten substantially higher offers from European zoos. Two went to the London Zoo, the third to Hanover, Germany, and eventually to the St. Louis Zoo, where it died in 1946.
Smith didn’t live as long. He traveled to his family home on Long Island and died of tuberculosis on July 13, 1939. But as a result of his wishful belief in having captured the first panda, a number of wild and unsubstantiated rumors surfaced: that Smith and Harkness had traveled to Japan to hunt the ox-like anoa, though the animal is only found in the Philippines and the Celebes; that Smith had captured a panda in 1936 that died en route to Singapore; that he caught two and one died on the way to Hong Kong, while the other had been dyed brown to sneak it past the customs officials. This last animal is likely the panda he exported in 1937, because Jack Young claims he saw such a disguised panda in Smith’s possession in Shanghai, and Smith’s later letters talk of the difficulty in exporting live animals. He was obviously trying to avoid the problems Ruth Harkness encountered when she tried to leave China with her panda.
In the Field Museum Archives is a surprising October 1932 letter from Smith to Dr. Simms. In it Smith said he was leaving Shanghai for the United States. “I may be detained in Frisco a day or two,” he wrote, “on a matter concerned with 30 pheasants and two pandas I am taking with me alive.” Simms took notice too, for he had underlined the word pandas. Writing from Los Angeles six weeks later, Smith still needed to dispose of them. If they were giant pandas, then they predated Quentin’s and Harkness’s by four years.
No clarification can be found in the records of the time from shipping companies, zoos, or museums. But an explanation might be contained in a passage from Men Against the Clouds, the account of Jack Young’s 1932 ascent of Minya Konka. Richard Burdsall and Arthur Emmons, who headed up-country before Young and Terris Moore, met Floyd Smith quite by coincidence near Chungking, and Smith had with him “some live specimens including pheasants, doves, owls, and two baby wildcats.” The last, presumably, were panda cats, the name sometimes given to red pandas, the tiny distant cousin of the giant panda. Young red pandas resemble wildcats, and what would Burdsall and Emmons know of such things? Smith always referred to the larger animal as “giant panda” or by its Latin name Ailuropoda, and he was still quite in their pursuit even in 1937. And of course, if he had captured two in 1932, he wouldn’t have chased Harkness so bitterly.
“Has Quentin Young given you an honest answer about that panda?” asked George Schaller of the New York Zoological Society, director of Wildlife Conservation International. Schaller has spent years studying giant pandas at the Wolong Natural Reserve in Szechuan. He says Chinese colleagues had heard from a man who identified himself as one of Quentin Young’s hunters that Young and Harkness had in fact bought the animal.
On the other hand, Jack Young, on one of his five visits to Wolong, was approached by an old man who claimed to remember Quentin — and he said nothing of buying pandas. Though it is possible that some of his hunters are still alive, Quentin is skeptical. In China you are told what you want to hear.
“If I lie, do I gain anything?” Quentin asks. The irony is that if Ruth Harkness and Quentin Young had met a hunter who wanted to sell them a baby panda, they most certainly would have bought it. That is how Smith got his. All the museum collectors bought animals and pelts. How can anyone say Quentin never got as far as panda country, when he shot two pandas after Ruth Harkness returned to Shanghai and has photographs of both? “Did Zoology Jones skin any pandas himself?” he asks angrily. Quentin also bought a live red panda while in Tsaopo, and he has a photo of himself holding it up to the nose of a giant panda he shot. “Oh, they don’t know each other,” he likes to say of it.
Smith’s version of events has come to be accepted in articles of the last decade. Harkness has been discredited, and not simply because she was a woman in a man’s profession or because she was inexperienced, though those certainly add to the indictment. Ruth Harkness simply was not a credible reporter. In her book, she changed Smith’s name and others. Her camera conveniently jammed so that she couldn’t take pictures of the event. And she never seemed to address Smith’s accusations, perhaps because she felt she had bigger scandals to conceal — namely, her interracial affair with a man 15 years her junior. This was 1936, after all. Ruth Harkness was just as guilty of altering reality as Sage, Sheldon, and the Roosevelts had been with their miracle shots. Few modern-day researchers thought to contact Quentin Young for the eye-witness account, and those who did he turned away.
“Pandas don’t bring out the best in people,” Schaller told me. “It’s very competitive. There’s money involved, and greed shows up.”
Ruth Harkness might have started the first panda controversy, but hers was not the last. The current issues center around China’s “rent-a-panda” programs, in which pandas are shipped overseas to the highest bidders. The World Wildlife Fund, working with the Chinese government on matters of panda preservation, has set up regulations with the United States stipulating that only nonbreeding adults be exported for zoo exhibits. But every time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turns down an application for pandas, one high-placed politician or another steps in and demands exceptions for his constituents. “Everyone’s scrambling for pandas without any concern for the pandas being rented or the population in the wild,” Schaller says.
Giant pandas are moneymakers both for zoos and for the Chinese government. According to Schaller, 40 percent of the animal’s habitat has been destroyed since the mid-1970s, and the Chinese have not yet devised a systematic husbandry program to slow the animal’s impending extinction.
Ruth Harkness’s Su Lin both helped and hurt the animal’s plight. “Once you’ve seen a baby, hunters who go out to shoot them can’t really claim status anymore,” Schaller says. But every zoo wanted one.
The animal is puzzling. It does little to merit its popularity. In the wild, it spends all of its waking time wandering aimlessly to find food. Though it is a carnivore, there is little game where it lives, and the panda is not quick enough to catch it anyway. So it eats bamboo, and since its digestive system is not intended to break down plant matter efficiently, it must eat enormous quantities to stay alive.
The giant panda is not an aggressive or even a curious animal — “Pandas don’t do anything that villagers object to,” Schaller says — but when angered they will charge. They only look cuddly. “If they didn’t have those black eye patches, if they were all black, they’d just be another bear.” Ironically, the eye patches are aggressive markers that make the eyes look larger and more intimidating to possible predators. Then again, aside from man, the animal has no enemies. Beneath the patch, the face is expressionless, which makes the giant panda unpredictable. It looks cute and benevolent even when it is threatened, angry, and dangerous.
But Schaller also agrees with Quentin Young that giant pandas were easier to locate than the Western hunters or even Young could have guessed. If they knew the forests well, all the hunters would have to do is examine every large, hollow tree during denning season and look for a mother panda and cub. And perhaps that is what they did. Quentin Young neither knew nor trusted the hunters he worked with. And though Quentin spoke the local Szechuanese dialect, he knew little more than basic commands in Tibetan, which was spoken by his hunters. They could well have been led to that hollow tree and the baby panda. But it certainly had nothing to do with Floyd Tangier Smith.
Truth and reality are elusive in the study of Jack’s and Quentin’s lives. The Japanese invaded China in July 1937. Both brothers were swallowed into the war, and their stories (until that point tied closely together) suddenly diverge wildly. Neither knows where the other was; they keep secrets even from each other. There are no records to check, as there are from their earlier collecting years, only the brothers’ stories.
When pressed on a point, Quentin would say, “These things are very sensitive. I can only say I joined the Army.” Su Lin Young said, “They were always so secretive about what they did,” and she, too, changed the subject when asked about Jack’s or Quentin’s personality. Jack evaded questions about Quentin, and as for his own duties, he said the information was not yet declassified.
Whether anything the brothers did is still classified is doubtful. “These guys are sworn to secrecy for three lifetimes,” says a U.S. Navy intelligence officer, “and no one ever comes along to give them dispensation to talk after their material is declassified.” Then again, the U.S. Army Intelligence Freedom of Information Officer turned up nothing in its files about Jack, but there are photos and mementos that substantiate Jack’s claims. Quentin says that limitations statutes concerning what’s classified and what isn’t may be in effect for the United States but not for China. Even Swan Young says she never knew of her husband’s clandestine activities in Indonesia until after they moved to the United States and had been married for seven years.
Jack has stated his grandfather was Yang Holin, a friend of Sun Yatsen from medical school in Hong Kong and one of the theoretical four founders of the Chinese Republic. One Taiwanese history book includes a photograph of Yang and Sun and three other men in top knots and skull caps, posing in a turn-of-the-century Hong Kong cafe. When Quentin saw the picture, he said nothing but asked to keep the photocopy. The next day, Quentin said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but this is not my grandfather and I don’t know why Jack said it is.” Then he produced another official Taiwanese history book that contained the same picture — only his copy showed four men with the fifth obviously deleted to fit one political ideology or another.
Barbara Tuchman, in her book Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, wrote, “What is true in history is often less important than what people believe to be true.” And such insidious disregard of truth in favor of political discretion has long been a bone in Quentin Young’s throat. As a retired intelligence expert, he still keeps detailed lists, records his telephone conversations, to prove what is true and what is hot. Truth is Quentin’s passion and his greatest frustration. “No one hears you when you are shouting from the bottom of the well,” he says plaintively. He sticks doggedly, and credibly, to his story, though his memory sometimes fails him.
One morning last winter Quentin went to see his doctor at a nearby clinic. His knee was swollen and discolored with gout, and he had difficulty walking. But he was in good spirits, and as he sat stiffly in a plastic chair in the clinic waiting room, he remarked that the last time he had felt such pain was during one of his Tibetan trips with Jack. He and a porter were traveling alone when Quentin’s leg suddenly went bad. He couldn’t bend his knee, he couldn’t walk, and so the porter left him in a cave and went for help.
A blinding snowstorm trapped the porter on the other side of a pass, and he couldn’t get back for three days. Quentin had matches and lit a fire. He had a rifle and shot a rabbit but left it where it dropped because he didn’t have the strength to crawl out to retrieve it, nor could he make the fire burn hot enough to cook it. So he ate snow until the porter could return with food; his leg mysteriously healed.
Such memories come in snatches, and when trying to untangle his recollections of the years 1937 and ’38, when he and Ruth Harkness caught three more pandas, he shook his head and said, “So many things happened.” He went on another panda hunt, he traveled to the Dutch East Indies, he rushed to marry, he had a daughter, he joined the Army, he went into exile. Three or four years ago, he began to put his photos and papers in order to reconstruct what he had forgotten.
Among his papers and mementos, Quentin still keeps live bullets of the sort he used to shoot pandas. As he shuffled through photos of the pandas he killed, the bullets — .30 caliber, long and vicious — rolled noisily across a glass coffee table in his living room.
When he left Ruth Harkness in Chengdu and headed back toward his hunting camps beyond Tsaopo, he hoped to capture another live panda; but then he received a wire from his girlfriend Diana in Shanghai. Her mother was seriously ill in Makassar in the Dutch East Indies, and she needed to return. Quentin wired back for her to wait for him so they could go together. He was afraid of losing her. Then Ruth Harkness cabled that he should wait for her return so that they could “enjoy the camping life together.” Quentin had no intention of staying; he hunted feverishly so that he could fulfill his obligation to the Academia Sinica and then run to Diana.
Within days he had two pandas. The first he sighted atop a low cliff, but his bullet struck it in the head and blasted an enormous hole, and then the panda fell head-first onto the rocks, crushing its skull. The specimen was worthless. The second was perfect, and so after four months in the wilds, Quentin began his homeward trek.
He hiked day and night, and though it had taken him five days to get into Tsaopo, he made the return trip in two, such was his passion. He reached Shanghai two weeks after Ruth Harkness. Shanghai’s English-language newspaper, still caught in the excitement of Harkness’s panda, met the “Chinese-American explorer” at the steamer docks, and “he remarked that he is through with the business of giant panda hunting forever.” Above his picture, they ran a headline, “No More Pandas,” a promise he later broke. He stowed his two panda skins in a brown duffel bag under his bed at school. One was to go to the museum, the other to his family; he never saw them again.
Diana’s mother had already died, and according to custom, her grief-stricken father arranged for Diana to marry. He chose a businessman in the East Indies. Quentin escorted Diana to Makassar to tell her father otherwise. Because they had traveled alone together, Diana’s father insisted they wed, which was Quentin’s intention. By the time they returned to China in July, Diana was pregnant. Because the Japanese had taken eastern China, the pair traveled to Macao, where Quentin’s family had taken refuge, and their daughter Jenny was born in November. The proud father took a job in a Hong Kong bank.
Late in 1937, Ruth Harkness turned up in Hong Kong, on a trip financed by the Brookfield Zoo, to find a mate for Su Lin. She later said that she had “arrived simultaneously with the Japanese,” and their occupation of Shanghai meant she had to detour through Indochina en route to Chengdu. Later, on her way out, she came face to face with the war when she witnessed the Japanese bombing of Hankow. Harkness told her niece that she ran to vomit in an alley after seeing the corpses in the streets.
Quentin stayed in Hong Kong while Harkness spent the winter in the lamasery in Tsaopo and, using the contacts they had established the year before, found another young panda early in 1938. The second panda she named Diana, after Quentins wife; she later changed the name to Mei Mei, “little sister.” But that animal, like the first, turned out to be male. Floyd Smith, of course, claimed that Harkness had stolen this animal from him as well.
Harkness brought Mei Mei to Quentin in Hong Kong, and the meeting was recorded in print and newsreels. Quentin looked very young and dapper in a dark banker’s suit, a Vitalis lock of black hair falling over his forehead, as he and Harkness fed Mei Mei with a baby bottle and Lowell Thomas narrated — though Thomas never identified the young Chinese man on the screen. The animal-loving Mrs. Harkness, ironically, wore a full-length leopard-skin coat as she tried to control the nipping and squirming young panda.
She asked Quentin if she could be godmother to his daughter, and he refused. She tried to arrange for him to visit the United States under the pretext of lecturing, but he asked that she pay to bring his wife and daughter as well. Later in 1938, Harkness returned to Macao and came to Quentin’s parents’ house looking for him. She was in the company of a man that the parents mistook for a husband or other intimate, and Quentin wonders if it had been a show for his benefit.
On that third trip, Harkness was still hoping to find a mate for Su Lin, which she still believed to be female. Quentin agreed to go hunting but insisted this time that Harkness stay behind. He stopped in Hankow, where Jack was serving in the War Area Service Corps, a branch of the Chinese Military Affairs Commission. He was already a colonel (“A bigger shot than I was, always,” Quentin says) and was attached to Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek’s headquarters, ministering to the needs of foreign advisors. So Quentin enlisted in the War Area Service Corps; the uniform was convenient to certain legs of his travel — not, however, in the remote western part of Szechuan, which was a Communist stronghold. But he only had to remove the epaulets and insignia, replace the kepi with a felt hat, and he could move inconspicuously.
Quentin remembers little of this second panda hunt. His hunters captured two giant pandas, a cub and a sub adult that weighed 150 pounds, in traps with doors that dropped behind the animal when it lifted the meat placed inside as bait. The cub he stowed in a woodshed in Tsaopo; the larger of the pandas he had transported to Chengdu on the back of a porter and caged in the courtyard of the postal commissioner’s house.
Before Ruth Harkness reached Chengdu to collect the panda, there was a violent thunderstorm. The panda went berserk, broke from its cage, and threatened the occupants of the house. “It couldn’t find a way out,” Quentin recalls sadly. “I tried to corner him and trap him again, but what can you do in such weather? He was furious.” His voice cracks.
“I ... I shot him.” It gave him dubious distinction as the only hunter to shoot three pandas.
The first thing Ruth Harkness did when she saw Quentin was take him to task for his military uniform. “What is it with you Americans?” he snapped at her. “You let China be invaded and people get killed, yet you’re spending money on pandas?” One panda was already dead, and a disgusted Quentin Young told her that if she wanted the other, she could go to Tsaopo to get it.
Harkness named the cub Su Sen, which means “third,” and she wrote in a later travel book, Pangoan Diary, that she spent the season camped in the garden of a summer house, which presumably was the postmaster’s. Unlike the first two, this cub was ill-tempered: “All I had to show for my efforts was badly scratched and infected arms and legs,” she wrote. An animal that didn’t like her bothered her more than a human, and she set it free:
So the expedition was put in reverse, and with Wang, my cook, we traveled back, up over the old caravan route that has changed little since the time of Christ, and plunged into the bamboo-jungled wilderness to leave Su Sen at the exact spot where she had been captured. There we lived in a cave for a week, lingering to see if she would come back for the food to which we had accustomed her.
After days and nights of extreme discomfort — even misery, for I was ill — she did come back, but it was by mistake. The little black and white furry youngster looked just once at civilization in the form of Wang and me and ran as though all the demons of hell were at her heels. Then it was that I wondered why anyone ever left the town in which she was born to seek out the unknown in the forests and jungles far from all familiar things. I vowed then that I would return to my own land and perhaps again design fashionable and ugly clothes to be sold in smart shops.
Despite that pronouncement, in 1940 Ruth Harkness sailed for Peru, intending to write a book about the Incas and their descendants. But she ended up instead on an allegorical hunt for a “little gray bear,” a vaguely described mystical animal that seemed more pretense than reality, an escape from the raging world war, a chance to recover — or perhaps mock — her celebrity.
The resulting book, Pangoan Diary, chronicled her stay in a tiny Mestizo and Indian village where the Andes slope into the Amazon basin. Whether there really was a silver bear or even a village called Pangoa is anyone’s guess; Harkness spent most of the book retelling the stories of her guide and companion Sandoval (whose real name was Noriega). Her jungle stay ended when she contracted malaria and had to be evacuated to Lima, where she almost died.
“I think a lot of it is really fiction,” says her niece of the book. “She wanted to believe the tales the natives told her because she was a romantic” When asked if she could have invented facts about the panda hunts as well, her niece replied, “It never occurred to us that she* would misrepresent that. That would be criminal.”
Peru left Ruth Harkness ravaged and haggard; she never shook the effects of malaria. She lived on money her husband had left her and on a meager income from her writings, though some of her manuscripts, as she reported, were judged unreadable by her agent. There are references in the American Museum archives to a book she wanted to write about a tame chimpanzee, and she also sold articles to Harper's, True, and Gourmet.
After the war, Harkness moved to Mexico to write a book about living in the small village of Zacaultipan. Though the story was still running as a serial in Gourmet magazine when Ruth Harkness died, it never became a book. No one cared about gratuitous adventures to exotic locales, it would seem, because so many had gone to wartime locales more exotic than they cared to visit. Ruth Harkness, for all her tragic nobility, was an anachronism.
On July 20, 1947, she was found dead in a bathtub in a Pittsburgh hotel room. The obituary listed gastroenteritis as the cause; she had been in bad health, and her family conceded that she taxed her system beyond limits with alcohol. She was buried in Titusville. Quentin Young only learned of her death in 1953, when he saw his brother Jack. He lived longer than Ruth Harkness, but his life was no easier than hers.
Quentin Young is deliberately vague about his time in Hong Kong during the early years of World War II. He had joined the War Area Service Corps in Hankow in 1938, but he still held his Hong Kong bank job. He seemed to come and go easily for someone in the Army or with a bank job, let alone both at once. In some photographs of that time, Quentin is in uniform, posing proudly in front of a rickshaw in Chengdu; in others he wears the banker’s suit; but exactly what he was doing during these years he leaves unclear. He says he was gathering intelligence data — “A asks me to watch B, B asks me to watch C, C asks me to watch A” — and that he traveled to Haiphong and Saigon to measure loyalties among ethnic Chinese there.
In 1940, he accompanied the Denis-Roosevelt Asiatic Expedition to Burma, China, India, and Nepal. It was a sort of Mondo Cane trip, a travelogue of the bizarre, recorded on film by Armand Denis and his wife Leila Roosevelt Denis and in print by Hassoldt Davis, a travel writer. Davis’s book, Land of the Eye, is written in the breezy style of the day that suggested Americans could casually wisecrack about the most shocking of sights: a child who “tumbled loosely from a fourth-story window” (“two men labored for half an hour swabbing him from the sidewalk”), snake-infested temples, wild elephants, jungle monsoons, villages drugged by opium, others floating on lakes, a woman who enticed a king cobra from its ceremonial lair to kiss it on the mouth as it poised to strike.
Quentin’s role, in Davis’s description, was as guide and interpreter, glossing over the fact that Quentin didn’t know Burma or the areas of western China they planned to cross. Actually, he was a liaison between the War Area Service Corps and these Americans who wished to film the Burma Road, the Allied Forces’ ill-managed backdoor route into occupied China. The Chinese did not want them to film anything. Davis wrote:
Our Chinese interpreter and guide, Quentin Young, who had known many of the official Chinese intimately during his panda hunts, was unable to understand why his country, so eager for foreign sympathy, should first accept and then deny an expedition that could be relied upon, because of the proven sympathy and probity of each of its members, to produce a film record of China at war that should be a powerful influence for help abroad. Quentin held his lean, sensitive face in his hands.
“We are confused,” he groaned.
“We are so confused.”
Confusion is probably why the Chinese government did not want coverage of the Burma Road, for as Barbara Tuchman argues in Stilwell and the American Experience in China, despite U.S. declarations about the noble Chinese fight against the Japanese, there was no coordinated war effort to film. Chiang waited impatiently for the United States to defend China while he plotted futilely against the Communists, his theoretical allies against the Japanese.
The Denises did in fact film the Burma Road, even if Davis adamantly denied it in the book. Quentin rode on truck-roof platforms with a hand-held camera and filmed for the Chinese censors everything the Denises filmed. When the expedition turned back because the road was impassible, Quentin returned to Hong Kong.
In 1941, with the imminent fall of Hong Kong, Quentin took Diana and Jenny to Makassar, Celebes, in the Dutch East Indies, to live with her family. He intended to return to his work in China, whatever that was, but his father-in-law demanded he stay with his family.
The Japanese overran the East Indies in March 1942. One of Diana’s schoolmates knew of Quentin’s ties to the Chinese government and turned him in to the Japanese, who arrested him and held him in a detention camp for a week until his father-in-law could bail him out. In exchange for his freedom, they forced him through military training, forced him to learn Japanese, and assigned him to teach military exercises.
Every night in good weather, U.S. and Australian planes bombed the island. Reconnaissance planes would drop leaflets warning islanders to evacuate, but since Quentin was a teacher, the military officials would not let him leave town. He dug a bomb shelter in his back yard; one night the bombs walked down the street, and the last one flattened the house next door as Quentin and his family awaited their deaths, trembling in the shelter with dust filling their nostrils and the noise and the screams of the bombardment in their ears. When the bombings became more and more severe, he would sneak his family out of town after dark and then return home after the planes left.
Following instructions on the leaflets, Quentin helped lay paper or cloth arrows in the fields to point out the Japanese ack-ack guns to the Allied planes. He smuggled food and cigarettes to Australian POWs, whom the Japanese forced to perform menial tasks. “They were trying to demoralize the Indonesians by saying, ‘We caught these white people, and now they’re cleaning streets’ ” Quentin recalls. He left packages for them to find in the garbage cans they cleaned.
“That was the only way to fight against the Japanese at that time,” he said. Then Quentin asked, with a gleam in his eye, “You want to see a Japanese?” He put one of Swan’s scarves over the back of his head and anchored it with his baseball cap so it looked like a military cap with a sun flap down the neck, and he strutted arrogantly around his living room. Swan laughed wickedly.
After the Japanese withdrew in the summer of 1945, Quentin, then 31, planned to return to China; but the Chinese consul, who had just been released from an internment camp, asked him to stay. Quentin accompanied Australian soldiers on cleanup campaigns — there’s a photo of a very somber Quentin Young with several soldiers posing by a dead anoa. But they were really hunting Japanese. He was made head of the investigative section of the Overseas Chinese Association and passport officer in the Chinese consular offices in Makassar and carried the code books to Jakarta. He was made a major in the Chinese Army so that he would be called Major Young, not Mr. Young, when working as liaison with Allied officers.
Quentin stayed with the consulate after the Allies handed the East Indies back to the Dutch Army and then lived through the struggle for Indonesian independence. He recalls Diana and his daughter hiding under the kitchen table as he watched Indonesian troops advancing up his street, house by house. Because his home faced the Celebes Sea, he could watch from his windows as battleships lobbed shells at inland targets.
When Sukarno broke relations with Nationalist China in 1949 in favor of the People’s Republic, Quentin lost his consular job and became stateless. He spent several years as a traveling merchant. Then he secretly traveled to Taiwan in 1953 to undergo special training.
In 1953, Jack Young was stationed with the U.S. Military Advisory Group to Chiang Kai-shek, and it was the first the brothers had seen each other since the late 1930s. Quentin has a photo that marks the occasion, Jack in his major's uniform, Quentin smartly turned out in a sport coat and trousers, astride a see-saw in a playground.
Jack had risen to the rank of major general in the Chinese Army but was drafted into the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor and made a second lieutenant. He claims that he served briefly as an aide to General Joseph Stilwell, who headed the American military presence in the China Theater. (Barbara Tuchman in her biography of Stilwell mentions a young captain named Dick Young, a Hawaiian-born Chinese in Stilwell’s office, perhaps a mistaken reference to Jack.) He asked to be transferred because of Stilwell’s racism. One day in Jack’s presence, Stilwell muttered how “these Chinamen cant do anything right.” Suddenly realizing Jack was there, he said, “Oh, but you’re different.” Jack replied, “No, I just speak English.” So Jack went behind Japanese lines as an intelligence officer, establishing safe houses and planning escape routes for downed Allied pilots. His wife claims to have heard him mentioned in a radio broadcast by Tokyo Rose — journalists came to interview her as “the girl left behind.”
During the Communist Revolution in China, he worked as an aide and interpreter to General George Marshall and also as go-between for Chou Enlai and Mao Zedong, Marshall, and Chiang, which required him to live with Mao and Chou in a cave in 'Yenan. Jack also befriended Yeh Chien-ying, a principal Communist Army general. Yeh turned to Jack for help when his daughter was arrested by Chiang’s police. Jack intervened with Marshall and had an American plane pick her up and spirit her away.
In Korea, Jack led an unconventional warfare force with a division of Rangers, South Koreans, and turncoat North Koreans. His presence in Korea did not go unnoticed by the Communist Chinese, who arrested his parents, then broadcast an open radio message to Jack, stating they would be released if Jack defected to the Communist side. Jack’s mother wrote to him, describing how his father hid behind a trap door in the attic but surrendered to the police when they started to beat her. They took him away with a rope around his neck. Anticipating her own arrest, she signed the letter “your mother’s last command written under the light of the candle.” Jack keeps the letter framed on the wall of his study. On the facing wall is a framed letter from Mao, its characters big and messy in comparison with his mother’s fine and orderly hand.
Jack attempted to exchange the Communist officers for his parents, though he had no authority to do so. “I had lots of prisoners I didn’t even turn in,” he says with a toss of the hand. “Don’t forget, I am an unconventional force, not bound by rules.” But the deal did not go through, nor did a personal appeal to his friend General Yeh. Jack and Quentin’s parents starved to death in prison in 1952.
Jack met his current wife June, a Pentagon military historian, in 1954 in Quemoy; they were married in 1956. In the early 1960s, Jack went to Vietnam for two years as an intelligence officer, still operating behind lines. (“I had a hell of a time convincing them that I am no gook,” he says of that duty.) He retired from the Army as a full colonel in 1971. He had earned two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars, and three Legion of Merit medals. He pondered returning to Vietnam to earn his general’s star, but Quentin talked him out of it. “You are getting old,” he told him, “and things are not good over there. Is it worth it if all that returns with a general’s rank is your name?”
Quentin’s son Charles, who is now 44, says that it was the death of his parents that made Quentin turn virulently anti-Communist. Until then he was adamantly nationalistic if not Nationalist; and even if he stayed in Indonesia, as the Dutch East Indies were renamed after independence, he was still Chinese.
“I saw my father cry twice,” says Charles. “When my mother died and when my grandparents died. When he heard that my grandparents were killed, he cried for two days.”
Then Quentin left Makassar to undergo training by the Kuomintang in Taiwan. It was a brainwashing of sorts. Quentin recalls sitting at lunch with a cadre of middle-aged men, also in training, waiting for the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang to arrive. Then, as if they were military academy cadets, the head officer would give them permission to eat when the G-mo and Madame were seated.
Quentin returned to Indonesia to take over the Tsing Ktuang Daily Press, a Chinese-language newspaper in Surabaya. He has photos of himself carrying an old-fashioned newsman’s camera with a chrome-plated flash. The newspaper gave Quentin an excuse to travel extensively, to attend conferences and political events. He made friends with Sukarno’s palace security guards. He identified agents to infiltrate into Red China. “Some of them didn’t come back,” he says.
In 1955, he changed his front operation and returned to banking as assistant manager of a branch of the Siliwangi Bank in Jakarta, which is where he was caught in 1958. The bank director and another assistant manager were both arrested and their ties to Taiwan exposed. The director bribed his way out of trouble; the assistant manager disappeared, but his wife asked the officials why Quentin wasn’t arrested as well. When Sukarno’s police checked on him, they learned he had worked in the Nationalist Chinese consulate. They also found out who Jack was, and they took Quentin to prison.
After our first conversation about torture, Quentin stayed up all night, unable to sleep. The next morning, he asked that we not meet for a few weeks. “Those times in Indonesia,” he apologized, “I had a lot of problems. You know, I was kind of crazy for a while.” Then he added, “I need time to recuperate.” But a few months later, he brought up the subject again.
“They welcomed me,” he says sarcastically. He was isolated in a completely dark cell. They beat him and burned him with cattle prods and cigarettes; he still bears the scars. “At the very beginning it was painful — a shock and you feel burning, then later I just lay there and I didn’t care. I didn’t feel it anymore.
“Then they knew they couldn’t do it that way, so they tried another way, softly: ‘Oh yes, we know how it is to do things for our country. Why can’t we cooperate?’
“They put a light bulb in my face, and they asked me a lot of questions, and I told them, ‘Well, you can just consider me as dead. What can I say? If I say no, you say yes. I have told you everything already.’ This was continuous, day in and day out, for many, many days. Every time they came to see me, I’d say, ‘Go do your duty, yeah? If you were me, would you tell people you were a subversive, a spy? You know already. It’s no use to keep me here. I won’t tell you anything.’”
They gave him rotten food and he refused to eat. Finally, he got so sick and so weak, they feared he’d die.
While Quentin was in prison, Diana searched for him alone. Many of the family’s friends were afraid to associate with her for fear of bad luck swooping down on them as well. When she found him and the authorities granted permission, she took her adolescent children to visit Quentin in prison. The first time Charles saw his father there, Quentin was wearing a wig. Charles was not sure what was happening; he and his father have never talked about it.
After six months, Quentin was released from prison and put under house arrest, then city arrest, and finally state arrest. He returned to his job at the bank. And the Indonesians leaned on him to tell what he knew. “I was taught and trained,” he says quietly, “that when the time comes, do what you think is right. When you are winning, lead; when you are defeated, follow.” He fed them misinformation, he says, but he was treading water until Sukarno fell in 1966 and he could escape back to China. Still, as a measure of Quentin’s personal strength, his son Charles said that he emerged from prison at least outwardly unchanged.
No sooner had he recovered physically from torture and imprisonment than Diana developed cancer. She died in 1960 at the age of 44. Quentin was 46. In the grim photos of Diana’s funeral, Quentin’s hair is still jet black; the faces of his teen-aged children reflect his mood and his sullen good looks.
Swan Young does not mind if Quentin talks about his first wife. “He has a right to do that, because to me that is a reminder that you can never wipe it away,” she says. “Never. That part of his life is his — and if I had lived a life like that, I wouldn’t want my husband to say to forget it.” She also knows that Quentin holds the same singular devotion for her that he held for Diana.
Swan is 64. She was born on the island of Borneo, third-generation Chinese in Indonesia, though she never learned to speak her ancestral language until she and Quentin moved to Taiwan. They met at the bank in 1966 — she was assistant manager — and married in 1967. The next year, they waited for the birth of Charles’s first daughter, held her once, and then left for Taiwan on March 15, 1968.
They applied for tourist visas, telling no one they were leaving forever, because they would have been detained, given the anti-Chinese sentiment rampant in Indonesia. Swan was not even considered Indonesian, despite her family history in the area. As they passed through immigration, a female officer confiscated her Indonesian currency, saying, “You can’t spend it in Taiwan. I will hold it for you.” Swan said nothing so as not to complicate their exit.
“Perhaps it’s better that you don’t come back,” the officer snapped.
“Why not?” Swan asked.
“Because you’re just eating up all our rice.”
In Taiwan, Quentin inquired about back wages due to him for his intelligence work and was told that his file had been closed because the government assumed he was dead. But his alleged demise did not stop the Kuomintang from seeking him out for advice based on his experience. They asked him to rejuvenate a failing propaganda newspaper; he organized a committee to develop trade relations with Indonesia, as an overture to establishing diplomatic relations. In 1969, he took a job with RCA in Taiwan and worked his way up to supervisor of industrial relations, and he edited their bilingual English-Chinese in-house magazine. Life was good. “He was so full of hope when we lived there,” Swan says wistfully.
In 1974, Jack, who had been ill and was facing surgery, asked Quentin to come to the United States. Quentin was a year away from retirement, but Jack felt that for political reasons, Quentin should not wait. So Quentin, the dutiful brother, quit his job and migrated to St. Louis. And though he had been a diplomat, a Kuomintang agent, a journalist, a banker, and an executive, he took a job in the sporting goods section of K mart.
Then came the movie deal. Swan and Quentin had both become Jehovah’s Witnesses while they lived in Taiwan. A trusted acquaintance who had been a minister in their congregation approached Quentin about buying the movie rights to his life story. The movie, to be entitled The Lady and the Panda, like Ruth Harkness’s book, was to be the first joint movie venture between American and Chinese production companies. Quentin entered trustingly into the deal and moved to Southern California to prepare for celebrity. When the deal later fell apart, leaving him without the right to tell his own story, he felt betrayed again. “I never had gray hair until this movie business,” he whispers. “My grandchildren brag, ‘Grandfather this. Grandfather that.’ They blab. They don’t know their grandfather was taken.”
The walls of Quentin and Swan’s San Diego apartment are covered with pictures of pandas, including a computer printout made for him by his youngest grandchild, who is 12. “Not one of these did I buy,” he said. “This one was given to me by my son, and this is from my granddaughter. This is from my daughter-in-law; this is from my son too; this is from my wife; this is from my daughter.” His son Charles now lives in a big house a few blocks from Quentin’s apartment; Quentin’s daughter Jenny and her four children live near San Francisco.
Turning away from the pictures, Quentin lowered his voice to say the unspeakable. “They think I like pandas. I hate them.” The voice was angry, its volume slowly rising. “They caused me too much trouble. Yes, they’re cute, but they’re tricky. They look funny, that’s all, like a clown, so you’ll give them food and protect them. But the eyes, to me they look evil instead of cute. They’re good for nothing, these things. What harm will it do to this world if we don’t have pandas? If we save this species, will it bring peace to the world? Why don’t we take care of all the undernourished people?”
But on another day, he relented and admitted that he is proud of capturing the world’s first giant pandas — with some regrets. “I wish my own country had financed me to do this. Then I think I’d have a very big achievement. That this thing should be shown in a Chinese zoo, this animal of which there are none in existence outside China. Then I could have been satisfied. Unfortunately, it was financed by a foreign country and landed in a foreign zoo. But I found out this has given so much joy to such a big crowd of people, making kids happy, and I feel happy about that. I think I have done something.”
At such moments, he is the idealistic 22-year-old Quentin Young, not the cautious older man. ‘‘I am no longer polite,” he said once, after rudely turning away a neighbor soliciting for charity. He sticks to himself, with Swan as his contact to the outside world. He shuns ethnic Chinese organizations, uncertain about their ties to the old country that he no longer trusts.
He has returned to China twice in recent years. In 1985, he and Jack were invited by Deng Xioping to view the restoration of the family house and tomb in their ancestral village, which had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Last fall he took Swan to China to point out places from his youth and to help her know the whole story before he dies. It was an emotional homecoming for Quentin.
Often, while relating his story, Quentin would worry that he had told me too much. I would turn to Swan and ask how I had forced confessions out of him, out of the ex-hunter, the man who once claimed he wasn’t afraid of anything, the former spy. The situation was reminiscent of lawyers who tell things to reporters “off the record,” when they mean that they want the story leaked but not attributed to them. Likewise, Quentin is torn between telling everything and hanging on to those details he thinks may be indiscreet politically or personally. Will he hurt Jack’s feelings? Will the Chinese read what he says and take offense?
“I just want my story told,” he said over and over. “I want it straightened out. I have gone through so much. I have seen so much. I kept quiet so long.” If asked about inconsistencies in his story, Quentin would become enraged that I would suggest retelling it “the white way,” instead of trusting him, because “you can never trust a Chinaman, a Chink! Is that what you mean?
“The truth is the truth!” he bellowed. “Now, what else do you want to know?”
“Nothing,” I replied, but I felt certain that what he said was indeed true.
Last spring, Quentin’s son Charles called me while he was on a business trip to Chicago and invited me to dinner. Before we met, he visited the Field Museum and looked for Su Lin the panda. Instead he found the Roosevelt diorama, and he asked several museum guards for directions. (“He can’t find a panda like his father can” Quentin later joked.) The guards wondered why he was so persistent about this particular animal.
“Because it was my father’s,” he answered timidly.
Charles is tall and slender, with an unruly lock of his father’s straight black hair falling over his forehead. He looks years younger than 44. He is also quite shy. “My father would have killed me if I didn’t call you,” he admitted. We sat in a Chinese restaurant on Michigan Avenue and talked about truth.
“My father worked 12 years at a bank and never got rich,” Charles said. I wasn’t sure I understood. “In Asian countries you have to have connections to get a loan, not like here where you have to pass certain requirements. Most people give you money under the table. Some bank managers get so rich they open their own banks. But my father worked there 12 years and never got rich. Every New Year, people would send flowers to our house because he wouldn’t take money. People there still remember him as a good man. When he left Indonesia, he didn’t have anything.”
Swan has said the same, how Quentin was honest to a fault and how it had made his life difficult. “Quentin is a frank person,” she said. “When he likes something, he tells you. If he doesn’t like someone, he says so. But he tells the truth.”
Charles worried aloud that the story wouldn’t be told in his father’s lifetime, as he felt it should be. I had argued the same with Quentin several times.
We finished dinner, and I cracked open a fortune cookie that read, “Time is precious, but truth is more precious than time.”