Panda who lifted wartime spirits

Updated: 2015-10-16 08:15

By Chris Peterson(China Daily Europe)

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Ming arrived in London as a cub in 1937 and was a hit among children who thronged the zoo

She was black, white and furry, far from home and loved having her tummy tickled, especially by princesses.

Now Ming the giant panda, who brought so much joy to Londoners, particularly children, during the dark days of the Blitz during World War II, will be memorialized with a statue erected in London Zoo where she spent much of her time from 1938 to 1944.

 Panda who lifted wartime spirits

Ming the panda gets behind the camera for photographer Bert Hardy in 1939 in London Zoo. In the chair is Hardy's son, Mike. Courtesy of Getty Images

 Panda who lifted wartime spirits

A postcard shows Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret paying a visit to London Zoo and meeting Ming in 1939. File Photos

Ming was born in China's south-western Sichuan province in 1937. At the time less emphasis was placed on preservation and she was captured by hunters and eventually given to Floyd Tangier-Smith, an American banker-turned-adventurer.

She and five others were to be sent to European zoos but their journey was, to put it mildly, eventful. At the time the Chinese were fighting Japanese invaders, so Tangier-Smith decided to avoid the obvious route down the Yangtze River to Shanghai and instead embarked on a dangerous journey by road to Hong Kong.

He wrote that the pandas were put in cages and loaded onto the back of trucks for a journey to Hong Kong "on roads that were often nearly impassable through bandit-infested country". One truck overturned and two of the pandas enjoyed temporary freedom until they were recaptured.

When it came to loading the pandas onto a ship in Hong Kong bound for London, one of the six was found dead.

The survivors, known to their captors as Grandma, Happy, Dopey and Grumpy and the cub who would become known as Ming, were loaded in cages onto the deck of a cargo ship and arrived in London at the height of a raging blizzard, according to a Daily Mail report from the time.

 Panda who lifted wartime spirits

A Ming postcard.

Grandma, the oldest, caught pneumonia and died two weeks after arriving in the capital, while Happy was acquired by a German zoo owner.

The Zoological Society of London, which runs London Zoo in Regent's Park and Whipsnade Zoo in the Bedfordshire countryside, took over care of Ming and her older siblings, Sung and Tang. All three were named after Chinese dynasties.

Ming was the first giant panda cub to come to Britain and she created a massive amount of interest. Her image was reproduced in cartoons and picture postcards, soft toys were made, and her story appeared in newspapers, magazines and on the fledgling television service broadcast from Alexandra Palace.

Bert Hardy, one of Britain's best-known photographers, managed to capture a shot of a playful Ming behind one of his cameras on a tripod, seemingly taking a picture of his son, Mike. The photograph went around the world.

Britain and Germany were at war and visits to see Ming became a reminder of normality and a morale-booster for British children.

Chinese poet and author Chiang Yee, who was living in London, visited the zoo and wrote about the crowds flocking to see Ming, who had rapidly become a celebrity.

"There were rows and rows of them, especially children, round her house, wanting to shake hands with her and to cuddle her," he wrote in an illustrated book, The Story of Ming.

Among those youngsters were a couple of royal children: Princess Elizabeth, who would become the queen, and her younger sister Princess Margaret. Press reports at the time showed the royal children being escorted inside Ming's compound and tickling the panda's tummy.

Sung died in 1939 and Tang in the spring of 1940. At the outbreak of the war Ming was evacuated to Whipsnade Zoo but made repeated return trips to London Zoo in Regent's Park.

Ming survived most of the war but toward the end of her life her hair began to fall out. She died of unexplained causes at the end of 1944.

It would be an understatement to say the nation mourned her loss.

The Times ran an obituary, virtually unheard of at the time when only the deaths of the great and the good, and the not so good, graced its obit pages. It read: "She could die happy in the knowledge that she gladdened the universal heart and even in the stress of war her death should not go unnoticed."

Ming was a pioneer in a way. She unwittingly became the spearhead of what later became known as panda diplomacy.

Between 1958 and 1982, China presented 23 giant pandas as gifts to nine countries as a means of establishing friendly relations. Included in that were Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, a pair given to the United States after President Richard Nixon's groundbreaking trip to China in the 1970s that led to the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Britain also got in on the act. Prime Minister Edward Heath requested two pandas during a trip to Beijing in 1974 and Chia Chia and Ching Ching duly took up residence in London.

By 1984, things had changed and giant pandas became the subject of a loan program. Recipient zoos paid as much as $1 million a year for 10 years with the proviso that any cubs born were the property of China.

Recently Tian Tian, Edinburgh Zoo's resident female panda, was thought to be pregnant after her third bout of artificial insemination but in August the zoo said it was believed she had lost the cub.

Panda who lifted wartime spirits

Sichuan is the home of the giant panda and conservation efforts there have been considered a success story.

Last year, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature said there were an estimated 1,864 pandas living in the bamboo-strewn mountains of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, all closely watched and protected against poachers. A further 300 live in breeding centres and zoos, mainly in China.

The people of Sichuan, proud of the panda and its links to the rest of the world, decided to donate a life-size statue of Ming to London Zoo to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

In addition, a roadshow of 20 smaller panda statues painted by young Chinese artists will go on display at various visitor attractions across Britain.

Another group of pandas in various poses, blank this time, will be also painted by London-based art students and auctioned off for charity.

(China Daily European Weekly 10/16/2015 page23)