I’ve twice visited China, both times through work, and both times in rather bizarre circumstances.
The first occasion was in September 2001, a few days after 9/11. A month previously, I’d received a call from someone involved in an EPSRC project that was associated with the the JISC project I was managing. That person had been due to attend ICeCE 2001 in Xi-an but had had to pull out due to an illness in the family. Therefore, did I want to accompany Heather who was to give the presentation about the EPSRC project, and give her moral support for her first paper at an international conference? The flights and hotels had all been booked, and their cost would be lost if I couldn’t go. Also, Heather was not too keen on travelling all the way to China by herself. It was suggested that I could use the opportunity to publicise the JISC project I was working on.
So I said, yes. The EPSRC project was about automated shape matching of engineering parts, and although I hadn’t had much input into it, I was very interested in its outcomes which might have supplemented the EEVL guide to engineering, maths and computing, which I was managing at the time. EEVL started as a catalogue of Internet resources, but even in 2001 it was obvious that there was little long term future for such a manually created catalogue. I was amazed that it, and other similar subject catalogues, continued until 2010 under the auspices of Intute. In 2001 I was trying to extend EEVL into much more than a catalogue of resources, in order to try to ensure its longer term future. We were working on a topical search engine vaguely similar to the Scirus service which was later produced by Elsevier; a technology job announcement aggregator that became OneStep Jobs; a news aggregator that became OneStep Industry News; other services that were eventually incorporated into TechXtra; and further initiatives such as an engineering ejournal search engine that were eventually dropped by Intute. Having a shape similarity matching search engine for engineering parts incorporated into EEVL would also have extended the service. In addition, I was very interested in expanding EEVL to incorporate more resources and input from China, and also, possibly, providing a translation service for some of the high quality engineering papers being produced in that country.
But I had no official function at ICeCE 2001 and I must admit that I felt rather ‘spare’, in amongst all of the attending engineering researchers.
In fact, the trip was nearly called off due to the 9/11 attacks, but Heather and I eventually arrived in Beijing, where we had a day to look around before going on to Xi-an. We did the usual tourist things.
Outside Chairman Mao's Mausoleum, Tiananmen Square.
Xi-an is towards the centre of China.
A few other Europeans attended the ICeCE 2001 conference. Some were giving papers, and some were on the lookout for potential PhD students for their home universities. I remember one chap from England who was in trouble because he hated Chinese food. I thought the food was wonderful and very different from what we get in most Chinese restaurants in the UK.
Heather successfully gave her presentation on shape matching. The ICeCE Conference had been chosen because IEEE Computer Graphics had agreed to publish the best papers, and that journal had a high impact factor, which is of course important for researchers.
We were then able to see a little of Xi-an and its surroundings.
Centre of Xi-an
We both climbed the 14th century Bell Tower and sounded the bell, for which we received a certificate.
Sounding the bell
Xi-an is a very old and historically important city. It was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and is home to the Terracotta Army. The temples and museums are fantastic.
Old city walls
On the way back, we had just enough time to visit the Great Wall of China.
Throughout the conference at Xian, I’d spoken to anyone who would listen about my JISC project. I’d also distributed some leaflets for it. I suspect that I started to get on some people’s nerves, as most attendees were more interested in industrial engineering than in information. However, a few months after returning to the UK, someone I’d met at ICeCE 2001 contacted me and invited me to give a Keynote paper at a forthcoming international conference in China.
Now – a keynote at an international conference is not something to turn down, but how could my project afford the costs? I solved that one by getting a publisher, Pearson, to sponsor the visit and pay half the airfare, and I booked a cheap room at the venue for the conference. Then, a week before I was due to travel, I had a kidney problem. The doctor was helpful when I explained my travel plans, and gave me some horse strength antibiotics with instructions to see her again in a couple of days if the problem didn’t clear up. It didn’t, so the second time she gave me some elephant strength antibiotics. These did the trick, and so I once again headed for Beijing.
The conference was held at the Beijing Post & Telecom Conference Center, on the outskirts of the centre of Beijing. Beijing stretches for many miles, so that is relative. There were about 200 attendees, but I soon noticed that this time I was the only westerner, which was kind of weird. I was treated almost royally, and I think that this was firstly because the Chinese are so hospitable, and perhaps secondly because, by being a westerner at this conference which had been advertised as being ‘international’ I was somehow helping to make it so.
Though a bit out of my depth, I gave my keynote, and was then escorted to a seat with a sign in Chinese in front of it. When I asked the attendant what it said, he replied “Plofesssor Macrowd, this sign means that you are a very important person!”
The first day of the conference was excellent, the presentations were informative, the food was fantastic, and the people were really helpful and friendly. The second day was totally weird, for me, anyway.
I’d given my paper on the first day, I’d made sure that the information frontiers I’d spoken about in the keynote had been put in a Chinese context, and it seemed to have gone down fine. I’d made various connections for possible future translation services, distributed flyers for my project and also Pearson, and had done some other networking, but the second day, at which numerous papers on some very specific aspects of ecommerce and industrial engineering were scheduled, wasn’t really of much interest to me. However, I thought that, as the only westerner in attendance, it would be rude not to attend some sessions on the second day.
There were so many papers to get through on the second day that the conference was split into three rooms. I spent an hour in Room 1, which went OK, though I didn’t understand the technical and engineering aspects of most of the papers. When I moved on to Room 2, everything hushed as soon as I walked in the door. “Ah, Professor MacLeod! Please take a seat. Thank you for attending our session.” the chairperson announced. Everyone watched me as I took my seat. There was then some furtive discussion in the corner, in Chinese, and then a young and decidedly frightened-looking PhD student took hold of the microphone and started up his Powerpoint presentation slides.
I can’t be sure, but I suspect that the presenters in Room 2 had been intending to give their papers in Chinese, but now that they had an ‘international’ audience (i.e. me), and with this being an international conference, it all unexpectedly now had to be delivered in an international language, English. I didn’t know where to look – I wasn’t deserving of this. The paper would in any case be above my head and I wasn’t even very interested, because it was about engineering, rather than engineering information.
The PhD student presenter settled himself, took a deep breath, and holding the microphone very close to his mouth, started to shout out extremely slowly, in a very, very loud but nervous voice in English, and with the heaviest Chinese accent you can ever possibly imagine and amplified far too much for the fairly small room by the sound system, word by word, the bullet points we, the audience, could already see projected on the screen.
I really don’t want to make fun of the lovely people at this conference, but the next twenty minutes was like something out of Monty Python. The PhD student presenter seemed to be having more and more of a nervous breakdown as he shouted through each of the bullet points, every one delivered more slowly and with more fortississimo than the previous one. And I was the sole reason for his torture.
Can I quote the verbatim without insulting these lovely, friendly, and far more informed and intelligent than me, people?
No…I can’t. You’ll just have to use your imagination.
Afterwards, I went swimming. I didn’t have a towel, so I hired one, but it was the size of a dishcloth.
Shirley, my helpful student minder and translator
The Wall, 2nd time.
The Wall gets busy
The third day of the conference was cancelled, possibly because I might have pitched up at more presentations and caused more disruptions. Instead, we all enjoyed a wonderful day at the Wall, and a great meal afterwards in the largest (by far) restaurant I’ve ever been in.
I beat everyone up to the top of the Wall except the guy from Thailand, who was super fit. It wasn’t a race.
Loose ends. The translation thing didn’t work out. Now, in any case, there’s Google Translate. EEVL became part of Intute, which subsequently lost its funding. TechXtra still exists and helps people find information about engineering and technology. Much Chinese engineering information continues to be ignored by the west. Heather’s conference paper has been cited 24 times according to Google Scholar, and her IEEE paper 67 times.