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Adelaide "Su-Lin" Young, the subject of books and international press coverage as first American woman explorer to to enter the Tibetan-Himalayan area and part of the expeditions that brought the first giant panda to the United States in 1934, died in Hercules on April 17. She was 96. (Photo courtesy Jolly Young)

It was a honeymoon for the history books, one that, 74 years later, brims with the kind of details that novelists and screenwriters can only dream about.

Adelaide "Su-Lin" Young, a longtime El Cerrito resident who died April 17 in Hercules at age 96, was known as "the Panda Lady" and is credited as the first American female explorer to trek into the rugged Tibetan-Himalayan area.

Her true-life adventures in the 1930s, since recounted in books and discussed as movies, seemed improbable for a young Chinese-American woman raised in an upper-middle-class home in New York. And it all started with the 1934 "honeymoon" the young bride embarked on with her new husband, Jack Young.

"My father was an explorer and naturalist who was going to the university in New York when my mother met him," said daughter Jackie Wan of Hercules. "They fell in love and she married him."

The honeymoon was actually a 10-month, three-person expedition on a slow boat to China, where the newlyweds and Jack's brother, Quentin, were to collect bird and animal specimens and catalog plants for the American Museum of Natural History. The journey was financed by Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and Kermit Roosevelt, two of President Theodore Roosevelt's three sons.


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Su-Lin Young was a native of New York City, where her father, Ming Tai Chen, owned the famed China Doll Night Club, which hosted the big bands of Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and other famous acts of the day. The diminutive Young would say in later years that her only preparation for her expeditions to China and the Himalayas came from her time as a counselor at Camp Interlaken in New Hampshire.

Photos from the trip show a smiling Su-Lin Young with a pistol on her side.

"Mounted trophies were the custom at the time of her travels, but early on, after shooting a large Asian bear, she vowed never to kill another animal," recounted daughter Jolly Young of Honolulu. "Because of this incident, she became instrumental in influencing the Young family to 'bring 'em back alive.'"

On that first and subsequent expeditions, Chinese-Americans Jack, Su-Lin and Quentin Young covered territory in China, Tibet and parts of India little explored by adventurers from the West.

"Parts of her travels were made with only a single guide/interpreter and her accounts detail sleeping in and around monasteries, lamaseries, palaces, tents and yurts with her loaded pistol under a makeshift pillow," Jolly Young wrote in a summary of her mother's life. "As the sole woman in the company of men, she was an oddity if not scandalous. In many areas she was the first 'foreign' woman local inhabitants had ever seen."

As rough as the expeditions themselves were, Su-Lin had other hardships. Two of her three daughters were born on expeditions to the Far East.

"She told us about being evacuated twice from China while traveling with a toddler and a baby," said Kathy Haaga, who interviewed Young for an exhibit at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee.

In all, Young went through three evacuations from China and survived Japanese bombing raids in the years prior to World War II.

"I asked her if she would do it all again knowing what she knew, and she said, 'No way,'" Haaga said.

"She was a very tough woman," Jackie Wan said. "She was a trooper, very smart, very sociable. She really had an exciting life."

The expeditions resulted in the arrival of the first live panda, named Su-Lin in her honor, to the United States. The Explorers Walk, an exhibit at the Memphis Zoo, credits her as one of three explorers who opened the East to the West, along with Marco Polo and naturalist Father Armand David.

Young's experiences didn't end there. An alumna of Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., she was once a disc jockey for the MAAG American station in Formosa (now Taiwan), and in the 1930s contributed several articles to Arthur Sowerby's monthly China Journal and wrote society articles for a Shanghai newspaper. In later years, she worked for the Social Security Administration in the San Francisco Chinatown branch and lectured and wrote about her travels.

Reach Chris Treadway at 510-262-2784 or ctreadway@bayareanewsgroup.com.

EPITAPH
Adelaide "Su-Lin" Young
  • BORN: Dec. 23, 1911, in New York City
  • DIED: April 17, 2008, in Hercules
  • SURVIVED BY: Daughters Jackie Wan of Hercules, Jocelyn Fenton of Dallas and Jolly King of Honolulu; one granddaughter and one great-grandchild.
  • SERVICES: A celebration of life will be held later this year when Young will be laid to rest alongside her parents in New York.
  • DONATIONS: Donations in her name can be made to the Sutter VNA & Hospice Foundation, 1900 Powell St., Ste 900, Emeryville, CA 94608 or the World Wildlife Fund, P.O. Box 97180, Washington, D.C., 20090