Somewhere during his journeys through more than 90 countries spanning all seven continents, Wan L. Yang realized he was in a unique position to share these experiences and cultures with others.
Now 81, the Rhawnhurst resident has been taking photographs since he was 14. Then living in Hong Kong, his father passed down an old Leica camera manufactured in Germany, which Yang used to photograph movie stars at the time.
“From then on I caught on, so I never let go,” he said.
His Rhawnhurst living room is packed with photographs of his worldwide travels, showcasing natural splendors like a colony of king penguins in Antarctica or the sun setting over an African safari. Yang’s work will be displayed this weekend at Northeast Regional Library, where visitors will witness these artifacts of his plentiful adventures.
“Many people don’t have the same opportunity as me to travel the world,” the Southeast China native said. “This world has so much beautiful nature, people, landscapes. I take some pictures and come and show it to people who don’t have the opportunity to see it for themselves.”
When asked what Yang is most proud of in his long and fulfilling life, he had difficulty answering the question. He has plenty to show and talk about at his age, and he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. Next year he’ll visit his 100th country, passing that milestone sometime between his ventures to Dubai and Oman. He has no time to waste on watching television or looking at his cell phone, he said – there’s too much life to live.
“If you do the important things, you save some time and you can do more important things,” he said.
When it comes to doing important things, Yang’s cup runneth over. His career began at NASA as a contractor on the Apollo Moon Space Program, where he worked on the Saturn V rocket, which launched dozens of people to the moon. His role was to oversee the development of the slip ring, an electromechanical component that transmits power and electrical signals from a stationary to a rotating structure.
Yang worked with NASA for three years after studying psychics at Ching Kung University in Taiwan, then continuing his education when he moved to America studying physics and engineering at the University of Texas (today the University of Texas at El Paso). But when his three-year contract with NASA was up, Yang moved on to his next project, helping create gunpowder for the Vietnam War.
“When the Apollo project finished there wasn’t too much work going on, so at the time they needed people to make gunpowder for the war, so I switched to it,” he said simply.
After helping make the gunpowder, Yang moved to Virginia where he started a farm – a “side job,” as he called it. Farming wasn’t the path for him, he realized after a bad experience giving a cow a shot, and he ended up moving to Philadelphia with his daughter Jinny to start an exporting and important business after choosing the city for its coastline location on a map.
“I had no friends or relatives, I don’t know anything about Philadelphia – I just picked it from the map,” he said.
But the move was worthwhile, and he’s been stationed here since 1970, the longest he’s ever stayed anywhere. Northeast Philly is his home base when he’s not traveling and documenting the sights through photographs. Taking pictures is his main priority when he travels, he said.
“When you take a picture you can stand on a hill with a hundred people seeing the same thing, but every person would take a different picture,” he said. “You can see which corner, which spot, which lighting each person sees.”
Yang fills his time singing, dancing, organizing dance parties and playing basketball. He’s too busy now, but later on he’ll sit down, organize his memories and write books about his life. The books will include his photos but also his philosophies, memoirs and experiences.
That, he said, will be his proudest accomplishment.
“So the answer to the question is, his proudest accomplishment is yet to come,” Jinny said.
The grand opening for the photography exhibit will take place Saturday, Dec. 7, at noon at Northeast Regional Library, 2228 Cottman Ave. It will run noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Food and refreshments will be served. ••