An Intimate Look at Ham Radio in China

A group of Beijing amateur radio operators pose for a photo after passing their license upgrade examinations.
A group of Beijing amateur radio operators pose for a photo after passing their license upgrade examinations.

I have just taken a look at an interesting video produced by a Chinese amateur radio operator, and I have been entertained, delighted and sometimes a little amazed by what it shows.

This very personal video was shot by Oliver Lee BG1RYO who works, I understand, as a video cameraman and editor/producer in China. That is his work, and his hobby is Ham Radio. He is a licensed Amateur Radio operator like millions of other people around the world.

We all enjoy communicating with other radio hams, and we all had to study to pass our Amateur Radio exams to receive that internationally-recognised license from our countries’ governments.

I would never have known about Oliver Lee, or the existence of his revealing video about the Chinese ham radio fraternity, if it wasn’t for a personal advertisement he put up on the free Australian trading website named Gumtree.

I went there last week and did a quick search for “Ham Radio” in case anyone was selling any interesting equipment. Oliver’s personal advert showed up as I scrolled down the page of listings.

Oliver and his wife BG1KUO are now living in Sydney, and he had advertised for English lessons in exchange for lessons in Mandarin Chinese. The ad was shown to me because he listed his hobbies and interests as photography and video, motorcycles and ham radio.

Apart from being a licensed radio ham, I too am keen on photography, riding motorbikes and making videos, so I felt there was an immediate connection. To make things even stronger, I happen to really love Chinese culture, since I grew up in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony, and I lived there through most of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I speak some Cantonese (the southern Chinese dialect) but no Mandarin.

However, I wasn’t looking for formal lessons in Chinese.

Instead, I figured it would be a good idea to encourage Oliver to meet other ham radio operators by going to one of the many ham radio clubs in Sydney. I felt that by mixing with socially with Aussie radio hams, his English (and his confidence about it) were sure to improve. So I emailed Oliver and told him about two large ham radio clubs in Sydney, namely HADARC and ARNSW.

Then too, I have an Australian friend I know from my Hong Kong days who speaks excellent Cantonese, and I guessed he might want to learn to speak Mandarin. So I phoned him and sent him a copy of Oliver’s advert from Gumtree. Mike said he would phone Oliver and see what developed.

I then received an email back from Oliver. He thanked me and asked me if I would look at a video of his. He made it back in 2008, and it is called “Ham Flower”, and in the credits he calls himself “Ideal Lee”, not Oliver. I suspect that might be an English translation of his full Chinese name.

Lost (a little bit) in translation

Beijing amateur radio operators
Chinese ham radio operators work as a team to install amateur radio antennas on top of a Beijing apartment block.

I made myself a mug of tea and settled down to watch the video, and noted it was 38 minutes long. But I needn’t have worried. The content is well worth the time to look at it, even in this age of TV video clips of 30 seconds or less.

The video’s title, Ham Flower, is probably as puzzling to us English-speakers as “Ham Radio” is to the Chinese. In fact there is a spot in the video where they try to translate the word “Ham” and their translator comes back with the word “gammon”, which is actually quite accurate. Personally I have no idea how we amateur radio ops got linked to the word Ham or Hams, either! But on with the video.

You get to see Oliver at his desk with two computers and some ham radio equipment. Like XYLs everywhere, his wife complains about his strange preoccupation with ham radio. Family life like any other ham radio operator.

Two hams help co-ordinate the installation of an antenna on a Beijing apartment building some 35 stories high.
Two radio hams help install a 2-way radio antenna on top of a Beijing apartment building, 35 stories high.

Then we see a large number of Chinese hams working together to install radio antennas on the roof of one of the large residential apartment blocks in Peking. There don’t seem to be many restrictions on erecting apparatus on the rooftops there, for we see them dropping coaxial cable down several floors, drilling through concrete walls and even pulling a long coaxial cable (with its reinforcing steel wire) from the top of one apartment block to the other. However, we do see the hams shaking hands on the rooftop with a pair of Chinese officials who have come to watch part of the operation.

rooftop to rooftop coax cable
The coaxial cable running to the other apartment block roof

That is the kind of installation that would never be permitted here in Australia without having to go through a minefield of permits, expensive engineers’ reports and planning permissions from local councils and other bodies, not to mention health and safety restrictions!

At one stage a uniformed policeman comes up to the rooftop to see what is happening. That part of the filming actually stops there, but it was obviously sanctioned by the right people.

While these Chinese hams do have legal licensed call signs (which are shown in the video’s long list of credits at the end) they tend to chat informally over their handheld radios using familiar or maybe tactical call signs such as “Happy 99″ “Boeing 747″ and so on. They also use English radio prowords when they are calling CQ on the HF bands, and they use “73” and “Roger” a lot.

For a moment I thought of CB radio “handles”, but there is no doubt these Beijing hams are all licensed amateur radio operators. Later, the video shows them gathering at a local Peking restaurant for a club meeting. Some of the hams are studying for an exam to upgrade their license privileges. Soon we get to see the same people sitting in an examination hall for the upgrade tests, and then there is a happy gathering once the exam was over.

They are then seen posing for a group photo. (That is the same picture as that at the beginning of this article.)

This Chinese ham radio video was made in 2008, and while it was being put together and edited by Oliver Lee, the Great Sichuan earthquake, which was Level 8 on the Richter scale, took place. This monumental disaster killed more than 69,000 people in the affected area. Hundreds of thousands more people were injured. and more than four million people lost their homes. Roads, telephone and cellphone communications were destroyed. Countless thousands of innocent people suddenly found themselves without food, safe drinking water or shelter from the cold nights ahead.

Emergency Radio Call
Emergency! Urgent call to all Chinese ham radio operators.

So what did the Chinese hams do? They rallied to help out, just as amateur radio operators in other countries have always done… to help the authorities and provide emergency communications to aid their fellow citizens.

Chinese hams help with disaster communication
Chinese hams were called upon to help Chinese authorities after the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

You can see some of this on the video just after the 30-minute mark, where you will see and hear various Chinese hams responding to calls for help. You will see their working frequencies on the 40-meter and 20-meter HF bands and hear their voices as they handle urgent messages for the authorities.

Chinese radio operators certainly understand the international proword “Mayday” as well.

You will also see a convoy of Chinese hams who loaded up their vehicles with food and bottled water to take to the earthquake survivors in nearby provinces. You will also see and hear some TV news clips from that time.

So grab your favourite beverage, make yourself comfortable and click the link below to watch Ideal Lee (Oliver Lee) ‘s video for yourself:

Original-HAM Flower

73 de David, VK2DMH