Suzhou: City of canals, semiconductors and hidden radios

Why is the garden city of China a hotbed of amateur radio direction finders?

Published November 24, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

I am running along the remains of the 2,500-year-old wall surrounding the Chinese city of Suzhou, and the beep is getting louder. "Find where the volume is lowest," says 17-year-old Shen Wenjie, a junior at Suzhou Middle School and, as it happens, an amateur radio direction finding (ARDF) player since he was in the third grade.

The radio signal appears to be quieter on the left, so we scramble down the slope to a newly landscaped path alongside one of the city's myriad canals. Freshly planted grass and camphor trees border a classical garden-style walkway made of inlaid stones and pavers.

Until last year, residents planted vegetables on the area where we are now standing, Shen tells me. Some of the farmers dug up the grass this year to grow their usual watermelon crop: quite the headache for local government authorities, apparently. The radio signal is so low now I can hardly hear it through my headphones. We are very close to achieving our goal: finding the radio receiver concealed somewhere in the greenspace. I look around, only to be admonished by Shen. "No, don't use your eyes," he says. "Listen and think."

It's my first time ever playing ARDF, and already I'm cheating.

Earlier that Sunday morning, the Suzhou ARDF team and I had gathered underneath one of the six bridges that traverse the moat surrounding this rapidly modernizing city of 2.2 million people. I had come along to watch the team's weekly training program, in which about 40 kids, ages 13 to 18, outfitted with headphones, antennas and ham radios, had to locate in consecutive order seven transmitters hidden by the coaches.

According to Li Xuelong, head coach for the ARDF Suzhou city team, the Soviets first introduced ARDF to China during the Communist Revolution in the 1940s. The Chinese Nationalists, the Kuomintang, apparently also used ARDF as spy technology. Fast forward to the 21st century. Two years ago, Suzhou took ninth place when it represented China in the World ARDF championships.

It's not clear if the city's special love of the sport has something to do with Suzhou's sophisticated, tech-savvy reputation. In 2001, Newsweek singled out Suzhou, located 30 miles from Shanghai, as one of nine emerging high-tech cities in the world. An ancient city of gardens and canals, Suzhou now manufactures 8 percent of China's IT products.

Li has his own opinion about the value of playing ARDF. "It is a game that requires both mental and physical fitness," he says. "That is why it is good for China." Kids must be sharp enough to interpret radio signals and to think geometrically about the shortest route to their target. And they must be fit enough to run up to 10 kilometers and beat the other team's time. ARDF players, in short, have to possess a triumvirate of skills: running, listening and analyzing.

For the last couple of years, the ARDF club has been the most popular school club at Suzhou Middle School, an institution that traces its history back to 1053, during the Song dynasty. Today, the kids are learning what Shen dismisses as "basic techniques," such as the 90 degree rule, in which players initially approach their target at right angles, instead of on a diagonal. They are also reminded that the Suzhou canals confuse the radio signals by reflecting sound just as water reflects light.

Li asks why ARDF isn't very popular in the United States. Hazarding a guess, I say American teens like technology when it comes in the form of video games, but might balk at the physical activity associated with direction finding. Actually, after returning home, I discover that Americans are taking a growing interest in mobile transmitter hunting; the third annual USA ARDF championships took place in Cincinnati last summer. But in true American style, the sport usually involves driving, not running.

Shen, who took fourth place in Suzhou's National Day ARDF competition, held in October, has more than recreational reasons for playing the orienteering game. If he takes first or second place in next year's competition, he'll be able to add 20 points to his physical education score on the national examination: the one-shot comprehensive test that determines the fate of every Chinese high school graduate seeking a place in the nation's hyper-competitive university system.

ARDF players learn to navigate different kinds of terrain, from urban parks to woodland areas. The Suzhou team often practices on an island in the middle of Lake Tai, the third-largest freshwater lake in China. It's about 50 kilometers from Suzhou proper. In the next couple of years, however, the Suzhou New and High-Tech Industrial District will expand by 100 kilometers to create a continuous industrial park from Suzhou to the water's edge. During an ARDF competition last year, several girls reportedly got lost on the Lake Tai island for three hours. "They should have been carrying their cellphones," Shen says.

As for the gripes local peasants have with the government's beautification plans, which are transforming plots of farmland all over Suzhou, they are not shared by the ARDF team.

"Last year, this was just mud," says Shen, pointing to the neat rows of azalea bushes. "We got so dirty."

Although I came close, I never did find any of the receivers. Shen consoles me, albeit in a slightly condescending, teenage boy sort of way. It's just knowing Morse code and math, he says, when I ask him what I am hearing and where we should be going. "But I've been doing this for years," he adds. "You would learn if you practiced."

By Linda Baker

Linda Baker is a journalist in Portland, Oregon.

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