Family Photos a big hit in China

By Jeff Wilkin (Schenectady Gazette Reporter) May 23, 2004

The bald Buddhist monk wore a light brown robe and an earnest expression. He was at the Yunnan Provincial Museum in China and was one of the first to see Clinton C. Millett's pictures of 1944 Kunming. He spoke softly and sincerely.

"Today, I saw several pictures of our temple," he said on videotape, through a translator to Gregg B. Millett of Niskayuna. "We feel very happy for your father's photography. Thank you very much for bringing these precious pictures back to Kunming," he added, "which build a friendship bridge between the U.S. and China people."

Gregg Millett and his granddaughter, Krystal Garrison of Altamont, have caused a sensation in Kunming. Both traveled to the city of 3.5 million people in southwest China earlier this month to help open the "1944 - Colorful Kunming" exhibit at Yunnan Provincial Museum.

The show is a collection of 127 color photographs that Clinton Millett took in 1944. That's where the goodwill story begins.

Millett, a native of Omaha, Nebraska was a doctor and lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army's 172nd General Hospital. As the 172nds executive officer, he led the convoy that took the hospital from Ledo, India to Kunming, China crossing the Ledo Burma Road.

Dr. Millett was busy enough at the 1,000 bed hospital; five of the celebrated flyer Jimmy Doolittle's injured pilots were treated there. But while other men spent free hours playing cards in the their tents, Millett explored Kunming with his camera. Rolls of Kodachrome, Kodak's color slide film, arrived in the mail from Omaha. He went looking.

Gregg Millett, 65, a longtime teacher who founded Singles Outreach Services in the Capital Region in 1983, is now back home. He said his father concentrated on the culture and people of Kunming: "The street scenes, the fishing boats, the flower markets, some pictures of soldiers and kids," he said.

The elder Millett liked the city, which stands on a high plateau and is bordered by mountains in the north, east and west; the south opens to Diachi Lake. The climate is mild all year, and the city is covered with more than 400 kinds of flowers. It is know as " the city of eternal spring."

"He truly loved this place and these people and this climate," Gregg Millett said, "He mentioned if he could get his family there, he would be in no hurry to leave." But the doctor did leave, in October of 1945. The war had ended and he returned home to his wife Martha, their four children and to sick people in Omaha.

Millet later opened a physicians' clinic and organized scholarships at the University of Nebraska's medical school. He died in 1964 at the age of 55.

The collection of slides and letters --- father Millett wrote home daily --- remained in family hands. But son Millett, in retirement, needed new projects. He joined the U.S. China Peoples Friendship Association and made contact with a woman from Kunming. She saw the senior Millett slide show last year.

"She said they were magnificent and that Kunming had changed tremendously," Millett said. "I decided… the best way for me to put it…. Is to go walk in my father's footsteps." He made another Chinese friend, travel agent Jin Fei Bao, over the Internet. Millett was making arrangements to visit and wanted to rent a hall to show his father's photographs.

"I sent him a couple of copies, a couple of photos," Millett said. "And the next e-mail back from him --- he'd only seen four of these pictures - he said, 'How many do you have?' " "I said, 'a couple hundred' "Millett added. "He wrote me back and said, 'You must come as our guest. You're holding a treasure' ".

The Chinese wanted the photos in a museum exhibit, and Millett sent copies of the slides to Kunming on computer disks. What was old, was suddenly new again.

"Because of the Cultural Revolution, so much of their history has been wiped out, with Mao's mindset of our with the old, in with the new," said Garrison, 21. "So much of their history has really been erased, and the fact that these were color photos from 1944 --- color photography wasn't introduced to Kunming until 1979."
The exhibit opened May 9 and 12,000 people came to see the mounted photographs. On another day 20,000 showed up.

"We knew we had amazing images from a long time ago, and so much change has happened since these pictures were taken, but the actual amount of change really surprised me,' Garrison said. "We knew these pictures were going to be important to the people because their history was lost, but we had no idea about the numbers of people coming out to see these images and how eager they were to thank us for bringing them back and making such a huge contribution".

Millett and Garrison traveled with an interpreter and driver, provided by their Kunming hosts. There were nightly banquets, gifts and constant media attention; the Americans were celebrities.

"Everywhere we went we had about two cars full of reporters and photographers, " Garrison said. "It was strange, People were recognizing us on the street".

Newspapers carried stories about the exhibit and the Americans. One paper ran a large Clinton Millett photographs that showed youngsters Chau and Lu, whom the doctor befriended, Kunming officials hoped the now-grown men would recognize themselves and come forward. So far, they have not.

One woman did recognize her father, a man Gregg Millett always knew as "the Shopkeeper". It's one of his favorite photographs --- an elderly man in a black cap, a black shirt or jacket. Millett likes the caution, wisdom and integrity etched into the old man's face.

The daughter cried in front of the picture and corrected Millett, "The shopkeeper is a Chinese doctor," he said. "The packets behind him are herbal medicine."

The free exhibit will run at Yunnan Provincial museum through May 29* and later will be permanently displayed in Kunming. Millett expects he will walk in his father's footsteps again. "We had such access to people," Millett said of his trip to China. "Talking to them and learning how the Chinese do business and customs of eating. It was fantastic."

*The exhibit was extended to June 9