An Australian continues his family's connection with China
  ·  2023-10-23  ·   Source: NO.43 OCTOBER 26, 2023
When Lloyd Townley was 6, his family drove to Sydney Airport to pick up his grandmother and her second husband. They were Russian musicians who had been living in China for decades and arrived off a plane from Harbin in Heilongjiang Province, northeast China.

Known as China's ice city, Harbin has long winters. The gift Townley's grandmother brought from Harbin reflected the city's freezing weather—a winter jacket. "I still remember the padded winter jacket that she brought for my sister and me. It was so warm that we hardly needed them in Sydney," he recalled.

However, the experience seeded the connection between the boy and the seemingly distant country to the north. Today, the scientist and water environment and management engineer lives in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, east China, and holds permanent residence.

"China is my home now. I don't know for how long. Maybe forever," he said.

Lloyd Townley visits the Imperial Examinations Museum, which features the history and culture of China's imperial exams, in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, east China, on September 15 (ZHANG KAI)

Family history 

Townley's Russian grandparents, who had studied music, moved east from Omsk in Siberia to Harbin in 1921 during the Russian Civil War, which took place from 1918 to 1922.

His grandfather Nikolai Tonoff was a famous violinist and became a professor at Tsinghua University in 1930. Nina Engelgardt, Townley's grandmother who lived in Harbin for 38 years, performed in an opera troupe in the city. Her second husband, Vladimir Trachtenberg, was director of China's first music school, Harbin No.1 Music School.

Townley's father, who had been born in Russia and moved to Harbin with his parents as a child, traveled to many cities in China and began studying electrical engineering at Hong Kong University in 1939. His life in China was a fascinating part of the stories he shared with his children.

"I have always remembered what he told me and I continue to explore. In some ways China has always been part of my life," Townley said. He cherishes his family's ties with China and, since settling in China, has collected a large volume of information and other materials relating to them.

"I had always been looking for an opportunity to come to China," he said.

In July 1994, Townley traveled from Perth, Western Australia, to a conference in Hong Kong and had an extra few days at the end. So he took a boat to Macao and then a three-day bus trip in Guangdong Province, south China, to Guangzhou and Shenzhen long before the cities became the megacities they are today.

Twelve years after his first trip to China, Townley visited Guilin in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and, just for fun, enrolled in a two-week language course to learn standard Chinese. After the "stimulating experience that drove [him] to think of what to do next," he visited two friends during a vacation in Europe who had connections with Nanjing. Their recommendation of the city led to him leaving his job the following year and moving to China, and more specifically, to Nanjing.

Life in Nanjing 

Nanjing, situated in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, was the capital of China for six dynasties. The Australian Nanjinger loves the rivers in the city. He rides a bike along the bank of a river to the Nanjing Fishmouth Wetland Park in Jianye District on Saturday and Sunday mornings, about a 15-km round trip. Walking around the city or visiting museums is also an enjoyable part of his life.

According to Townley, Nanjing is in an ideal location in one corner of the Yangtze River Delta region, near Shanghai and also close to Beijing, which is only 3.5 hours away on the fastest high-speed train.

Now, Townley works with and is supported by the Jiangsu Industrial Technology Research Institute and serves as a visiting professor at the School of Environmental Science and Engineering at Nanjing Tech University.

After working as a consultant and in the industry for years, he loves being connected to a university again to share his knowledge and experience with younger people and to initiate research based on the problems he has encountered in the real world.

"I know my education and life are different from the typical Chinese student. What I want to do with my Chinese students is to encourage them to think, to be curious and to always search for new things."

A career in water 

Townley has been interested in water science and engineering for about 40 years. "I fell into that area when I was at university, and I haven't managed to escape," he said.

Before moving to China, he had been aware of the country's rapid growth. He realized there would be a great need for environmental improvement, including water quality, where he could put his skills to use. 

His primary technical skills are in simulating water and environmental systems through modeling for two primary objectives: understanding what happened in the past and predicting future behaviors.

Some Chinese people looked at his experience and suggested he work on improving the water quality in river basins. Upgrading the performance of wastewater treatment plants is one theme of Townley's work. Moreover, he set up a consulting company in 2019 that also includes businesses such as building sponge cities, cities designed to retain and absorb rainwater where it falls through sustainable urban drainage systems, and dealing with abandoned mines.

"China has 10 major river basins, of which the two most well-known are the Yangtze River and the Yellow River basins. They drain eastward, past many of the nation's major cities. Their water quality is excellent in the west, near their headwaters, and poor in the east as a result of human activities," he said.

Also, the large and flat coastal plains in the east make water quality hard to manage as water does not flow very fast across the landscape, he added.

"If it has taken 30 years to contaminate waterways and lakes, it may take 100 years to remediate the water quality. This is partly because water also carries sediments, and these sediments are deposited along the bottom of rivers and lakes. The processes by which sediments can be moved are slow," he continued.

But, progress has been made. According to Townley, canals and other bodies of water near Taihu Lake in Jiangsu, as well as ponds used for aquaculture, appear to be becoming cleaner.

He hopes to obtain more data about the behavior and health of the region's water for his team and more people in the environmental field to better understand the situation and carry out further research.

(Printed Edition Title: Going With the Flow)  

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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