Friday, August 12, 2005

Emergency Earthquake Rescue

Funny thing happened on the way to work this morning. I turned in to the entrance of the 40-storey office block Voyage calls home and found myself being tailgated by a impatient driver, revving and beeping his annoyance at the fact that I dared to obstruct his path. There is, of course, nothing in the least unusual about that. Anyone stopping in China for even the shortest of periods cannot to fail to notice the system which exists on the roads here. There's only one rule in this part of the world. If you're bigger than the person/vehicle you are jostling for position with, it's damn well your right of way. Traffic lights, road markings, roundabouts, junctions matter not. If you are a haulage vehicle carrying 30 tonnes of timber and, approaching a red light, you spot a pensioner, attempting to shuffle across a busy road before the green pedestrian light expires, it is positively your duty to issue a loud blast on the horn before accelerating and forcing her to retreat – or run, or just simply die. This is the way it is. It applies right the way down the food chain. Big lorries have more rights than smaller lorries, smaller lorries take preference over large Buick saloons, which in turn can boss humble VW taxis, who - in turn - can take out their frustrations by sending motorcylists scampering for cover etc.etc. It's the jungle. It's the playground bully syndrome. And it's pretty bad news for those who walk.

Anyway, I digress. What was unusual about the vehicle tailgating me this morning was not that it was beeping me for attempting to reach the door of my office block by the only pedestrianised means possible. It was that the car was discernably different to anything I had ever seen before in Shanghai. For one, it was bright yellow and on one side were three words writ in bold - Emergency Earthquake Rescue. I was momentarily shocked, and wondered if there had been some kind of internal collapse in the building overnight, perhaps with some of the graveyard-shift Ayi’s (cleaners) fighting for life under piles of computers and monitors that had fallen through the floors above after becoming overloaded with stock market data and porn. This fear was tempered when, from the back seat, emerged said Emergency Earthquake Rescuer – a middle aged Chinese lady. There were no masks, or oxygen tanks, as one might expect were required of a heroic rescue attempt. Instead, she stepped from the car, slung a handbag over her shoulder as headed into the building for another day at work.

In China, this is common enough, I suppose. Nearly every police car I see seems to have a plain-clothed passenger in the back/front seat. The lights are invariably flashing, yet their crimes of the apprehended hooligans appear to be so minor that their uniformed drivers feel able to drop them off in choice, central locations (cinemas, supermarkets, restaurants) and bid them farewell with a wave. This phenomenon always seems to be more pronounced in bad weather. It's really very curious.

If anyone has spotted any other emergency / official vehicles in incongruous locations, I would love to hear about them.

Saturday, June 04, 2005


My lunch break yesterday was slightly longer than usual. As I headed to my usual la mian noodle joint, I got caught up in an impromptu festival going on just outside the office. The occasion was the impending suicide of a young girl. She had got up onto the fifth floor ledge of a brand new car park building on Kaixuan Road, just next to the Zhongshan Park elevated metro station (Line 3). She was around 20 metres from the ground. It didn't look high enough to guarantee her doom if she did jump, adding a macabre dramatic element to what was - judging from the size of the crowd - an already thrilling scene.

The troubled lady, who looked somewhere between 21 and 30 years old, was dressed in a trendy, summery outfit - tight white trousers, cut to half way down her shin, and a pink and white flowery blouse. She had her handbag up there with her, and every so often she took her mobile out of the bag and talked with someone on the phone. When not chatting, the girl stalked the ledge. Several times she appeared to have gathered the courage for the leap. She strode to the edge, put her hands to her sides, closed her eyes and swayed - before retreating back, hands on hips.

The crowd grew larger by the minute. The only thing missing was a refreshments stand and a popcorn cart. Every motorist who passed slowed right down to take a look. Many would clearly have got out of their cars to wait had the police not waved them on. Those on bikes pulled up and sat on their saddles. They crouched on the grass underneath the elevated railway. At my noodle store the previous day, an opportunistic street vendor had offered me a pair of bincoulars. It seemed an odd offering at the time but the chap would have sold hundreds in a matter of minutes if he had come by a day later.

The crowd came as no surprise. This kind of thing is very common in China. Incidents of any kind - simple arguments, fist fights or horror freeway pile ups, no matter how bloody and gruesome - always attract onlookers. They tend to stand very close and look inqusitive and curious without lifting a finger to help, or appearing to be in the least bit embarrassed by their obvious schadenfreude. This crowd by this time began to get restless. Maybe they were on their lunch break too. They wanted resolution to the tale. They wanted to know what was going to happen next before they headed back to their desks. Some began shouting tiao, tiao (jump, jump), with big grins on their faces. I looked around. I had never seen some many broad smiles in one place.It was like Cup Final day and the mood was infectious. The girl's plight was completely disassociated her status as a fellow member of the human race. It was like watching TV. The mood wasn't sad. It was thrilling. People shared possible motives. They wondered what had happened. Strangers were bought together. If only that girl knew what she had done to brighten the lives of those who now watched her impending demise.

Every so often, the girl gestured to her audience by putting her arms out in front of her and waving her wrists, as if to say 'I want you all to go home. There's nothing to see here.' She may also have been gesturing to her would be saviours. The fire service was on the scene and had inflated a huge bouncy castle-like structure beneath the ledge. There were a few comic moments when they lifted the thing and moved it along the pavement to match the girl's pacing back and forth up on the ledge.

After half an hour or so in the thick of the crowd, I regained my sense of dignity - either that or I got bored - and headed off for my lunch and then back to the office. I told everyone there was a would-be jumper outside. I told them that she would never do it. She just wanted the attention, I said.

All afternoon we looked out of our window. The crowd never left. At 7pm, when we finally left the office, I went with two colleagues back to the scene. We couldn't resist. The girl was still there. We wondered what she had done about toilet logistics. The fire service appeared to have got half way in sending their rescue ladder up towards the fifth floor before being intimated into giving up, presumably by the girl's threats to jump. I said that they should just go up and there and grab her, as it was obvious to everyone that she was never going to jump. She just wanted the attention and she had damn well got it.

But then today, I woke up to a text from my colleague. It had been on the news. At 10pm - nine hours after she took to the ledge - the girl jumped. She died on the way to hospital.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Shanghai Riots

When one is living in Shanghai, you expect to get woken up by drilling, banging and all the other stuff involved in the overnight construction of a sixty-thousand storey high rise outside your window. What one does not expect to get woken up by is rioting. The buggers wait nearly 16 years to do it and they've got to do it one the one morning when I'm nursing a hangover. And they've got to do it outside my front door.

I was in bed, at 9.45am or so, when I first awoke to the crowd' s roar. As I later found out, the masses were more than one kilometre away, near the Japanese consulate. Not only that, but I was wearing the earplugs that I had been part of my goodie bag at the NWA press conference two days prior. And I still woke up. That's one loud roar. The journalistic instincts eventually get the better of me and, at midday, I head out.

I join the crowd on Yan'an Lu, heading west. I am almost instantly handed a leaflet demanding that Japan cedes possession of a collection of islets in the East China Sea (Diaoyu Dao). I tuck it into my pocket. In next to no time, my small group has amlgamated with a huge stream of people, all heading in the same direction. There are traffic cones and policeman directing us.

We march in the shadow of the raised-section of Yan'an Lu, surrounded and funnelled by the giant concrete supports that hold up the four-lane highway above us. Having turned away from the main road, I stop, momentarily, to watch a section of the throng abusing a shopkeeper. He stands on crutches, young son beside him, trying to remonstrate with his tormentors. They are having none of it and continue to throw bottles - and abuse - at him. His crime, it appears, is to have had Japanese script on his shop's sign. It's not the main sign but beneath the big Chinese characters are a few small Japanese slashes and dashes.

A little farther on, I come across a portly middle-aged man chucking stones at an already battered metal sign. He's throwing from point blank range and is grinning maniacally. I can see no reason for what he is doing but he is having a great time so I leave him be. The Japanese consulate, when I finally come across it, is splattered in paint. The crowd is huge here. One man shouts 'Japanese pigs' as he hurls a quarter-full bottle of coke at the consulate. He lets go a little bit too late and the bottle smashes into the head of the girl just in front of him. It sums up the day really. Idiocy all round.

There's a little bit of a crush going on at this point of the march so I duck out, through a bush, and walk alongside the main crowd. A huge organised police operation is allowing a few marchers out a few at a time. Their chants and shouts die away as they realise they are no longer with the throng. It's a professional operation. Anyone would think the Chinese police have been managing riots for years.

For an 'nationalist' riot there was little to fear for non-Japanese foreigners like myself. I spotted one chap burning a poster of Koizumi clad himself in an England football shirt. There were lots of pretty young things there looking as if they had just come in from a night out on the tiles, taking pictures of events using their slimline cameras.

Down next to the consulate itself, I see one member of the riot policeman responding to a protestor's plea for him to hand back a stone which had fallen shy of its target (a consulate window, presumably). He slyly kicks it back into play and it is shortly thereafter hurled.

I get the sense that many of the demonstrators are here out of curiosity - and for fun. After I decide to leave the masses, I come across one Teppenyaki store which had been completely ransacked. A couple are outside, posing hand-on-hip and taking pictures of each other. They are grinning and having a great time. Within minutes of being torched, the place had become a tourist attraction.

All in all, the day was pretty sickening. It was all pitchfork-style mob behaviour. Smashing up of Japanese stores, destruction of Japanese cars, stoning of the Japanese Consulate by grinning, brainless, imbecilic people with their slimline Sony digi cameras. Nice to see people getting passionate, sad - and worrying - to see normally docile, respectable people behaving like yobs, just because they can.
NOTE: On May 2, during a walk down Nanjing Lu, I come across a Japanese noddle bar which has people queuing around the block to get in. I can't help but think back to April 16 when the protestors had implored each other to boycott all Japanese goods, stop buying Sony cameras, Toyota cars etc.etc. Nanjing Lu during the May holidays suggests that commerce, shopping and damn tasty Ramen will invariably triumph over ideology in modern China.