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.

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