Saknussemm in Guandong

I hate to big note myself (unless I’m ill-advisedly tilting at the windmill of a luscious younger woman who I think may not see through the act quickly enough)-but, as a certified paranoiac, I do occasionally have moments where I draw some grand albeit dark and discomfiting conclusions about the impact of my psychic state, perhaps just even my physical presence, on the larger scene.

For example, I can’t help but feel some twinge of that famous sinking feeling when I think of the Chinese province of Guandong.

Things can start off innocently enough-say with a tea-buying spree in Shanghai or some casual misbehavior in Hong Kong (although I do have my friend, the San Francisco writer Leland Cheuk, to thank for bailing me out of an embarrassingly large bill once at a girlie bar in Wan Chai)-but by the time I get to Guandong, things start to openly wobble.

Each visit, some catastrophe has taken place. I lie. Multiple crises have ensued, erupted-and just plain exploded. I’m left with the nagging question-am I a DISASTER MAGNET?

Guandong is China’s most populous region and the driving wheel of their economic empire. Guangzhou (Canton) is the principal city. To say it’s possibly the world’s densest manufacturing center today is no overstatement and doesn’t really begin to capture the emotional-psychological aspect. We’re talking the intensity of a termite mound during a thunderstorm.

Guandong produces a signficant percentage of China’s entire GDP, and there’s an excellent chance that right around you now are a whole lot of things made there-from clothing to electrical goods, to things inside other things-to stuff you don’t want to know about. Anything you can think of in fact, may very well be made in Guandong.

Hong Kong and Macau were historically parts of Guandong, and Cantonese remains the main language spoken there, despite the recent flood of immigration from other parts of the country because of the employment opportunities. The bulk of the men and women who built the railroads of America and Canada originated from Guandong, and that same work ethic is very much alive today.

Which isn’t to say that all is well there. Not by a long shot. Most of the wealth produced is consolidated around the Pearl River Delta. Actual wages generally are often pitiful. Sweatshops, battery farms and bizarre factory scenes from out of the 19th century sit right alongside complexes that conjure the 22nd. Unidentified clouds of smoke hang over vast sections. I worked one summer on Neville Island in Pittsburgh, back when steel and coke were manufactured there, and it doesn’t even begin to compare.

Toledo painted by Saknussemm

I first went to Guandong because of this painting (ironically titled Toledo).

A gallery in Hong Kong had taken me on and had sold it to an advertising executive visiting from Guangzhou. The gallery owner’s tip was to pay a visit there. There was talk of the Chinese government turning an immense decommissioned military base into a magical arts colony, where artists from all over China and the world would be welcome to live for free, providing they fixed up their own studio quarters. I was on a plane to Guangzhou quick smart-and that’s when the pattern began to form.

I could be sitting peacefully at a Western style breakfast…and a fiberglass factory has burst into an inferno of flames flash-frying 400 workers in an instant. Phosphates are found to be leeching into a major waterway. 300 school children suddenly lose all their hair. The principal railway line suddenly gets closed for unstated reasons and men in strange uniforms appear. The next morning an “incident” has occurred at a sulfuric acid plant. (Incidents don’t occur with sulfuric acid-more like total havoc and mayhem.) And then there are the agricultural industry outbreaks.

Meat Pig Head

We all know that chickens go supernova when the computers malfunction and too many hormones are administered. We all freaked out about Bird Flu. But what about suckling pigs with two heads? What about several baby pigs with two heads?

Yes, we’re willing to overlook a few oddball mutations. What would the traditions of the NBA, the freak show, and a good portion of next year’s admitted class to M.I.T. be without some wiggle room on this point? But it’s not a good look to be eating some Western style bacon in Guandong-overhearing that several hundred factory workers have been cooked like bacon, and only a few miles away, pigs are being born with two heads.

Now, I concede, it’s very possible-it may even be likely-that my coincidental presence has had nothing to do with these calamities. No one wishes that more than me. But I’ll tell you the thing that worries me the most. When this weird shit has been going down-and I count a total of thirteen “incidents” over the course of my visits that would’ve made front page/top of the TV bulletin news where I live-only one made it onto the radar of the world media that I’m aware of. One. (In a particularly worrisome instance, 4,000 people were exposed to toxic chemicals and I’m certain nary a whisper reached CNN or any outside news source.)

China has become much more media transparent than it was only a short while ago. The recent spree of attacks by lunatics on school children is a case in point. That news might well not have reached us once. The Olympics in Beijing helped. The influx of western businesses has helped. But in my view, we have the Chinese students and folks under thirty to thank for opening some windows that were previously sealed-and not always for reasons of some kind of political dissent. In fact, many Chinese young people are far more conservative than you might think.

The reason these younger people are conduits for news is that they’re often dislocated across great distances from their homes to study in the major cities, and like many of the population, they’re forced to occasionally seek employment at great distance from home. A lot of news that otherwise might not get out is carried in very personal ways by this mobile section of the populace.

It helps that these younger people are computer fluent, usually have cell phones, and have some degree of multilingual skills. But theirs isn’t for the most part any active attempt to subvert the official government spin on anything. The many students I’ve met are working hard just to cope with the challenges they face, and they have a great deal of pride in their cultures. Take my young friend Su, for instance.

She comes from an isolated rural village in the far north and lives in a shoebox, attending university in Shanghai. She’s the first person of her generation to go away to university, and in recognition of her achievement, her village named their most prized asset after her-a large earthmoving machine. When the government presented it to them, they had her name stenciled on the side. It sounds like a humble honor, but as everyone knows, 20 year olds don’t tear up all that easy-and she does when she shows the photograph-meekly but with reverence.

Her goal is to get educated and to help her family. She has no political radicalism. But she gets concerned when she hears from her brother, who works in Guandong, that several of his fellow employees have suddenly fallen gravely ill or that a few hundred at a plant nearby have been incinerated.

What did the plant manufacture? That’s another very big problem. It’s not just that industrial accidents occur far too frequently (whether I have anything to do with it or not), there’s a much bigger issue.

I have a friend who’s been a senior chemical engineer for DuPont (The Miracles of Science™). Their history, like Monsanto’s and others, is pretty checkered too. I don’t pretend to understand all that he does, but here’s how he puts it. “It’s very wrong to think the problem with developing giants like China and India is a matter of quality control and safety standards. That makes it sound like there are lapses in protocol that create accidents. It’s a lot truer to say that there are practices and processes at work that aren’t safe period. You don’t need a Ph.D. and twenty years of industry experience to know certain things aren’t only dubious, but highly dangerous. You can see them from the road. There are manufacturing facilities involved in multiple kinds of production that would simply not be allowed in the U.S., Japan and in all of Western Europe.”

Chinese Money

It doesn’t take a genius to understand why this is allowed to continue. It’s not a question of there being no photographic evidence, no chemical analyses, a tell-no-one conspiracy on the part of the government and its leverage over their media. We’re all engaged in the “conspiracy” because it’s right out in the open. We’re all stepping and fetching to the beat of China’s economic drum, with India’s juggernaut not far behind.

And yet, it’s a great mistake, too, to assign national blame in this regard, when multinational corporations are involved. Large portions of America have been similarly blighted in the past because of money and expedience (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and on and on). Think of the Midlands of England. Industrial devastation is nothing new-but it takes on a new meaning with both the scale of production in Guandong and what’s being produced.

Can any region, anywhere in the world sustain super-dense manufacturing across such a huge spectrum of industries, even if the highest quality work practices are in place? What if they’re obviously not?

It’s easy to think the problem is somehow “over there.” It’s easy to ignore what you hear only vaguely about, if at all. And sadly, it’s all too easy for whole nations to turn their backs on commercial negligence and malfeasance for financial reasons.

But sooner or later, a catastrophe occurs that inevitably does make the news-and like news-can travel. Look at BP’s tragic fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thank You, Good LuckI confess that I knew only generally what the situation was like in China until I physically paid a visit. There are thousands of legitimate enterprises that are being well run there-coping with a multitude of complex logistical problems. But while we may worry at large about China’s carbon footprint, I had some serious tactical concerns for my own, when I stepped through a marshy area and later felt a distinctly warm sensation. By the time I made it back to my hotel, the soles of my new Shanghai shoes were partially dissolved. Those shoes were dramatically cheaper than anything I could buy in America or Australia. But I can’t help wondering if there’s another price tag involved.

Tsunami 2010

By Don Mitchell


The great Chilean earthquake of 27 February triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific. I wrote about my experiences in the 1960 tsunami here on TNB, never imagining that I’d be writing a companion piece only a few months later. While working on my posting, it occurred to me that because many people have Google Earth on their computers, I should specify enough place and street names so that readers can get a look at where I’ve been today. Here’s how my tsunami day went.

6 AM. Sirens. I’m lying awake, ready to get up, drink some coffee, go downtown and run 10k along the bay front, where it’s flat.The sirens start, and my first thought is – tsunami! Then I wonder about it. Maybe somebody mis-programmed the monthly test? But no, they keep wailing. So I get up, and because I haven’t bothered dragging the old boom box down from the closet shelf, and there’s no regular radio in the house, I go to my computer.  Indeed, yes. Those are tsunami sirens, so I go in and wake Ruth. She wears earplugs. She’s startled.

6:15. I say, You make the coffee, and I’ll go fill up the Quest. I made a couple of runs to The Dump yesterday, and the fuel low light went on. I didn’t bother getting gas because I didn’t have my wallet.

6:20. Oh. I’m not the only one who needs gas. At the Union 76, the line stretches half a mile. Oh. I’ll wait it out.

6:25. On Hawai’i Public Radio, the Saturday morning host, who usually plays modern music, is doing the tsunami warning. In the background he’s playing John Adams’ “Shaker Loops.” Excellent choice – agitated and rousing, but not ominous.

6:30. Inching along. For the first time, I hear the Emergency Broadcast System alert squawks followed by an actual message. Not “This is a test . . . .”  Nope. A Hawai’i County Civil Defense person comes on with the detailed warning.

6:35. I’m in front of the Kaumana Fire House. I don’t want to stop in front of the engines, so I leave a gap. Oh! Somebody drives along and cuts in in front of me. This is Manhattan Bridge behavior. Somebody’s really worried. Never mind. If he doesn’t want to act in the Hawaiian way, I will. I don’t give him the stink eye.

7:00. Sirens again.

7:15. Switching between stations, I note that not every announcer knows what a “fathom” is. The official recommendation is that vessels go offshore to where the depth is “100 fathoms,” so some are saying “600 feet,” which is correct, and others “600 fathoms,” doing the X6 thing but forgetting to change the unit. Some feet and meter differences, too. One source says 7 feet expected, another says 4 meters. That’s a significant difference.

7:20. I fill up.

7:25. Back home. I gather up all the loose water bottles in the car. Might as well fill them, too. For sure, the power’s going out and I can’t remember whether the water flows when the power’s out.

7:30. A few email messages in from the Mainland. My sister reminds me not to be an idiot as I was in 1960. I respond that I’m 50 years older and most likely wiser.

7:59. I get out a general email reminding people who haven’t been at my house on Wailuku Drive in Pi’ihonua that it’s not near the shore. I put in a link to my TNB tsunami piece. I include Greg and Matt in the email: Matt because he’s lived in Hawai’i, and because I loved his Katrina piece, and Greg because I’ve been commiserating with him about the snow.

8:00. Sirens again.

8:20. Irving calls from the mainland. “Don’t go down to that bridge,” he says. We talk about snow.

8:40. I remember that my trailer can haul anything, not just waste. So I call my friend Alan at Alan’s Art and Antiques in case he needs help moving his stuff. Alan’s store is on the waterfront. He says No, I’m just taking a few things. And he reminds me that the 1957 Hilo Intermediate School yearbook that I haven’t picked up is at his house. So it’s safe, he says. I call Dragon Mama, Mrs. Suzuki, in case she needs help. She has a tatami, futon, and cloth place, also on the waterfront. A lot of our furniture came from her shop. She says No, we’re going to take a chance. She’s putting everything on the higher shelves and can tolerate a few feet of water in the store.

9:00. I call Carolyn. Does she know anybody who needs hauling help? It’s getting late, but I can hitch up quickly. No, she doesn’t. She lives up near the Volcano.

9:30. It’s a beautiful day. Sunny and cool. This is good, because if it gets bad down there, it’ll be easier for the workers.

9:35. I start thinking about where to go to watch. Charge the camera batteries. Charge the cell phones.

9:40. The tsunami ETA is 11:20. It’s nice when a pending disaster has a fairly precise schedule.

9:44. I start typing this. How did I forget about TNB? I need to mind my priorities. In a while I’ll drive down to town and see about a safe vantage point.

9:46. I hear that all water’s been shut off along coastal zones, so the tsunami can’t drive salt water and sewage into the system. I wonder if they did that in 1960?

10:00. Sirens again. It is a different sequence, I think. Longer. I head for town. Sailboats out beyond the breakwater. It’s a beautiful scene, like a regatta. But they’re fleeing to 100 fathom water. Most of the good vantage spots are taken. People have lawn chairs and even canopies in some of the best spots. I drive by the old Main Fire Station, where I went early in the morning in May 1960 to start trying to rescue people. Coming home, I drive past the old Hospital, which is now the County Annex. I feel it pulling me. From the road, I can see the old ambulance entrance. That’s where we took the dead bodies.

10:05. Ruth is on the phone talking to a friend in California. I feel a surge of irritation. A tsunami is coming! The ordinary world will be shaken. I immediately realize how ridiculous my feeling is. We’re in no danger at all.

10:10. A new ETA: 11:04. And no one will see it coming. On the Mainland, when there’s a winter storm or lake effect warning, I get the weather radar on my screen and see the trouble forming. See it moving. But this thing’s different. It’s out there, a wave front moving through deep water, not showing itself. For all that we’ve had hours of warning, when it does arrive, it’s going to leap up suddenly.

10:15. I stand on the porch, thinking. I go down to the van and open the hatch. Bungees and the tarp from my last dump run. I decide to leave them there. Somebody might need them. I walk into my shop and pick up my heavy ax. Should I put it in the van, just in case I have to do rescue work? I already have my biggest Gerber knife in my pocket, for the same reason. No, that’s silly. This isn’t 1960. Other people are ready to handle these things. And yet . . . I put the ax in the van. I keep my knife in my pocket. I feel simultaneously  well-prepared and silly.

10:30. Time to go. I tell Ruth she should wear sneakers, just in case we have to walk in wreckage. Is that going to happen? No. I put on my red Nike trail running shoes. Then I feel stupid, because I’m also wearing a red t-shirt. I hate thinking that anybody might think I chose my red shoes to go with my red shirt. I get in the car, Mister Red Man.

10:32. I run back inside to shut down all the computers. There could be a power surge, or the power could go out and the batteries run down before we get back.

10:35. Heading down the hill. I say to Ruth, If it happens, you’ll never forget what you’ll see. It’s a mighty force. I also use the word “inexorable,” which is a word I rarely use, but it’s the right word. The sea just keeps on coming at you. I want her to see it, so we can share it. She only knows about 1960 from my memories.

10:38. I’m thinking that Haili Street might be the best spot. The 1960 tsunami was also spawned in Chile, and it crashed into the Hamakua coast, out past Honoli’i, and then was reflected straight into Hilo Bay. Or at least that was the reconstruction – it was 1 AM that time, and so nobody actually saw it happen. Today, if this tsunami barrels at us out of the same direction, I’d like to see that reflection for myself. But from Haili St, we can’t see Honoli’i.

10:45. I drive down a little side street that parallels Haili, but I don’t grab a space for a while.  I find a parking place on Kapiolani. OK, it’s a good place, Honoli’i or no Honoli’i.

10:48. I tell Ruth, Let’s walk farther down towards the shore. We might be able to see out towards Honoli’i. We walk. The Water Department guys are driving around in their trucks. We get down where I hoped it might be good, but it’s not. Time to go back up the hill. I say, we might as well walk over to Waianuenue and go back up that way. We still have time. Ten minutes to go.

10:56. We’re walking back up Waianuenue, past my old elementary school. The sidewalks are crowded. More lawn chairs. I catch my toe on a sidewalk slab and stumble. A woman says, Don’t get hurt up here! I laugh. She asks, What’s it like down there? I say, Oh, it’s OK except the water’s boiling and it’s full of poisonous snakes. She laughs. Everybody laughs. I feel like a dork. I am a dork. This is surreal. Ruth and I are worried about getting back to Haili St in time for the show which, we know, starts at 11:04.

10:58. We get to the van. I whip a quick U-turn and get over to Haili St. There’s a place!

11:00. We walk up to where the view’s pretty good. Lots of people. There’s a guy wearing a “Harbor Security” patch. I wonder why he’s not down at the harbor, but I don’t say anything except that I’m a 1960 survivor. We talk about how teenagers believe they’re immortal.

11:02. Lots of sailing boats and some larger craft out past the breakwater. I’d be farther out, if I had a boat. I think I see a whale, but I’m not sure so I don’t say anything. But I start thinking about it. Will the whale be surprised? Then I think, No, probably there’s some acoustic energy preceding the wave. I don’t like thinking about a humpback being lifted over the breakwater and crashing into the shops along Kamehameha Avenue. But if it happens, I’ll get there with my camera somehow. It would be a great shot.

11:04. Show time! But there’s nothing. Helicopters – four of them, and now five, when they’re joined by a large Army chopper, down from the Pohakuloa Training Area. A Coast Guard C-130 rescue plane is circling, circling.

11:15. Nothing. There’s a bunch of teenagers sitting on a truck. I can’t resist, so I go over and tell them that when I was their age, I was down on the Wailuku bridge, and almost died. They’re impressed. What did you think? one asks. I’m going to fucking die! I say. They laugh. They’ll never fucking die.

11:20. Nothing, except I think one reef by the breakwater is exposed. I call to the kids, Look at the reef, it’s coming. I shape my voice to sound ominous. It doesn’t come. They are polite.

11:25. Nothing, except I realize that I’m leaning on a little pickup truck with an “Eddie Would Go” bumper sticker. This is very amusing, so I photograph Ruth and the Eddie Would Go sticker. Eddie Aikau was a famous big-wave surfer and lifeguard, who died in the Molokai Channel going for help when the double canoe Hokule’a overturned. I didn’t know Eddie but I did know somebody who sailed on Hokule’a.

11:40. Nothing. It’s hot. Maybe some other reefs are showing, maybe not. I can just barely see the tip of the breakwater, and it seems choppy there, as if something’s churning.

11:45. Nothing. I start talking to the woman whose house we’re in front of. Her family lost their fishing boat in 1960. We talk about 1960. She’s clearly pleased that nothing has happened. I’m not as pleased as she is. I admit this to myself. I want a 1960 replay except in daylight and with only a little destruction and nobody dead. I want to see it happening and not be terrified when I do.

11:55. Time to go. And yet . . . I can’t go home. So I head for Kaiwiki, where there’s a panoramic view of the bay. To get there, we drive across one of the Wailuku River bridges upstream from the bridge I was on. It’s packed with people. In 1960, people on this bridge saw me and my friends clinging to the bridge. They didn’t know who we were. In 2007 I ran into somebody in Buffalo whose father had been on that bridge, watching. He sent me an email: So you were one of those idiots.

12:10. Up to Kaiwiki. More spectators. Somebody in an old red Nissan Pathfinder has driven right out into the middle of an agricultural field. For a better view? It doesn’t seem better to me. We stay there a while. Nothing happening.

12:30. Down the hill. I’ll try Wainaku, near Alae Cemetery. Up Kulana Kea road with its No Trespassing signs, and a clump of orange cones that must have been strung out across the road this morning. Lots of cars. There are many giant raised-up pickups. I wish I had one to use today. Great view. I see serious churning in the bay, clearly a big outflow past the breakwater. And the waves against the breakwater seem more massive and synchronized than usual.

12:40. My son calls from the Adirondacks. Snow. Bad cell service. He didn’t know. He just saw my email on his iPhone. It’s all over, I tell him.

12:57. The whale breaches. So it was a whale. I keep my finger on the shutter and when it breaches again, I get it. Why don’t I have a huge telephoto? If I drop the whale image into my TNB piece, it’s going to be pixellated. People will laugh. The bay’s beautiful, but nothing’s happening.

1:00. Head home.

1:15. My stepson calls. What’s happening, I just saw it on the news. Well, it was nothing, and now it’s over.

1:20. Home. A bunch of emails, including one from Matt, who wishes the tsunami to pass like a flowing stream rather than a raging torrent. There’s one from Greg, who has snow and won’t have power until Tuesday. Those are worse circumstances than mine would have been, even if the tsunami had lived up to its billing.

1:30. How to make sense of the day? I can’t. It’s too complicated, emotionally. It’s wrong to feel disappointment because a natural disaster didn’t live up to expectations. It was so scheduled, and I admired that. The warning system, the computer models. The emergency preparations were precise and well-executed. Everything worked as it was supposed to. At Civil Defense they must be celebrating, and they should be. And yet I feel certain that among them, there are some who are disappointed that they will have very little post-tsunami work to do.

2:00. Well, for excitement I can thin my banana patch and take a load to the dump. I put the ax back in the shop. I get my machete and fell a couple of dozen bananas, and load the heavy green-black trunks, wetting myself with their juices. It’s the only water that’s hit me today. I hitch up the trailer and head down the hill for The Dump.

2:15. Oh, the Dump is closed today.