The old man called to me from the side of the road. "Sit for a while," he said. "Talk to me." It was getting late. Aside for a few streetlamps scattered between the rigid blue refugee tents there wasn't much in the way of light. The earthquake had extinguished the neon signs that still clung to the shells of abandoned buildings.
AP photo by Wang Jiao Wen
When I pulled up a rough wooden stool and looked at the man, close, for the first time, I saw how old he was. His face was creviced and deep. The crags of his nose heaved his huge glasses askew and you could wonder if he had been struck by lightning. His block torso was tied to the faintest rods of legs, bent in two at the nub of the knees. He didn't offer me anything to drink because he had nothing to offer. We sat and exchanged the usual pleasantries, and he chided me for getting a hotel room in the one hotel still standing in town (most visitors were funneled there, and my room was a converted gaming den - an air mattress stuck in the space between a mahjong table and the TV – no one in town seemed much in the mood for games) because I could share his bunk in the tent with him. I told him next time, I would take him up on his offer, and he smiled and looked off at the steam shovels still digging across the road.
It's rare to find an old man all alone and I worried about asking the unthinkable, if his family was crushed when his city shook. It shouldn't be surprising, in the midst of obvious devastation of the largest earthquake in China in thirty years, hearing people point out sites of death, watching them list lost family members with the vacant stare of two months' grief. But the old man wasn't one of those people. He lowered his voice as he told me. Years ago, while he worked away from home, his wife started sleeping with his best friend. This was back then, long ago. He said he hadn't seen his wife around for years.
So the whole situation seems ironic to him. How when the earthquake started and cracks appeared on the walls he could imagine chunks of his home cascading down and burying him, and how, now that he's alone and he's old and his legs don't work well and his lungs seem to take in no air at all, no one would hear him scream, and how he walked away from his ruined home with the slightest of injuries and wandered on the streets for hours, alone and unattended to as he listened to the shrieks of trapped neighbors. He didn't know what to think about that.
We were in the remote mountain town of Qingchuan, five and a half hours along twisting roads from the provincial capital of Chengdu. The town simply materializes out of the forest. The mountains here mark the edge of the epic ranges that dominate Tibet, the province's neighbor to the west.
We sat in the twilight, exchanging occasional questions. After a while the steam shovels stopped, and there was something approaching silence. No matter where you go in China there is a constant decibel drone, an omnipresence of sound that takes months to get used to. And now there was almost nothing. Across the river, a lone player on a stringed er hu lobbed sad notes into the night air. I wondered how long it's been since hundreds of people on the banks of the river cocked their heads to listen to melodies conceived so long ago. Not everyone was listening, of course. Some tents by the river glowed from within with television sets miraculously undamaged by the quake and hauled to the shelters. The sets cast fantastical shadows against the inside of the tents, larger than life etchings of humans that sat, unmoving, like statues. I took leave of the man and walked down the river. When I walked back, I saw that the man had moved off down the road. He had taken his stool and perched himself behind some people a few tents over. He slowly smoked a cigarette and watched TV over their shoulders.
As I walked back to the hotel, I came across a large group of smiling neighbors arranged as an audience before three young girls. School had just restarted in the aftermath of the quake, and the girls had a new song to share. Everyone was on the street, under the tied canvass of temporary tents. They were seated on low wooden stools and the mood was joyous. They called me over and asked me to sit and watch the show. When the girls started their giggle-laden song and dance, the group roared with applause. When the song was over the girls looked at each other, unwilling to let the spotlight fade, and launched into the song again.
The woman sitting next to me was a teacher in the local school, which had been condemned and relocated to a field of temporary shelters at the edge of town. "You know," she said, "before the earthquake I didn't know what an earthquake was. When it started I thought it was a war. And then I thought, why would anyone attack Qingchuan?" The girls had stopped their singing, and ran off down the street to brush their teeth in the water from the tap set up for the newly homeless by a storm grate in the road. As they ran, the earth trembled beneath us and people across the street bolted from the lee of a building already splintered and heaving to the side. It was over fast. "An aftershock," the teacher said. I asked her if she was ever scared, and she laughed. Two months of this, she said, and it's become routine.
AP photo by Ng Han Guan
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, images of devastation were everywhere. It was a watershed moment in China, a convulsion of national mourning and, strangely, exultation. There was a renewed sense, it seemed, of what it actually meant to be Chinese, to drop everything and rush to help those affected by the disaster. Journalists scrambled to the area as tens of thousands of army soldiers clambered over obliterated mountain roads to rescue whoever they could.
Then, time started to pass. Questions were raised about shoddy construction and military training for rescue, and press openness quietly and definitively ended. The Olympics approached and, as there were no more survivors to be pulled from the rubble, attention ebbed away. I arrived two and a half months after the disaster and toured the area for about a week. I had no agenda or plan, other than just trying to see what was happening, and to get a read on what the future might hold for the millions thrust out on the streets.
Soon after I arrived, I set off in a car with two journalists and a professor of local history, all of whom had crisscrossed the vast disaster region in the days and weeks after the quake hit. Our stops were Dujiangyan and Hanwang, places that had been eviscerated by the quake.
Everyone had an agenda. The professor wanted to take photos in front of a dam he was supposed to help consult on; the journalists wanted to dig out something sinister – corruption in the distribution of temporary housing, missed targets for moving people into permanent housing.
Our car pulled up along the depressed streets on the outskirts of Dujiangyan. The day was gray and cool. There was little to differentiate the sky from the white plaster buildings that lined the road, latticed with cracks. Electrical wires hung low over the quiet, dusty streets. Along one side of the road, wooden boards and aluminum siding lined a vast pile of rubble. This was once a school, a combined elementary and middle school where hundreds died. Promises were made, promises of thorough investigations and finding out who was responsible for the shoddy construction that killed so many, but government payoffs to parents have begun and the place itself is now bulldozed and gone. No one walking through would ever know what was once there, except maybe if they asked why there were a few intact basketball courts standing sentinel over the void.
Across the street from the school, a man had set up his blue disaster tent in the space surrounding a children's jungle gym. I asked him if I could take some pictures and he said sure - the cops were all around the corner in their van playing cards, so why not. He lifted the flap of his tent to reveal a hard bed and a table cluttered together above the uncovered asphalt beneath. I snapped. He lowered the flap.
My journalist guide was perched on a small mound of rubble, taking pictures of the empty school grounds. He was holding court with a family of out-of-towners, who were also clutching their cameras.
"I heard people died here."
"Yes, many," the journalist said.
"Like, over a hundred?"
"Wow." The man began taking pictures.
I wondered aloud about the lack of any sort of memorial. There were no flowers, no plaque nailed to the warped boards surrounding the nothingness. The journalist told me that wasn't entirely true.
And, then, there they were. Amidst the cracked sections of sidewalk were dark charred circles, the ash long since blown away. In the days and weeks after the unthinkable happened, parents burnt money on the ground to honor the dead. The parents are quiet now. Maybe someday there will be a plaque, maybe on the wall of the new school. But not now.
AP photo by Ng Han Guan
The journalist took me aside. "I have it," he said. "What?" "The list of all the parents whose children were killed. And their phone numbers. A contact gave it to me." "Well, would it be any use to call them now?" He looked at me for a minute. "No. But I will. Soon."
It didn't seem likely. The group wanted to go survey the deleted school from another angle, where the barriers gave way to a fence. To get there, though, you had to round the corner, past where some workers were fixing downed power lines and past where a long police van was parked. The officers were playing cards, and trailed us with their eyes in between hands. Our cameras had all disappeared into pockets and backpacks. We turned around and surveyed the school. Then we hurried back to the car and drove on to the next site.
* * *
In the weeks after the disaster many friends of mine made the trip to Sichuan. Most were journalists but others were simply volunteers, and having actually visited the site became a badge of honor. It also enabled one to speak as an authority figure. At a discussion salon I attended, an entire session was devoted to "the story behind the story in Sichuan," which consisted entirely of shocked, rambling accounts of destruction by those of us who had been there. One young woman, a journalist, talked for nearly an hour about what it was like to go from site to site, seeing endless rows of bodies swathed in whatever the rescuers could find. Parents kneeling by the sides of their children, weeping. Children screaming near the corpses of parents. Several in the audience started crying and when the woman stopped speaking people didn't really have all that much to say.
Death affects different people differently. At dinner about a month after the quake, a photojournalist friend showed me and a friend his collected shots from the days and weeks after the disaster. His work was familiar. He works for a top newspaper and his photo of rescuers arranged in mourning during a national moment of silence became the definitive image of collective agony and resolve. Of course, he didn't see it this way. After a month spent collecting pathos from senseless death, his only commentary on the pictures were to gleefully point out all the bodies. "Shiti!" he chirped, corpse!, pressing his finger against the computer screen. "Shiti! Shiti! Shiti! Shiti!"
AP photo by Andy Wong
On my last morning in Qingchuan, I decided to take a walk through town. I hadn't slept well. The images were hard to process and after a couple of days here they were catching up with me. I couldn't stop thinking about a street toward the edge of town that led to a row of locally-owned factories.
The street was on the outskirts, and was dominated at an intersection by a soaring metallic statue. The statue was starkly majestic, futuristic by way of the space-age aesthetics of the 1970s. It was a huge, sweeping, gleaming thing, and it presided over absolutely nothing.
The place was like Satis House, or the jungle ruins of the Aztec. Huge sprouts of flowering weeds lined the road. I climbed the stairs of a paralyzed building, and stopped when I found myself at the third floor staring through a crumbled wall out through to the open sky.
Outside, though, were children, grimy and exploding with energy. I took pictures of the kids while their parents beamed from the chairs outside their tents. One of the dads walked me to his factory, which had been undamaged in the quake. Good bricks, he said. The other factories in town had all been destroyed. As we walked, we passed doors painted with date and time stamps by the army. When, exactly, had rescuers arrived to check the place out? The factory owner shrugged. They did a good job, the army. Just not quite as soon after the disaster as the markings would have you believe. Actually, it was an advance team consisting of a party official, a couple of soldiers and a photographer who arrived to document the deployment of life-saving aid. Miraculously, there wasn't a trace of bitterness in his voice. His family, I guess, had survived.
As I walked around Qingchuan, I came across another factory owner, a slim, intense man running low on optimism. He was down in the rubble near a steam shovel, one of scores with their faces caked in dust, and I figured he was another worker. Their homes and businesses obliterated in the quake, the city's thousands had taken to systematically stripping their town bare, brick by brick. They hacked at walls with sledgehammers, women using adzes to chip away bits of cement from bricks. It's a massive, hopeless project, but the prospect of earning a few kuai a day as opposed to sitting and doing nothing at all seems like an easy enough choice.
The steam shovel struck me as odd. There was a surprising lack of machinery in the area, and any working equipment was devoted to the building of temporary housing. I had bumped into teams of surveyors around the city who told me that the real wrecking work, the city-wide demolition, was still far off, as plans needed to be finalized.
People worked without saying much, kneeling to load baskets of bricks and unload them a hundred feet away. A shelter had sprung up in the shade from a structure of stacks of reclaimed bricks. A few guys, sweating and smoking, were perched on the brick tower. They hoisted me up, and we talked when we weren't coughing from the dust. We didn't move much. The brick piles wobbled, built as they were of bricks from a hundred factories from everywhere, of every size and color.
I sat next to a young guy. The steam shovel was his and I'd learn later that soon after the quake, when the emergency call went out from the government to summon anyone with some machinery, he had rushed his shovel out on the highway and supervised the lifting of a fallen concrete wall in one of the schools in Dujiangyan. The wall was lifted but it didn't make much difference. They were all crushed, the children underneath, scores of children betrayed by their classrooms. But now, he said, this was something more like business.
The slim factory owner clambered aboard the bricks and offered me a cigarette. He searched the debris collected nearby and came up with a large walnut shell, split open and covered in dust. "I made these," he said, "over there." He pointed out at his old plant, where walnuts were seasoned and packaged. The structure was gone, and the steam shovel presided over a mound of rubble several feet high. He had a fanny pack on, a simple black one that he wore at the front. He unzipped it and took out a laminated picture of what the building used to look like. The sun was harsh, and the obliteration of factories for miles around had turned the sky a deep blue. The old building had been a massive affair, built of terra cotta-colored bricks and striking plastic columns. It was built three years ago using money cobbled together from family members. Business used to be pretty good.
That day two and a half months ago, at half past two in the afternoon, his mother and his daughter were inside the place, as they often were, waiting for him to come back from lunch. Chinese business lunches are often meandering affairs, especially if you are a citizen entrepreneur in need of a government official's favor. The baijiu and the beer keep flowing, and an hour-long meeting typically stretches into the late afternoon. So the man wasn't back in time to die with his daughter and his mother. He turns venomous when people are callous enough to suggest that his remaining alive was testament to some form of luck.
There were psychiatrists roaming the quake zone soon after the disaster. I asked the man if he ever went to see one but he shook his head. "My friends were all telling me to go talk to the doctor but I did not need to. I have lost everything, what is there to say?" "It will help you move on," I offered. He looked at me, the look of a man who has worked nearly every day of his life. "Who does not move on? Don't you have to eat? Before all this happened, everything I ever did was for my family, my daughter. And now she is dead and there is no reason for me to do anything. But me dying too won't help anything."
He pulled out a few more laminated pictures. One showed his frail mother standing before his terra cotta factory. The others, all taken on the same day, showed his daughter in face paint and sparkly white dress, beaming before performing with her classmates. She was round-faced and short.
In the days after his daughter and mother were pulled from their walnut factory tomb, and after the burial rites had been administered, the man tried to escape. A cousin of his had relocated to Chongqing some time ago, and he went their seeking solace, and work. He began planning for his eventual resumption of normal life – he still had a wife, and his father – and wondering if a walnut factory could rise again, somewhere else. He stayed away from the site of his daughter's death.
He tried to work. Truly, he says, long days of work anywhere he could get it, anything to earn a few kuai (though he had money of his own) and get life moving again. He failed. Waves of sadness overwhelmed him nightly. He couldn't conscience trying to move on so quickly. So he made other arrangements. In Qingchuan, demolition of buildings wasn't set to begin for at least another month, but the man knew that as long as the stones and plaster that had crushed his daughter still existed, his life would be in permanent stasis. He dug into his meager savings and hired a demolition outfit from Chengdu. They made the ride up to town. Their mission was to erase the building completely, shovelful by shovelful, while the man watched.
This was the process I had stumbled upon, large-scale steam shovel psychotherapy. The other men, the workers toiling to demolish this large factory, passed around the laminated pictures and nodded in sympathy. "I'm glad we can help," one of them said. The man shook his head and started crying.
Then he stopped, and dried his eyes. He looked at me. "You know what would really help? Help me post my details and experience on Alibaba.com," he said, talking about a popular website meant to connect Chinese manufacturers with overseas buyers and investors. Everyone laughed, but he was serious. "I know how to create the best walnut factory around. I will create another one. I just need some clients again."
A few yards away, the steam shovel had moved down to the ground and spun around to scoop up the platform it had been resting on. Long trails of bricks and bent rebar tumbled into a dump truck. When the last of the mound had been shoveled away, the truck would drive off to the city outskirts, where more homeless workers would set about chipping away at the bricks, freeing them from the mortar that had long kept them in place.
AP photo by Ng Han Guan
Flowers in Dujiangyan. It was odd to see them, bright red and bound together in circles by the side of the road. This was a city of death. Buildings were cracked – tents sprawled everywhere. The first time I was there, one of the journalists I was travelling with said everyone stayed outside, on the street, because no one trusted the indoors anymore. The city hospital had sandwiched upon itself, the upper floors obliterating the lower ones.
Days before on these same streets, the journalists, the professor and I met a man and his son sitting under a tree. Local newspapers were spread out before him in the full-wingspan reading style of someone with all the time in the world. And he was livid. The blue tents were stifling and the government continued day in and day out with its lies. He pointed to an article, "Temporary Housing Completed," and then looked at the tent he was still living in and put his hands on his head. It was one thing to lie in some Beijing paper. Fine, tell them the temporary housing was finished and no one would be the wiser. But to put it in the local paper? Where everyone reading it was an earthquake victim living in a blue tent?
I was walking on the far edge of town when I saw the flowers amidst the omnipresent gray. They were the flowers of a grand opening. A new business, a freshly constructed restaurant around the corner from a field of tents. I wondered about who could imagine investing in the future when the past was still weeks away from demolition. I sat down alone at a massive table for eight. The waitress came over and I took her recommendation and then sat back, looking at the empty streets. A single tent stood at the intersection a few feet away.
Li, the restaurant owner, is a wispy, quiet man of 28. After the earthquake he, like everyone else, lost his home and was forced out in the streets. Thankfully, no one died. In fact, and this, he says, shows you how crazy life is, his child was born less than a month after the earthquake, a healthy baby boy and a saving grace to everyone in the city who happened to meet him. It was mostly that, he says, his angelic new son that gave him the idea of being a disaster entrepreneur. We talked in the late afternoon heat, surrounded by his fresh-faced staff, who relished the tale of this restaurant employee who chose to stake his future on this middle-of-nowhere street. They smiled as he drew out the characters he chose for his son's name. Li Zhenxi. Li Splendid Earthquake. The man explained that finally, something beautiful had emerged from the wreckage.
AP photo by Andy Wong
In the days after the quake, rescue workers combed Beichuan for survivors. Then they combed it for the corpses still buried inside. And then, amazingly, they did nothing at all.
At some point in the gloomy aftermath leaders met to discuss what to do with this ruined carcass of a city. In most places the decision to demolish and rebuild was simply assumed, but here, well, here the city was annihilated. One leader declared it a permanent museum. The government brought in fencing and razor wire. In days, the entirety of this mountain town was sealed off from the world, protected at the front gate by soldiers with machine guns and sign after sign carrying spray painted images of skulls and crossbones.
I had spent a week in the area, roaming through tents and ruins but propelled always by a lingering faith in the future. It was comforting to think that all these people, regardless of corruption or infighting, were assured of the progress of reconstruction. Here, though, was a place abandoned to time. As my motorcycle driver sped me up a mountain road for a better look, we passed a local entrepreneur who had already set up a telescope and a photo studio to take pictures for tourists. But it was still early, and she was the only one operating.
The driver and I pulled off the road and walked towards the cliff face. Down in the valley once tall buildings kneeled before each other. The place was immense. Nothing moved.
After a while, the driver suggested we move off road for a better look. We rounded a concrete barrier and headed down a path behind some Chinese people with their cameras outstretched. We stepped down on white stairs overrun with the ash of burned incense. We stood on platforms and looked out.
Everyone was snapping pictures. Not smiling really but simply standing there, in the way people do when they feel obliged to document something. It was hard to tell if this was homage or tourism, and I'm sure it was a little of both. I wondered, though, if they saw what I saw. They must have. As I looked around the hillside, I noticed the steps we had come down ended in concrete planes fronting small white structures. The forms were familiar. They were graves.
I stood there with the driver and the tourists, perched on a cemetery, straining to take in the entirety of the ruin below. I sat down for a while, overwhelmed. Then I stood up again and joined the others, standing on a hillside of tombs, staring out at a lost city.