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May 14, 2008

Tremors in Chengdu


by Sascha Matuszak

The city of Chengdu is both deflated and energized at the same time. Hours of tremors, the lack of a clear picture of the situation, and nights out on the streets in sleeping bags and tents have left the population of the city slightly jittery.

On a walk through Chengdu, many residents were eating sunflower seeds and drinking tea in small groups huddled around a radio. There was a lot of joking and storytelling going on, but the slightest tremor would make everyone pause and stare into each others' eyes.

Yesterday when the quake hit, I was in the middle of a shave for a meeting with the director of sales at Kempinski. I was supposed to head over there and sell advertisements for the upcoming Odyssey travel guide for Sichuan. While I sat with my eyes closed and enjoyed the feel of the straight razor on my neck, the chair began to shake. I looked askance at the barber; she scowled at me. Both our expressions changed to astonishment when we realized that the whole building was shaking. I ran out under the entrance and watched as thousands of people poured screaming into the streets – many of them in underwear and nighties, having probably just laid down for an afternoon nap.

At the Kempinski, the mood was light but cautious. General manager Fritz Schenkel addressed his staff, telling them all to go home and asking a few questions about the government's possible response to the earthquake.

"Will they send an expert over to our building to check out the structural damage that may have happened?" he asked one of his staff. The man said he didn't know.

Such a question seemed ludicrous to me at the time, and it turned out to be tragically so as the day wore on. At first we heard that five kids had died in Chongqing. Many were surprised at this, as Chongqing is four hours to the east, much farther away from the epicenter than Chengdu is. Then the news started coming in.

Dujiangyan, just an hour north, had a school collapse, and 900 kids were buried beneath the rubble. Deyang and Beichuan followed. Thousands more dead. School buildings collapsing left and right. Across the blogosphere and in the city people began wondering why it was always schools that fell. Then two ammonia plants collapsed in Shifang town, burying hundreds and killing dozens more. As the night wore on, the tremors made us loopy.

The BBC was online with me all night, chatting about the situation and eventually interviewing me for the radio. I felt silly telling them what I had heard – all of it secondhand from sources outside of the city or from Xinhua, the oft-maligned Chinese state media outlet that is doing an admirable job of reporting the earthquake.

Phones were down all night and messages were not getting through. I had an easier time speaking with my friends in Portland, Ore., about the quake than with my good friend Charles Moseley, who had left that day for a motorbike trip to Dujiangyan. I called him all night, but no answer.

This morning at 7 a.m. I heard from him in an SMS: "Trapped on Qing Cheng Mountain [near Dujiangyan] during the quake. All good. Close call."

The damage is extensive. Rail lines across the country are damaged, with one freight train exploding in Gansu and at least 149 more stranded or blocked on their way to Chengdu. Wenchuan, the epicenter of the quake, is in the Tibetan region of Aba. This mountainous region is not easy to travel in under the best of conditions. Now after the quake and with the rains that have been falling all night, getting to the epicenter has been very difficult for domestic relief teams.

Rumors and superstition start creeping into the discourse about now. The fact that many schools were hit is a premonition of the blame game that will be played in later weeks. Then there's the proximity to Aba and other Tibetan areas where protests were held in March and the fact that the two tectonic plates form a geological shadow of the ethnic borders that separate Han and Tibetan in the area. Yesterday was Buddha's birthday. The Olympics are around the corner. There was a freak snowstorm in February. The cyclone in Myanmar…

I am now sitting with all of my best friends in the Sultan Restaurant run by Xi'an native Maggie. The quake has brought the residents out into the streets to discuss their reactions to what happened, what they are doing now, and what they plan on doing later. They discuss the government's response and listen to the radio. The foreign community here is doing the same.

There are already politically and economically charged reports hitting the Net, but for those of us here in Chengdu and I am sure for those who faced the worst of the quake farther north, it was a terrifying and bonding affair that we somehow had all "felt coming."

The last few months here have been very strange and divisive. Our friends in the Chinese community have been tense around us, and the visa lockdown that began right after the protests has us all on pins and needles. Walking through the streets of Chengdu today, I put on my thickest Sichuan dialect and chewed the fat with everyone I saw. It was the strongest feeling of togetherness I have ever felt in this city. Sometimes it takes divine intervention to remind us of our own humanity.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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