Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Chinese Logistical Sublime and Its Wasted Remains

On our thirteenth day at sea, after having been battered by 6 meter waves and snow, gale-force winds and storm, having watched the ship’s skeleton snake and bend with the force of rough seas from within the depths of its passageways, I woke up on a calm, quiet morning to a sea that had turned a lighter shade of blue. From my porthole, delighted, I watched as seagulls weaved in an out of the wind currents above the containers, seaweed merrily skimmed the surface of the ocean, and fishing vessels began dotting the horizon. Land was near. Less than a day later, we drew into the port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Terminals stretched for miles from two harbor mouths, the air a humid, sticky breeze, the pilot’s Mandarin accent sounding suddenly like home.

The transition from sea to land has been almost too quick. After days suspended over liquid blue, spent imagining the ocean from what Derek Walcott has termed the “subtle and submarine”, the looming horizon of the sedentary state with all its territorial weight seemed almost churlish. Everything since touching land has been a blur. We spent 36 hours in Kaohsiung, during which a majority of the 4000 containers on the vessel were unloaded, then surged onward to Yantian, where 16 hours in port – aided by gantry cranes larger than I have ever seen – allowed not more than a hasty trip to the city center for a dinner of mushroom and chive dumplings (desperately welcomed after a six-week parade of meat and potatoes), before we set sail again for Hong Kong. Now, after a mere 15 hours there, we are in Kaohsiung once more. Tonight we leave for Taipei with four different currencies in my pocket and my head swirling from switching back and forth between two different tongues. After 42 days at sea, in less than twelve hours I will be off the Ever Cthulhu forever, never to return.

In the meantime, I am allowing myself to be taken in by the fearsome, monstrous smoothness of the East Asian logistical sublime. I had expected the delays we experienced on the US west coast to have created a massive backlog in China, but we arrived to clear seas and empty anchorages. The Chinese ports have a clockwork, kinetic edge. The transitions are quick – almost blinding. Once the ship berths, security rolls out a portable security checkpoint on the shore below, gangs of workers appear from under the towering gantries, and a rolling stream of workers climbs up the gangway. Lashings go off, trucks and straddle cranes slide into place, the agent appears, papers and loading plans are signed, and the cargo operations begin. There are no breaks, no pauses, no delays. The entire machinery of the port, already in gear, accommodates the ship in one smooth gesture.

In Yantian, walking down city streets and neon-lit stores stocked to the seams with the latest fashions, I stood in a corner for a while, watching in wonder as throngs of China’s developing middle class milled about. As laughing families strolled and shopped in suits and camel coats, they emanated a kind of faith Chinese economy. The captain noted that none of the gleaming high-rise apartments that rose around us had been there on his previous shore visit five years before. On its worst days, the Chief mate reports that Yantian moves weight at almost thrice the speed of LA on its good ones. The port handled its 100 millionth TEU in 2013, and in 2007 became the first port in the world to reach an annual throughput exceeding 10 million TEUs. All ports race to become number one, and the cities that conspire around them become affluent reflections of this competition.

Yet, while today’s urban spaces enfold inhabitants within their grand infrastructural projects, inviting us to live, work and play in new skyscrapers and squares, the port marks modernity differently. Situated on the edges of the city yet walled off from the city’s eyes, the port declares its success by proxy in ‘key performance indicators’ and throughput handling statistics, though few are there to watch it happen. We drive past their gates, read about their integral role in the health of our economies, and live around them, both benefiting from their economic success and suffering from their environmental impact. Yet few gain entrance into their inner worlds. This is perhaps why, on my way back to the ship from Hong Kong one night, I paused amidst the roar of port operations bustling even at midnight, and found myself strangely moved, feeling small and helpless in the face of these vast technological landscapes. I ran across sweeping truck traffic and stood under the colossal hull of the Ever Cthulhu for a while, measuring my insignificance in the light of its grandiosity, watching gantry spreaders rise 200 feet above my head. There was a cinematic quality to all the swish and seamlessness, an allure that made the fantasies underpinning logistics’ aspirations toward omnipotence seem, in that moment, almost sensible.

Almost. Almost, because there is also a shadow economy that revolves around these Chinese ports and probes at the discordant edges of its homogenizing fantasies. Outside, on the “shore side” of a ship at berth, one beholds the fearsome fury of cargo soaring into the sky and being placed on an endless rumble of trucks. But a walk around the other side of the ship to its “sea side,” where starboard faces the quieter harbor waters, quickly reveals a different kind of marketplace. An entire industry has risen to ‘manage’ the mass metabolism of waste that constantly threatens to overwhelm the ship, a grand string of waste workers, small businessmen, garbage disposal trucks, and sludge barges that emerge from the peripheries of the port to help the ship clear its bowels after its weeks at sea. On Ever Cthulhu’sstarboard, a constant supply of barges and cleaning operators come alongside the vessel in the afternoon, tasked with pumping dirty fuel out of tanks, collecting mountains of accumulated garbage and scrap, and cleaning out used pipes.

by Charmaine Chua, The Disorder of Things |  Read more:
Image: uncredited