Updated: With apologies for the writer’s block (now fully shattered, one can hope), here are my impressions in the present tense from my recent time “roughing it” in Dandong and Kuandian, a Manchu autonomous county to the east and north which is pictured in these photos of PLA operations, and describe some action perceived and intimated in nearby Sinuiju, North Korea’s stunted “twin city” to Dandong. An impressionistic mode seems appropriate…
Avant le deluge/ Prelude to the Afternoon of a Flood
— Night falls over Dandong on August 20. North Korean entrepreneurs wrap themselves around their PLA patrons on the sidewalk outside the Pyongyang restaurant warbling with songs of “Arirang.” The Dandong Riviera is being interlaced with a light drizzle, but no one seems concerned. There is, after all, meat to be consumed, deals to be consummated, relationships to be forged, and exploitation to be avoided, mostly. The lights eventually go down in the restaurant, but the cooks and staff sit under a few flourescent bulbs and eat slowly, while a couple of girls in t-shirts rehearse a new number on the drum set and a Casio keyboard, their rhythms and melodies unusually stilted and not yet ready for foreign patrons. After all, as Chairman Mao said twice to Stalin, insisting that his ambiguity could be understood in the warmth of the Kremlin in winter 1950, “one has to clean the house before inviting guests.”
Someone is crying in the park across the street. Between the waves of traffic, you can hear her sob. But the North Koreans are all smiling. The end of the day has come. They are in Dandong, and life is good. Three waitress-performers emerge out of the restaurant, arm in arm, all wearing the same patterned dress: black and white stripes, with white polka-dots. They see the species of Western male in the window of the coffee shop; they smile and wave, not knowing he is finishing an essay about Kim Il Song’s bequeathal of Mausers to his defeated band in Manchuria. But that was a long time ago. Tonight, everyone is going home, and so even the imperialist deserves a wave and a smile.
Suddenly one of the polka-dotted girls runs back to fetch her umbrella, a pink and sturdy thing. It has begun to rain.
The rain continues; it accelerates; it deepens on the road. Plainclothes policemen now circulate along these businesses fronting the Yalu River: You will need to evacuate, they say, the bullhorns limp in their hands. Engines continue to run, but traffic dwindles. The rain picks up.
I wander out of the coffee shop and over to look more closely at the Yalu: it is swollen; whole trees, roots and all, are riding the current down to the Yellow Sea. Nothing will get in in the river’s way; it has achieved a kind of monolithic power, hypnotic and deadly. All of Earth’s vitality and vengeance seems to be gathering up from its crouch; tendrils of current move wildly about on the surface.
It begins to rise; it has been beginning to rise; it seeks to end this beginning of a regenerated city; the river has a will; the face of God is smeared with mud.
I leap over the plastic police tape; the voices of the vendors are long gone; there is no one here. There is no memory; the river’s urgency has destroyed recollection of anything other than itself. I run from the river, but its presence remains palpable. To be alone with this river with no regard for time is to invite annihilation. Something reminds me of this. Otto Rank, Freud’s underrated disciple, writes about man’s emancipation from water, from the mother figure, as a heroic act signifying birth and rebirth and creation of the self. But the Yalu River is neither a mother nor a return to a pre-birth: in this moment it may as well be a guillotine, hoisting itself up a million long centimeters at a time. Gravity will only protect us for so long, after all.
Just hours ago, the Yalu River bridge had been joyously lit, with processions of North Korean trucks moving north into the promised land! Now it is blackened, the auburn lights on the bridge’s lower tracks almost swallowed by the torrent below. On the Chinese side of the bridge, I stand under its stone pylons for a moment, pausing to admire the Japanese stone work. Bulwark of imperialism, of Japan’s integrative impulse, this thing, too, might be swallowed. The puddles underneath the bridge almost seethe with osmotic anticipation of being joined into something far more aggressive; a Sea of Water recalls a Sea of Blood, but the water is more numinous.
And of numbers: Wen Jiabao is in Gansu, the Dandong mayor is on the phone, and Kim Il Sung is dead. The police are gone. Minutes remain to the imaginary countdown to midnight, to August 21.
Suddenly North Korean music blares out from behind a door, a last spurt of defiance at the coming flood. I run from it, and toward the main park on the Yalu River.
A brigade of volunteers is moving toward the coming flood and I move to join them, wondering what happens when the river breaks over wall. Will it swallow these statues? Chinese People’s Volunteers stand in bronze along the length now of this section; do their feet begin to corrode? Can a statue drown? What happens when a bronze monument to a war that saved a dying country goes unsaved, toppled by biology? When nuclear seismology conceals nothing, when dams no longer can hold back the furious mockery of a planetary system far more capricious than even a North Korean dictator? Why don’t the statues just put down their damn rifles and get to moving sandbags?
A cop sees me and realizes I am not a volunteer. There is nothing to explain as he shouts at me; in Chinese fashion, I ignore him while doing what he wants. I run back toward the city, hoping to get in through the new levy before they close it. It is, thankfully, open, and midnight is falling. A nearby banner reminds me that China is defending its border, which is to say, a little propaganda seems in order when Chinese traders are getting shot in their boats on the south shore of the Yalu and North Korean MiG jets are flying willy-nilly over the border. But no machine guns seem able to solve the current dilemma. Water doesn’t care for bullets. Even a nuclear weapon would have little effect on this river.
A few locals are standing around in front of the customs house which reads in huge letters CHINA DANDONG. Less than a block from the levy, where cars are squeezing through, an army reservist is arguing with a group of ten or eleven cops. He is being exhorted to heed the commands and go throw down some sandbags. He is not willing to do it. He is livid with fear and anger. Voices rise into pushing which rises into volleys of pugilistic knocks; the guy’s friend arrives to wrap up his buddy at the knees, attempting to tackle him for his own good. Then even this last figment of a “harmonious society” flips when the cops start beating on the friend as well, who then joins in the collective thrashing. Three minutes of blocked traffic later, two men are in a police van off to the jail, and the business of evacuation continues.
The argument virus has taken hold, however. Around the corner two horrendously drunk men are shouting their brains out in the thickest possible Kanggye accents. Although their voices contain every indication of an incipient outbreak of violence, they are holding one another like lovers. Whole life stories are unfolded. It is time for a settling of accounts.
I weave around them and stride off past the railway station, looking for the husk of a city block that marks my temporary neighborhood for the night. The Dongyuan Hotel, after all, is being gutted by men who get up at four and are yawning by noon; dirt piles sit next to fake plants in the lobby; the place is abandoned to future commerce. My new hovel instead sits across the street from a half-destroyed cluster of buildings from the late colonial period. 50 yuan a night. Chimneys stick out of it like wartime Chongqing; in the lightning its strewn staircases are revealed as having no end; shades of David Copperfield’s climb. Plants are growing wild all over the carcass of the ruins. They luxuriate in the rain. The rain pelts down outside the inn. I have found it, but the door is locked.
Immediately a woman appears out of the blackness — “follow me,” she says, “they already sold your room here; thought you got out of town already.” She looks enough like the sister of the innkeeper, about fifty-five and entreprising, and all my belongings here are on my back in any case. Why the hell not? In a city that is about to flood, there’s no use complaining when a roof over your head is offered. No sense in sleeping in the ruins with rats and wild dogs; that’s to be done in cities that deserve such treatment, like Paris.
I wondered as I wandered, with whom the North Koreans would stay, because they nearly all of them lived near the river in the evacuated zone. Perhaps the anticipation of their evacuation is why they had all been in such high spirits that night. To see China in crisis mode, in action, to enter the society through a differing aperture — so long as one didn’t end up under the waves — would be a pleasure. And the promise of a day off, of singing songs for oneself, of story telling, of useless time. Once the mudslides hit the doors however, the future might be in doubt. Thus whole years of experience are shoehorned into a single night of chance.
The lady moves efficiently into a doorway; I follow her, stepping over a bicycle into an inn with no sign and a peeling floor and past a comatose attendant. Why are young men sometimes so much more asleep and oblivious than their matronly counterparts?
There is no need to take off one’s shoes in such a place. The lady leads me forward like a patron saint or a small capitalist. It is as if she has a candle.
We end up in a small room, the last one, she says. “Just give me 30 yuan,” she gestures amiably, “I don’t need to see your passport.” The world is going to hell and there is no need to run through the normal procedures. Under the light of her cell phone, she finds some exposed copper wires, sharpens them up, and jams them joyously into a plug which has been hanging precariously from a fan on the ceiling. Things are in motion, including her, as she disappears. I look around in my cube. The walls are uneven; the floor exists in a state of wild disrepair; a centipede chugs steadily up among the skids of a wall corner. But I love the place, because within its obtuse belly lies an object worthy of contemplation: a globe.
At that very moment trash begins to seep up the river walls. The river is gorged with trash, flecked by millions of plastic bottles and bags. It is the detritus of Chinese poverty and prosperity. Kuandian, that afternoon, had been so strewn with trash in every river and stream bed. It is as if the trash, pasted upon stones and impossibly high tree branches, testifies of the coming of something akin to a glacier, but swifter. Layers of civilization in the trash. Who knows what will wash up on the North Korean shore next week. Presuming that they still have a shore.
In the room under a single light bulb, I sit and contemplate the globe. When one is in Dandong, one can be found one’s place upon the globe’s surface. Dandong is the place where the colors change, where the wedge of the sea begins to narrow, where the effluvia finds its way outward.
The next day I find my way outward. I sit with a handful of PLA air force officers. They remind me that the North Korean MiG rocketed all the way to Fushun because of “mechanical failure.” A television reporter takes glorious shots of a helicopter taking off with aid in it while ten air force officers sit around drinking tea in a lounge with a 25 yuan minimum per-person drink charge. The ride to Beijing is turbulent, entirely. I arrive in Beijing to see that the levies have apparently been punctured in Dandong.
No one in the capital seems terribly concerned.