The Meandering Scar, E-mails from China
My grandparents fled the People’s Republic of China and entered the Republic of China in 1949. I was left with them after my birth in 1979 when my parents entered the US. Memories from then are faint and perhaps uneventful, except a slight sense of desire for my mother. I went to elementary school in the US but was brought back to Taiwan for high school and I struggled to fit in. Dropping out of college, I fled from Taiwan in 1999 and moved to New York City, without a friend, and forever an orphan of childhood love I’d never experienced.
Recurring nightmare since then: feeling the sky folding downward, slowly and steadily, over my self, drones within my skull, my jaws tight, body stiff and hammered down. At age five, I met my mother and she watched over me to ensure that my afternoon nap was taken. My back towards her and I pretended to be dead.
I oscillate in between the here and the elsewhere of my imaginary, sketching forth a landscape ruins in reverse, a melancholy before the melancholic journey arises, dissipating before the completion of dreams, preemptive dreams striking upon the memory of the future. I’m a stranger to myself with an address that changes without end, drifting from one town to the next, following footfalls into transit stops and transitory playgrounds and onto a dystopic drawing board of sorts.
I can’t fully digest the details of the world, breathing its smoke and smog, and all the petty whispers and pretty lies circulating in my lungs, engulfing what’s left of me, and in no act can the gnawing space between us be relieved.
Photographing is like catching mosquitoes buzzing ceaselessly in one’s dark room.
The negative images projected in the dark room are my silent quarrels with the world, and imperfect and precarious as they may be, I scratch the smallest speckles of light against the dissolving surfaces of fogged and out-dated photographic paper, anticipating the blacks of my desire to reverse, like moths with the lights out.
The lone hit man in <Le Samouraï> exits the room, turns back to glance, the caged bird is still alive.
Walking into the quake aftermath and searching through the artifacts that remain with the living, my presence felt though not affecting quantitatively the conditions I saw. We exist in the menagerie as we know, and that is enough, the flood of chance, the ritualistic fire, the afternoon shade, and we move on, in miniature alterations, to each our disquietude.
Our man in Chengdu drives us anywhere we want, almost running over a cop only to yell “out of the way” or something in local Sichuanese, and driving on, here to honk is a normal gesture saying that “I’m here.” One night into an hour driving on quake ridden mountain roads (daytime its beautiful despite the damaged cars and voided railings over steep drops, but night changes all…) cutting pass cars, quite tense even for our driver, especially since it was all silent, the horn died along the way… What was that 50s French film with Yves Montand driving through the night transporting nitroglycerine tanks cautiously on uneven roads and one fatal bump would ignite all?
We sneak through under a covered rickshaw, to see the site of a collapsed school with the memorials of dead children, was it nine or ten thousand that died? There were parents mourning (I saw) and protesting (I saw not). Soon a cop takes us out, jotted down our passport numbers, and escorted us away.
There is always a side path into the towns left half intact, debris everywhere and the white powder covering grounds where corpses once laid.
Headed back down the mountain roads, stopped in a village, became center of attention, everyone hospitable and highly alert, reminded me somehow of the ancient tale <Peach Blossom Valley> by Tao Yuanming, then an informer of the village informs of our arrival. We’re scooted off again as foreign crazies with cameras, passed through another village, another checkpoint.
A family living in a ramshackle, the 6 year-old girl curiously modeling for me, I’m offered chicken and corn wine, the best meal I’ve had in days.
I walk bravely, into the cops, chatted a bit, waited for orders, gave them 2 films (I’d shot 10-15 rolls), got them back, promising not to publish negative views of China back home to them foreigners, that’s that, no use bribing cops with cigarettes but I feel semi-pro now dealing with them. The flooded areas caused by massive landslides I couldn’t reach, too many checkpoints, one would take days to find alternate footpaths.
I arrive weeks after the Sichuan quake: the dead had been buried or burnt en masse, so I see only the living, in the tennis court that is a temporary hospital and makeshift shelters dotting the periphery alongside the fallen boulders.
In this dirt world but not of this dirt world, we seem to exist: constant washing and rewashing of towels to wipe off the summer sweat, the summer dirt, and the winter dirt.
One may consider Chongqing if one may choose to die, exit the cable car over the Yangtze river, gulping her ancient thick silt, away past boatmen with curious eyes. This vertigo city, built upon mountains and endless stairs and in between the footpaths, dropping us into our nights, traversing from house to pavements spackled with blackened spit to ground drillings for yet another modern tower to foot massage parlors (the girls inside watching television) filled with grilled chickens and tossed away bones, fusing below what is called one’s head, and high above, vapors from the river spirals forth towards an unknown future that neon KTV lights disguise as intoxication.
The flooded town sees itself in the dirt roads leading to the river swallowing all, and on boats, livestock wait desperately to be slaughtered and scale upon the signs of futures index. Memoirs of an overdevelopment, it is 2008 and I arrive too late, the new city towers visibly above the opaque ruins that one calls history, slanted and crooked along a deep slope, the local officials installing a grand staircase and cable car lines linking the living and the dead.
Another snapshot besides the Gezhouba Dam: a forgotten pool, the dam affirms and negates the passage of time, as kids swim and bathe without care, and not far away, a carcass of a dog floats, alongside the weeds and reeds in this moist summer afternoon.
Private bus conductors drag you on regardless if the destination of yours and theirs coincide or not. Then they dispose you off the highway and drive on.
Chinese ideograms embody an image of the past with all the layered references, in the (misty) air, so to speak, in newspapers and propaganda banners, and hence the material evidence of history is discarded without sentiment lost.
The LCD screen above grounds our experience with flickering lights and sweating bodies chanting: “Let’s go China!” The wind brings forth ashes from fireworks afar, showing not what the cries were for. I’m in Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping plaza, minutes from Tiananmen, invisible amongst the crowds awaiting the 2008 Olympic open ceremony.
After the applause, the master feeds on time their sheltered, and in frenzy, digestion is made, to ensure precise vomit of the self.
And heard faintly the murmur of someone with a flat mechanical tone.
I once walked past a zoo, surrounded by road constructions while visitor numbers zero. The loneliest zoo in the world, I imagine. The one-humped camel came to entice me, but shy I was and declined. Monkeys were fed, so were the wolves. The male lion roared, but who heard? Soon the earth will swallow him too.
Cicadas molt, their shells remain empty on tree barks for us to ponder.