The worst is perhaps over for the hardest hit of southern China in the worst snowfall in 54 years, the news people are saying. For 9-10 days, people in some cities in Hunan province have been without power. The railway has opened a track for transport of coal, 13,000 tons/day, from as far north as Inner Mongolia. Shipping has been refit and rerouted to bring coal to the hardest hit areas of the country. I can just hear the environmentalists shouting their ire at the dirtying of the air and blackening of the snow! Priorities never seem to bother such people. Thirteen thousand electricians have come from various other provinces and cities to try to put the power on; however, several power stations have already run themselves down and out. One hundred forty-nine thousand warehouses have collapsed. As of 31 January, 800,000 people were stranded in Guangzhou RR terminal–throughout China, well into the millions. One and a half million at last count have been evacuated from one crisis point or another. Factories and schools have opened up to provide shelter, blankets and food–cafeteria kitchens. A glove factory has produced extra gloves for distribution. Everywhere the police, the Peoples Liberation Army, the Regular Army and–unheard of in America–regular people are seen shoveling and sweeping and otherwise trying to clear the way. In Beijing RR stations, psychologists are circulating to try to calm the crowds–sometimes frustration and anxiety overflow. The government has issued an orange snow alert.
Crises happen. But in China this comes at a critical time. It’s Spring Festival, the name Mao’s government gave to Chinese New Year’s in his attempt to erase all of Imperial past history. This is the time when much of the country is traveling, on their way to family, from one end of the country to the other. Extra trains are called in to help but now, with snow blocking the lines, there are only people waiting, homeless, in the stations: they cannot even return to their homes. Sometimes, these homes are out in the country, not in the city. People who travel in buses or cars are no better off.
But there has been a hero in all this. Along the major highway near his house, a bus crashed, stranding its 44 passengers. He trekked up to the highway, broke down the guard rail and led the passengers to his house, warmth and food. He then walked two kilometers to get more food and water. He lives in a small house. It is now packed, of course. Forty-four thankful people. This man is not a young man, either. This hero. This average Joe. Where do they come from? What legends will grow up around this man’s humanity? A humanity so very lacking in the world: as many countries, even small ones, are sending supplies and money to help the Chinese, the OPEC nations decided to withhold production in order to keep the price of oil high.
Along the bottom of the TV screens is a running note on which cities have been hit with how much snow and directions for viewers’ help, things to do to alleviate any problems from the downfall. Channel 9, the English Channel, has running news coverage with notices for donating. There is no mention of aid coming from the US. Probably because FEMA is only a national organization.
As most people in America are fairly ignorant of Chinese geography, let me kind of put this in context: this is like Florida and the deep south being inundated with snow. Most all of the affected provinces are south of the Yangtse (Chang jiang). Atlanta is just below the 34th parallel, St. Augustine, Florida is just below the 30th parallel; most all of the affected area of China is between the 30th and the 25th parallels (Key Largo is at the 25th parallel). New Orleans would once again be affected: another opportunity for police brutality and murder.
Zhejiang Province (northern boundary is at the 30th parallel), my province, is the western edge of the storm. Hangzhou, one hour to the north of Shaoxing, is inundated. Here, in Shaoxing, we had 10″ of snow by noon: it’s 4 PM as I write this and it’s not been snowing for an hour. We are lucky. There are tree branches down–yesterday, when there was little to no snow, city workers were out downtown shaking snow from the trees, preparing for the worst: they did not wait until after the fact. Most of the main roads are clear. I live on the outer circle road that goes around the fringes of the city, Huangcheng xilu. Usually four wide lanes, it is plowed open to a narrow two and people prefer walking in the street, along what used to be the bike lanes, to walking along the icy pathway on the sidewalks. Little neighborhood stores are closed. But, otherwise, there’s not much to complain about here. Young people are out in the riverside square engaged in massive snow fights; snowmen are cropping up everywhere, even in the middle of the street and on the tops of cars. We’ve had it easy. However, it’s predicted that it will continue to snow for much of next week. This probably ruins my Spring Festival plans: I was going out into the country to a friend’s grandmother’s. The village is about 500 families large. No heating. Bathrooms outdoors. Public showers closed for most of the holiday. Definitely no unblocked roadways. I’m not really looking forward to spending the week totally isolated in my house: stores closed, restaurants mostly closed, nobody around.
The roads will freeze again tonight and a thin sheet of ice will be glaring in the morning sun, the slush at the roadsides turned to mini-glaciers. The slippery pathways through the parks and sidewalks will be solid ice. The extra weight on tree branches will bring more down, possibly even more power lines. But, so far, we here have been spared the worst.
There is no central heating in the houses in south China; nevertheless, even without this inundation of snow it gets cold in this area: below freezing. I use two electric heaters to keep the house warm, close off the kitchen, bathroom and one bedroom in order to generate a modicum of warmth. I watch movies or TV wrapped in a woolen blanket with both heaters pointed at me. I wear two pair of long johns, a sweatshirt and pea-jacket. Even in my room, where I’m typing this, where there’s an AC/heater set at 19 C, my legs and hands are cold. The cost last month for heating was more than 1/10th of my monthly salary. My house is warmer than many. The students who did not go home have no heat in their dorms. They have no AC for the hot and humid summers. Perhaps their warmest time will be the snowball fights in the riverside square: 15-20 kids per side. Lots of shouting, red faces and smiles.
My boss, the Dean of the English School, takes a swim up the river for two kilometers morning and evening during the warmer months, morning during the winter. I wonder if he swam this morning: I saw a re-icing path in the river and a dark spot frozen in the middle of a nearly river-wide ice sheet–was that him? I would hope he’s gone home already–school let out around 23 Jan for teachers–as his mother is ailing and confined to her bed. She lives in the country. How many more such oldsters will not see their families this year? Families in China are tightly knit no matter how far spread they may be; very different from the fracturing in the States, a country that shouts loudly about family values yet exhibits little to none.
It’s now 5 PM. We’ll see what’s what tomorrow, 3 Feb.
Interesting. . .superstition has it that today, 2/2, is a propitious day. In one wedding photo studio, 20 couples were scheduled for their shoots. I think today they did not work, certainly not outside the studio.
JAMES L. SECOR is a writer dramatist and professor of literature at Shaoxing University, Shaoxing China. He can be reached at email@example.com.