28 July 2009

The Ugly Side: The Stream

These are not exactly before and after photos, but they could be. Actually, they illustrate government ineptitude and local idiocy and greed. And a shameful chapter in our village history.

Both are pictures of the Wang Tong Stream which, as you can see, is a shallow trickle of a brook. The section in the first photo runs along the south side of the village. It's a rich habitat for several species of fish, small reptiles, crabs, freshwater shrimp and aquatic insects. Which also makes it a popular hunting ground for egrets, herons, kingfishers, moorhens, as well as frogs and the water snakes which feed on them.

The section in the second photo, right around the corner a few meters upstream, used to look like that until the government, goaded by a few local residents, decided to "train the river" for so-called flood prevention. Well, it's true that every three years or so a week of torrential rains would cause the soil to become so waterlogged that the stream couldn't handle the runoff and numerous gardens would flood. In 1997 the government decided to fix the problem by turning an 800-meter section of the stream into a concrete channel.

At the sound of the word "concrete", many of the old-time residents stood up to cheer. Some even had messy wet dreams, in love with concrete. Concrete is modern. Concrete is clean. Concrete keeps out trees, which as we all know are the cause of mosquitoes. More concrete, they reasoned, would make property values increase. And concrete lines the pockets of our village leaders, who are all in the construction and building supply business.

So in came the government engineers. Well, not right away. They used topographic maps to design the channel without once ever visiting the site. There was no public consultation, and obviously not even an intelligent geological survey. Hey, it's just some puny, out of the way village. Who gives a crap?

Our esteemed village elders kept the project secret. In fact, the first that anyone else learned of it was thanks to my son. He was six years old at the time. I brought him to play in the swimming hole above the little dam at the end of the village. He heard some workers nearby speaking in Chinese, which he translated for me: "Daddy, they said they're going to concrete the river."

Oh, come on. That was too ridiculous. Why would anyone do that? Little boys make up all sorts of fantasies. But I phoned a local environmentalist, who made some inquiries, and discovered that it was true.

Thus began the largest civil unrest ever to hit Wang Tong Village. Numerous residents protested to the government, demanded meetings with the engineering department and explanations from local leaders. At least the engineers had the guts to respond. Local leaders, our very own neighbors, locked themselves behind closed doors. The engineers were adamant. Once a government project is put into action, it is impossible to stop.

We tried anyway. A defacto organization materialized. We occupied the site, placed posters everywhere and rallied the rest of the community for support.

But the bulldozers and excavators arrived. Enough steel reinforcement was laid, with so much concrete poured on top, that not even a nuclear bomb would crack it.

We still tried to stop it. Several of us organized local children to help us vandalize the site with a fun day of spray painting the concrete and equipment. That got us television coverage, and the issue of government destroying the landscape for spurious reasons became a matter of wider public controversy.

My family and others received threats from local triad gangsters. Another woman and I were marked as the ringleaders by one of our village Dear Leaders (not true; it was very much collective) and the police threatened us with prison unless we personally restored every item that had been painted. Which we did, under the gloating sneers of many locals.

Although the anti-concrete organization was two-thirds Chinese people, the fact that many foreign residents were involved turned the entire matter into a racial conflict. People would meet me on the footpath, point at themselves and with belligerent expressions shriek in my face: "I'm Chinese!!" Yeah, so what, I thought. The implication was that westerners were against progress, against honest hard-working Chinese people making as much money as possible and screw the environment. Of course that wasn't true, and the fact that Chinese outnumbered westerners among the protestors was ignored.

We won and we lost. The government agreed to stop similar plans in neighboring villages. But ours was too far gone to halt.

By the way, the flooding problem worsened after they put in the channel. Pouring so much concrete had actually raised the stream bed and decreased its volume capacity. Without plants and rocks along the bed and banks providing friction, storm runoff sped many times faster down the channel and bottlenecked at the end, spilling over onto neighboring land. And with impermeable concrete walls, the natural wetland on either side could no longer drain underground into the stream, making flooding even more inevitable.

Years later, a few of the original proponents of the concrete, including the man who set the police after me, admitted that it had been the wrong thing to do. Today, twelve years since, I've mended fences with nearly everyone. Nearly. There's still one woman who looks like she'd rather spit at me than say hello.

Meanwhile, Wang Tong is left with an 800-meter scar of sterile reinforced concrete where fish and frogs once flourished, and a social scar of a tiny community once bitterly split apart.

No comments:

Post a Comment