The Tangshan Earthquake

Pre dawn July 28 in 1976 at 3:42am, I was awaken by clinking of pots and pans in the hallway and instantly felt my bed was shaking. Earthquake came to mind. But I lay still calmly till the shake subdued.  Then I heard the human noise rose, followed by door openings and foot steps.  I got up and went through the dark hallway (electricity was instantly cut off), following the crowds fleeing the third floor and filing into the street below. I had never experienced an earthquake before but surprised at myself for taking it by stride. Panic never crossed my mind.

It was the deadliest Tangshan Earthquake, measured in 7.8 on the Richter magnitude.  Quarter of million people vanished from the face of the earth, in a matter of seconds that included my step-mother of two weeks.

The epicentre of the earthquake was near Tangshan, a city that locates 112 miles (180 kilometers) east of Beijing in Hebei province.  There were many unusual signs in Tangshan prior to the quake, lightnings in the dark sky, rodents were bolting from the ground.

I lived in the Building #16, a singles dorm with rooms on both side of the hall way without kitchens.  Due to tight housing, it housed families too (all in a single room) where they stuffed cooking stoves/pots/pans in the hallway.

One family, both parents were from far-flung provinces of China lived to my right (where Aunt Spalding used to live – I lived in that room too..) with three daughters. The mother came down stark naked. It was summer and we did not have air conditioners. It was 3 am, but the moon provided enough light for us to see.  The husband hissed at her in their native dialogue and then ran back to their third floor corner to fetch a blanket to cover her. Seeing a naked woman among us caused more stir then the earthquake itself, although that was the reason we were all down stairs in the middle of the night.

The atmosphere was calm and orderly.  Adults conversed in their normal voice sparsely, predicted it’s a powerful earthquake and wondered why there wasn’t any warnings.  The electricity was gone, either damaged or cut off by the authority – if it’s the later, then someone did know something was cooking.  We must have been in a state of ignorant because we all stayed around our building which was next to the huge chimney that supplied our heat in the winter. As the first ray light up the sky, some one finally said that we should move to an open field, like my primary school for safety. ( Zhongguancun #2 Primary School to the right)

News and directives started to trickle in, as the sun rose.  It was confirmed that the quake center was in Tangshan.  People feared dead in large numbers.  We were told to stay away from our buildings, take some necessities and make makeshift on the street for the night.

It’s our summer vacation.  I grabbed some books, toilette and my little travel bed and headed over to the tree lined Zhongguancun Boulevard near the front entrance to the Zoology Institute. We staked out territory and improvised with what we could gather to make a little shed.

We used Institute’s bathroom, ate out at their cafeteria (I ate out there anyway).  My little booth was very popular, because I had a travel bed (Dad out sourced me between his sisters all the time so a travel bed was a must), which turned out to be a luxury compared to others who had to sleep on the ground.  We played baifen day and night.  When the pouring rain came, we all took a shower.  When the scratching sun came, we all got baked.  It was so much fun, :).  We made sheds 地震篷, set up equipment 测震仪, 测震室 to detect the earthquake (ya right), just a loud yell, my friends would hear (remember we had no telephone then) and come over to play.

On my way to the canteen one day, a man I remotely knew came up and said,
“Do you know that your father had just gotten married?”

Ouch, it was hurt. I swallowed hard. No, I did not know. But I replied casually,
“Of course, I knew.”
“I’m a good liar remember?” I told myself silently.

I was a huge fan and strong supporter to my father’s quest in getting married again. Thinking then I would have a place to call home, to live with my Dad. I actually gotten very close to his first girl friend, a pretty dentist.

One afternoon I was playing the card game with my friends with my back to the street. Then one of them looked up and nodded to me.  I followed his gaze and turned around, to find my Dad stood behind me. He was working in Kunming at time. Neatly combed hair, starch white shirt and wrinkle freed blue pants. He looked dapper and unreal, among us who looked like beggars and gypsies after days living on the street!  Seeing him during such stressful time should be a joy, but I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable. Living in the building, within the confine of walls, I did not have to witness how a parent cared for their child. Now on the side of the street, it was plain for all to see. I felt short changed. When other parents lent me a hand here and there, I first felt in their debt then abandoned. Unwanted was really hard to accept but I had been living with it ever since the day mom died. Few parents had asked and then suggested that I should go to Kunming to be with my dad where it was safer. No one knew how safe was Beijing in term of up coming earthquake. I knew dad never wanted me. I was better off living on the street.

Living in the open, the gossip traveled freer and faster. Everyone knew that Dad had not called nor sent a telegrams to see if I was fine. That followed with many unwanted comments. Now seeing him unexpected in 3D [flash], I did not know what to say to him. My playmates sensed the stiff air, all left without a word.

He mentioned nothing about his marriage.  Only said that he’s back on business, by the way checking on me.  He would take the next flight back to Kunming.  It must have been an important business. Becasue only the high level cadres got to fly. The plebes all traveled by train.

It would take three decades for me to find out why was he in Beijing on that day. It was 2006, I had some questions regarding the Tangshan Earthquake so I called him. After answering my questions, he went on to tell me, for the first time, about his second marriage and his second wife.
After introducing me to her at Auntie Jennie’s home, without any hope to find a job in the east, she decided to marry him the following year. She had a son who is two years older than I am. Dad took two weeks off, went to Tangshan and married her. Nine day into his two weeks’ honeymoon, someone at his work unit sent him a telegraph ordering him to return to work immediately, without providing a reason. He obliged.
“She was pretty upset, didn’t even come to the station.”  When returned to his work unit, did he realize there wasn’t anything of urgent nature, just someone held grudge against him, would make life like a hell for him whenever they could.

Five days later, the earthquake struck.  His new bride perished in her sleep, leaving behind an injured son and parents.  His dan wei felt remorseful of the senseless early recall (regardless it had saved his life), they sent a cadre accompanying him to Tangshan when the airport reopened, and made a pit stop in Beijing.

After the dust had settled, Dad was informed by her dan wei that all the bereavement allowance would go to her son because he had just married her, did nit deserve any settlement. Vigilant justice. China follows its own rules as they see fit. Sentiment often trumps the rule of law, if they had any.

When school started in September, we reluctantly returned to our home/dorm, not that they fixed anything, but of the cold weather.  I have to say that it’s the best summer I’ve had in China during my school years.

Few days into school, the dear leader Mao Zedong died.  OMG .. one little event followed another.  Looking around the world or in China, there isn’t any one so dominating as Mao.. .. .. so the May 12 汶川 Wenchuan Earthquake that measured also 7.8 (some report as 7.9) on the Richter magnitude is the prelude to who’s passing, or what?

Has the government taken any preventive measure?  Why not?  The salvage should be done better than the last time.  There would be chain e-mails for donation elsewhere from China.  But honestly I’m wary because China isn’t as developed as the west, who’s getting the donation??  I’d rather send to Red Cross or Tzu Chi.


2008.05.12, WenChuan 汶川; Accountability

About The Kibbitzer

bio info .... mmmm ... still working on it ... will add soon ...
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