Thursday, December 4, 2008

Boats --or-- From Me to You

The people of the United states, according to a recent survey by unisys, are the fifth biggest scaredy-pants in the world. But even though Hong Kong is even more scaredy (ranking #2--something to do with communist bird flu/THEIR ENTIRE ECONOMY IS INVESTMENT BANKS!), I could walk right up to the water's edge at an active international shipping port.

I did so today, because I got bored and wondered if I could. It took me hardly five minutes to find the closest one--it seems that piles of shipping containers always lurk upon the horizon, here. I sat on a steel guard rail (the kind for cars, not people) and watched the incredibly ancient process of longshoremen unloading boats.

The particular boat I watched was a small one--nothing that would have broken international headlines had some Somali pirates hijacked it--and I doubt it ever left the pearl river delta. Plenty of business is to be done between Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The boat held what looked like two or three layers of containers within its hull, and then who-knows-how-many more on top. It had its own crane, which makes me think it was probably a pier service boat, moving containers from pier to pier, rather than anything long haul.

The process of loading and unloading was fascinating to watch. It is easy to live in New York and never see manual labor, but watching these fellas run after swinging cable hooks on top of containers lurching back and forth on a boat helps lend some depth to Marlon Brando's character in On the Waterfront. These are bold people.

A diesel engine housed in an incredibly shabby steel shack is connected via a transmission to a series of pulleys. These run cables up and down the length of a 120-odd foot steel beam that serves as the crane arm. From this beam, more cables dangle the impressive distance down to the deck. These are heavy steel cables, with heavy steel joists and heavy steel hooks at the end. The motor is imprecise and grunts the beam in each direction. The hooks swing wildly as two men scramble to grab them and attach them to a container.

I was in awe on a sunny day with calm seas--and they have a thing here called "monsoon season."

Shipping containers can weigh up to 67,000 lbs. Each one is attached by four--or sometimes two--cables, and then yanked up as the engine spits out a poof of next week's acid rain and lung cancer. The 33 and a half tons take to the air awkwardly, swinging back and forth, and spinning around. Because the crane is nothing more than steel cables, there is no-one can control what the container does. The operator, pushes the beam out over land, and momentarily the giant steel box follows. He stops early to account for overshoot, but it doesn't really matter, as when a box comes down, it comes down. Frequently, the box is at the wrong angle to be stacked neatly and the operator slams it against a neighbor to straighten it out. When this happens, the pier-side longshoremen duck and dodge to avoid the inevitable cloud of dust that shoots out from between the two. Then as soon as the box stops moving, they jump on top and unhook it. The whole process goes by like a flash, and I wonder how quickly longshoremen get used to working so closely with such catastrophic forces--all is steel and seawater. All is rust.

I also wondered at the vast number of men around the world doing this very same activity. Shipping has a long history, and even a causal role for Modern Hong Kong (the city began as the British port for Canton (Guangzhou)), and there are many men like these, swinging cables, blasting diesel engines between idle and full load (spurting clouds of poorly-burned fuel), pushing steel boxes on bigger steel boats across the world. All this for things we take very much for granted. The Campbell's soup I eat here came from the same place my Campbell's soup did back home, and the headphones I just bought came from right across the border. In consumption, whether here or there, there is no difference. The stores look the same, and the little rush of opening the package feels the same. But I then I think about my $1000 plane ticket...

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