Having grown up in Detroit during the 1980’s and 1990s, I’m pretty accustom to the sight of ruins, from burned-out houses to disintegrating primary schools. But I wasn’t quite prepared for a visit to the Beichuan Earthquake Memorial.
On May 12, 2008, China’s mountainous Sichuan province experienced a monumentally devastating magnitude 7.9 earthquake—so strong that it shook office buildings in Bangkok, over 2,000 kilometres away. Nearly 70,000 people were killed when buildings collapsed, and many smaller towns in the countryside near the epicentre were completely destroyed, losing over half of their populations in the disaster.
Just a few kilometres from the epicentre, the town of Beichuan is something like the poster child of the disaster. The town suffered horrible ruin, losing around 80 percent of its buildings and nearly half of it’s population during the earthquake and consequential landslide. The survivors were relocated, and the government made the unusual decision of not only leaving the destroyed town as it was, but actually preserving the ruins and creating a tourist attractio—er.. I mean a memorial to those who died in the disaster.
Essentially, the Chinese government propped up all the collapsing buildings, put fences around them, and built a museum where the world can come and gawk—institutionalised disaster tourism.
I really wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. But then we hopped on the shuttle bus that was to carry us down into the valley where the remains of Beichuan lay, and it began. The bus driver powered up the on-board DVD player and started up the intro video. Even without knowing Chinese, it was easy to get the gist. Facts about the disaster flashed in white words across a black screen, interspaced with vivid scenes captured immediately after the earthquake. Collapsed buildings. Fires. Crushed cars with bloodied human limbs sticking out. The mangled bodies of children being pulled from the rubble. They weren’t holding anything back. Disaster movie music loomed in the background.
At first people were entranced by the scenes of gore on TV, but as we descended into the former city, all eyes turned towards the window as the real, absolute and devastating destruction outside trumped the video. Maybe the rain that day added to the atmosphere, but the ruins looked stunning and surreal as they floated past and into the distance. The site was enormous, and it was really an entire town that lay prone and crumpled, unchanged even over six years.
The bus stopped in the centre of town, and we piled out into the humid, cold air. While I’d been fascinated and maybe even a bit excited on the bus at the idea of wandering through a ruined city, as soon as the window was gone and I was confronted with it face-to-face, the excitement froze into a very heavy lump in my chest. We stood on a perfectly paved road, lined with neat little fences and rubbish bins, behind which stood the hulking ruins of a city where nearly 10,000 residents lost their lives. Everything was heavy and silent as we stared at the buildings, and death stared back at us from over the fence. Suddenly, hot tears rolled down my face as I reluctantly looked at Mook.
“What a horrible place.”
It looked like a city that had been bombed, without the wounds from bullets and mortar blasts. And if it was a city that had been bombed, left indefinitely as a public memorial for those who died and as a testament to the horrors of war—I could understand that. But to take a city that had been ruined by an unavoidable natural disaster and fix it up just enough to make it safe enough (for now.. just wait till the next earthquake) for the general public to come and gawk freely… I just couldn’t see the sense in it. Didn’t these people want to move on?
While the place was horrible, it was of course fascinating at the same time, and the government had done what they could to satisfy humanity’s morbid curiosity. Many of the buildings were propped up strategically so visitors could actually walk under or through the ruins and get a close-up view of what the raw power of nature can do to our world in a matter of seconds. There were boards posted outside of major municipal buildings with pictures of those who had died and short descriptions in several languages (including English and French) of their heroic deeds. Other signs added to the human drama with heartwarming stories of residents who escaped death.
As a foreigner, I can only visit and wonder about the gratuitous use of a disaster site as a “memorial” that attracts visitors from around the world. But domestically, the site is steeped in controversy. While signboards meticulously name government employees who lost their lives in the earthquake, names and pictures of the thousands of children and teachers who also died are suspiciously absent. Critics say that the government is trying to whitewash the disaster, denying the institutional corruption that resulted in poorly-built “tofu” schools, which became tombs for Beichuan’s youngest citizens.
I really can’t imagine what it must be like as an earthquake survivor. There’s the guilt that looms in the back of your mind about how you were saved while others, including your loved ones, died. But to be forced to look at those ruins year after year, watching as they decay and crumble? To have to pass all the gawking tourists in order to visit your old home or office or child’s school and pay your respects to the dead? What must that feel like?
We reached Beichuan via a city called Mianyang, about two-and-a-half hours from Chengdu by bus. Head to Mianyang’s long-distance bus station, across the road from the train station, and hop on a bus to Beichuan Qushan (北川曲山). The memorial is the last stop, and the one-and-a-half to two-hour journey costs 17RMB each way. The area around Beichuan is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s definitely worth a day trip. There are also some tours available from Chengdu, and maybe some other cities.