5/12/2008 - After The Sichuan Earthquake

Dijiangyan city web page


Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China: On May 12, 2008, at 2:25 pm, my friend Tang Ling was in her 17th floor office and on the phone with mutual friend Bruce Zeng. In conversation she casually mentioned that she felt a slight shake in the building.  Bruce, on the job in Chongqing, 300 kilometres from Chengdu, would feel that same slight shake less than one minute later, at 2:26 that afternoon.


At that same moment, approximately 80 kilometres north-west of Chengdu, in Wenchuan County, approximately 200 fishermen were at work in their boats on a lazy river.  Two minutes after Bruce felt the slight shake, the fishermen felt a shake, only bigger, and were swallowed into the Earth, never to be seen again.


So started a tragedy the world has rarely seen. In the following 120 seconds, thousands of lives would be lost, millions of people would become homeless and at least 15 million lives in China would be directly affected… and many more in the rest of the world, in one way or another, would also be affected.


11,842 kilometres away, my life would also be affected in one way or another.  Here’s my story:


Moments after the quake, the news media would blast the fact that a 7.9 magnitude earthquake had devastated an area 80 kilometres north-west of the Sichuan capital city of Chengdu, home to my friend Ling.  No need to go into details as we are all aware of the havoc that occurred.


Thereafter, not much news followed, as communication to and from Sichuan had come to a halt.  Like all people with relatives and friends in that area, we were thrust into an emotional limbo that would last for days, weeks and even months. My story would pale in comparison to those of others who had lost contact, or sadly, permanently lost, relatives, loved ones or friends.


As news trickled out of Sichuan, it was learned that many buildings in Chengdu were structurally affected.  I knew that Ling, her parents and her 92 year old grandmother did not live in an earthquake-proof building.  Of course, I had no way of communicating with her to learn of her or her family’s safety status.


Nine hours after the quake, I received the following email from Eric Chiang, my friend in Hong Kong:

“Have not been able to get hold of Ling because the signal is not available, but I hear from Fang of [the] Winsoon Company that Ling is okay and very scared. I am trying to get hold of her and will let you know more details.”

The next day I received the following email from Eric:

“I still cannot get hold of Ling on the phone but they are fine from the information I have received from Winsoon guys.  Actually, Ling and her family are sleeping on the streets because of the scare of returning home, and so far on the internet, there were 313 after-shocks. Probably more by now.” 


On May 18th I finally heard from Ling. She advised that her parents were not at home when the quake struck but her grandmother was home alone. I can’t imagine her grandmother’s fright – her panic.


As my friend’s email stated, people could not to re-enter their apartments for fear of after-shocks. Ling and her family were directed to live on the street, in a tent, for two weeks, until it was deemed safe to gain access their apartment.  I suspected that Ling and her parents, although difficult and uncomfortable, would somehow survive the hardship, but I had deep concern for her elderly grandmother.


                                 Ling and her family’s home for two weeks

Ling told me she was scared.  That really hit home, because it wasn’t impartial information coming out of a TV or from newsprint.  It was the real deal, coming from a friend to a friend. 

                                              Helpless in Toronto:

What could I do for the survivors or for Ling’s family from 12,000 kilometers away?  Perhaps I could make a donation to the Red Cross or a similar organization? But would my donation really help?  In any case, I was of the mind to make a contribution.


As communication improved from Sichuan, Ling emailed that she and several friends were pooling their efforts and funds to purchase food, clothing and school supplies for the survivors. This gave me a great idea!  Why not send my contribution directly to Ling?  Better yet, why not take up a collection and have the money really make an immediate difference.


After my cash injection to “prime the pump,” I spread the word in my office and among friends as to what my plan was.  In a short time I was pleased to send Ling two “financial relief parcels” directly to her bank in Chengdu for a nominal transfer fee of $35 Canadian.  I knew Ling would put the funds to work immediately.


After the dust had settled (for want of a better term), Ling communicated her thanks by way of an invitation from her family to visit them in Chengdu should I travel to China.  As I have business in Asia from time to time, I put the visit in my mental planning agenda.


As fate would have it, my travels would bring me to Hong Kong, Seoul, Taipei, Singapore and Fashion (China) six months later.  My visit to Ling and her family would become a reality.


On November 10, I landed in Chengdu.  Ling and her friend Jie met me at the airport and drove me to my hotel.  During the next week, I had the pleasure of spending time with her family.


To read about tragedy or to see the lurid coverage on CNN is nothing compared to standing on the rubble that once was home to a family.  To see buildings cracked, tilted and half standing, to see shredded clothes, shoes, toys, kitchen utensils buried in the mud and concrete dust, to discover a tattered doll covered by debris where a child once played…is truly a humbling experience.  I stood there and cried.     

I was brought back to reality when Bruce and Ling suggested we have lunch at a makeshift streetside restaurant (outdoor cookery, if you will).  My tears were dried by what I saw on the street.  There was laughter amongst the people, resolve, hope and a “get on with life” reality on those broken roads. 


I watched the smiling old lady of that streetside restaurant as she stirred the steaming wok, fired by charcoal flaming from a tin can.  Bruce advised that the smiling old lady had been trapped under the wreckage of her home for several hours before being discovered and rescued.  She was among those able to smile and laugh.

               Ling and family at a (very) hot pot Chengdu restaurant

If I could look into the souls of the people on the street, the vendors, the shopkeepers, the dust covered helmeted construction workers, perhaps I would see their grief, their personal loss of family, home and possessions. But their eyes, smiles and laughter spoke loud and said, “we have survived, we will overcome and we will repair our lives.” 

I am awed by that human resolve in the face of adversity.  I am brought to a reality never anticipated or experienced.  I am witness to tragedy. I have been presented a life-lesson never expected or imagined.  For better or worse, I am a different person.


The printed word nor the photographic image can, in Ling’s words, “tell of the brave people of the earthquake area.”


Dijiangyan city  DSF5848



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