The Slow Boat to China

The following post is the first in a series of oceanic dispatches from Disorder member Charmaine Chua. She is currently on a 46-day journey on board a 100,000 ton Evergreen container ship starting in Los Angeles, going across the Pacific Ocean and ending in Taipei. Follow her ethnographic adventures with the tag ‘Slow Boat to China’.


“In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”

– Foucault, Of Other Spaces

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Source: Author

There is uncanny beauty in the monstrous. This, at least, is the feeling that seizes me as I stand under the colossal Ever Cthulhu[1] berthed in the Port of Los Angeles. The ship’s hull alone rises eight stories into the air; even from a distance, I am unable to capture its full length or height within a single camera frame. In describing the ship to my friends and my family, I have sought to make adequate comparisons between its size and more familiar objects: The Ever Cthulhu is 333 meters (1,100 ft) long, 43 meters (141 ft) across, and 70 meters (230 ft) high. It is taller than an eighteen-story building, the Arc De Triomphe, or Niagara Falls. It as long as a line of seventy cars, the Eiffel Tower tipped on its side, two Roman Colosseums, four New York City blocks, or six and half White Houses. I’ve had a lot of practice picturing this ship. Even so, when I am finally at the foot of its immense mass, I can scarcely believe that this monstrosity will be my home for the next 36 days.

I have entered the port’s gateway with very little fuss. As a Singaporean who has lived in the US for the last ten years, I am well acquainted with long lines, laborious checkpoints, and stern homeland security agents who scrutinize my passport with wary questions. This time, I banter with two female security guards at the Evergreen terminal in the port of Los Angeles whose only suspicion is why anyone would want to take the journey I’m on, and board a shuttle bus that drives down a lane flanked by multi-colored containers stacked four high and scores deep, forming long passages along which trucks and cranes stop to pick up their loads. We pass forklifts, spreaders, and trucks with empty chassis, which sweep past in well-oiled synchrony. Less than a 2-minute drive later, I am deposited at the foot of the ship, and I still haven’t shown anyone a passport. Staring up at the vessel, feeling dwarfed by the legs of the gantry cranes that loom far above us, I am directed to a steep and narrow metal gangway ascending seven stories to the deck – the only connection between the ship and land – which shakes and bounces as I drag my suitcase up its 59 steps.

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The steep metal gangway leading to the ship’s deck.

A tired-looking seaman in work coveralls greets me at the top. Shortly after, the steward appears – t-shirt, jeans, flip flops, an insouciant half-smile – and leads me through a hatch and into the “castle,” the building-like structure on a ship that houses the accommodations, offices, two mess rooms, two recreation rooms, a kitchen, a gym, a swimming pool, a sauna, and most importantly, the bridge, the room at the top of the castle where the ship’s navigation and command takes place. In comparison to its mammoth exterior, the ship’s interior feels like an office – a quick transition from the mighty to the mundane. The hallways are not wide enough for two people to walk abreast; the doors are heavy and swung tightly shut; there are no other people in sight. We enter a tiny elevator (“huge by ship standards!” the Chief Officer later informs me) to my cabin on G deck, seven floors above the gangway, and the highest level of accommodations. I am placed in the cabin that used to house the supercargo. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the supercargo was the second most important person on the ship, next only to the captain. This person was employed to oversee the cargo, manage all merchandise, and sell it in port. Today, the position has become almost obsolete in a shipping industry ruled by complex mega-structural frameworks running large datasets through computers in a clerical office, which ensure a continuous circulation of freight between sites of production and major consumption markets. Which parties transport, receive, and sell the freight has been determined well before stowage begins.

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The view from my cabin of the aft of the ship.

What is left of the job is this cabin: a splendid room with a long couch, a large double-door wardrobe, an L-shaped desk, a TV and DVD player, a double bed with a large side table, and a modest bathroom, which big ships can now rent out to paying passengers. I unpack quickly and head to the bridge to watch the last of the cargo being loaded, where I am afforded a 360-degree view of the buzzing port. The fore and aft of the ship are being stacked with containers 6 high, 17 across, and I have quickly lost count of how many deep. I count the seconds: it takes the massive gantry cranes less than a minute to stack each container. A skilled crane operator drives a carriage that slides back and forth, picks a container up from the waiting truck below, slides forward with it dangling from its massive arms, and gently deposits it into its designated slot on the ship. In red, evergreen, orange and blue, they unfurl in front of and behind me as if I am in a giant modular playground. I have found that I do not grow tired of staring at them.

Perhaps we have grown used to being in awe of monumental instruments of control. After all, the Champs- Élysées, that sprawling Parisian avenue of beauty, was part of Haussmann’s post-1848 renovation strategy to make the erection of barricades impossible, and to furnish the shortest route between the barracks and the workers’ districts. But if, as Benjamin suggests, the 19th-century bourgeoisie’s dominance was to “find its apotheosis within the framework of the boulevards,” today’s infrastructural godsend for capitalism may well be the container ship: With a carrying capacity of 8,100 TEUs (or twenty-foot equivalent units – the length of a standard container – although today 40-footers are the norm) that can shoulder a total weight of 101,000 tons, the Ever Cthulhu would require a 40-mile line of trucks to transport all its cargo. When it was built in 2006, it was the largest ship in the world. Less than a year later, Maersk introduced a new ship class with a capacity almost double that volume, and today, owns the world’s largest ships at carrying capacities of 18,000 TEUs each. Post-Panamax carriers such as the Ever Cthulhu – ships that exceed the maximum dimension that can fit in the Panama canal – comprise 16% of the world’s fleet, but carry more than 45% of seaborne goods. While maritime shipping companies endeavor to use the largest container ships possible in order to benefit from economies of scale, however, port infrastructure and equipment has not always been able to expand commensurate with the needs of these vessels: deepened harbors, faster loading and unloading times, better intermodal infrastructure, and skilled labor that can keep apace with rapidly changing port machinery are all demanded, but the large capital investment required to perform these tasks has posed severe limitations to the unmitigated expansion of ship sizes.

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source: Ashar and Rodrigue, 2012.

The captain tells me that the Ever Cthulhu, like all other ships, never stops for a break. It continues traversing the globe’s surface in 45-day rotations, reaching one end of its route and turning around almost immediately. Container ships are monuments that move, and 100, 000 of them ply the oceans at any given moment. In 2014, the Ever Cthulhu traveled a total of 103,000 sea miles — halfway to the moon. All that distance, all that steel, all that power. Yet, even ships as large as these require very little human labor: a few seamen to navigate, engineers to monitor the ship’s internal workings, others to keep watch, clean, fit, change the oil. The Ever Cthulhu itself has a crew of 22 men – four German, one Polish, seventeen Filipino, and one passenger: myself. Across the world’s ocean, 1.5 million invisible seafarers toil on three to nine month contracts to bind the world together through trade, though they remain, for the most part, isolated in their cabins and mess rooms, retained on precarious short-term contracts, and kept away from their families – indeed, from most of the world. The third mate, a young Filipino, tells me that all his sacrifices are worth it for a salary that pays much more than he could possibly hope for on land. In some sense then, as a container of both aspiration and drudgery, one might think of the ship more as a space than an object; a floating island of both hard labor and the possibility of better futures. It is no wonder that Foucault calls the ship the “heterotopia par excellence”:

“the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea…the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development, but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of imagination.”

From wide boulevards to floating archipelagoes, material infrastructures work everywhere, in under-examined ways, as networks that allow us to live, to dream, and to desire — but in circulating and drawing resources from across great international distances, also proliferate great inequalities and political technologies of rule.

As part of my dissertation project to investigate the links between logistics infrastructures, supply chain labor and uneven development, I have booked my passage on the Ever Cthulhu for 100 Euros a night. Beginning its journey in Los Angeles, the ship will stop in the nearby ports of Oakland and Tacoma, and then make its way west across the North Pacific Ocean, before reaching the east coast of China. There, it will stop at the ports of Kao Hsiung, Yan Tian and Hong Kong before reaching its final destination in Taipei, 36 days after leaving LA.

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From the captain’s desk: a map depicting the passage we will take across the North Pacific Ocean .

This trans-pacific passage is of particular interest to me because it is by far North America’s largest trade lane, and accounts for nearly twenty million TEUs in U.S. trade alone. This U.S.-China market is dominated by large U.S. retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and Home Depot – companies notorious for cutting labor costs by using the enhanced mobility of labor to shift work to third parties, erecting cruel hierarchies in both their Chinese factories and U.S. stores. Transoceanic shipping is, in large part, responsible for these widening inequalities: since shipping operates beyond the territorial spaces governed by labor regulations, it allows corporations to do away with the hard-fought democratic and labor rights struggled for and earned within local labor contexts. The internationalization of the supply chain, in other words, is aided by increasing innovations in the speed and efficiency of the shipping market. As a result, circulation has been folded into the production process, becoming a field of experimentation for value-generation in its own right. Of course, there are highly uneven aspects to this story of logistics. Even as members of the International Longshore and Workers Union negotiate their contract under embattled circumstances on the west coast of North America, indentured truck drivers struggle against overwhelming legal barriers to unionization in Oakland and LA, port workers in mushrooming Chinese ports can scarcely dream of ILWU wages or safeguards, and factory workers around the world toil under the poverty line. The world of logistics looks very different indeed from the perspective of Taiwan, California, or the Ocean.

Ethnography may be an unseemly choice against this dizzying and daunting backdrop of structural transformations. I do not know how much I will find out, how much will make sense, or how much will be useful. I am cautious about being the only woman on the ship; more cautious still about the potentially arrogant, certainly intrusive position of the paying passenger-researcher on board. There are some things I do know: Seafaring work is an endeavor practically invisible to all of us who benefit from the toil of sailors, and remains one of the most contingent, yet internationally diverse forms of labor. The embodied experience of traveling across the ocean is a journey few have taken in the decades since air travel. We know that capital fantasizes about the annihilation of space by time as its moves goods from space to space, but I want to experience the long, slow journey that is responsible for moving ninety percent of the world’s trade. In ways that may never make it to a page, I imagine that this feeling of being afloat, suspended between continents, trying to understand value in motion from one of its most liminal spaces, will stay with me long after I am done researching.

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We sail into the port of Oakland on New Years’ eve. That night, the captain opens the ‘slop chest’ – the onboard storage room from which the crew can buy beer, wine, and cigarettes. For the special occasion, he has even gone on shore and brought back a 2-litre bottle of whiskey, even though hard liquor has now been prohibited on Evergreen ships. As we near the midnight hour, the chief officer makes an announcement for everyone to come up to the bridge, where we have an uninterrupted view of the San Francisco skyline. Champagne is handed out to everyone; some are in t-shirts and shorts, others in work coveralls, still others dressed in shirts and pants for the occasion. At 11:59:50, we count down from ten together, and then watch as fireworks leap into the air from the San Francisco shore. Some of us have just met; others have been stuck in the same box for six months or more. But as we watch the world celebrate from a distance, cocooned by the ship’s glass windows and thick steel walls, it feels, at least for a moment, like we have embraced each other as a village.*


[1] At Evergreen’s request, in order to have obtained IRB approval for my research on board, I have agreed to withhold the name of the ship and the identity of its crew members. Ever Cthulhu is moniker; I could not resist paying tribute to sea monsters. NB: As you may have noticed in the first picture, the name emblazoned across the ship is “Hatsu”, a shipping company that has since 2007 been merged into the Evergreen line.

*I would like to register my gratitude to the Andrew Dickinson Memorial Fellowship for generously funding this research.

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87 thoughts on “The Slow Boat to China

  1. So many gems throughout this blog. For example, the idea that capital dreams of doing away with time and space which means the sea-worker’s life is even more invisible than it used to be. Yet 90% of goods still travel across the ocean. All the best with the dissertation. Fascinating topic and thanks for sharing part of the journey with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Not surprisingly a great percentage of Filipinos on board. The Philippines’ biggest export I believe is manpower and a huge portion of that are seafarers. I — for one — am surrounded by seafaring buddies. I envy their tales of great explorations, seeing places, adventures and misadventures, big bucks and everything that goes with it.

    What I don’t envy is their hard labor and the isolation and the difficulty in getting rehired after finishing a contract or when age no longer allows them to get rehired.

    Pls send my “kumusta” to your shipmates, my compatriots — if you find them easy to get along with. Very interesting read. You did a good job here Mam.

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  3. You’re doing important sleuthing and journalism, here. A world that very few members of the public know or even understand. Supply chain politics in logistics.

    Like

  4. I enjoyed the article, right up to the point you started preaching labor socialism. In Puerto Rico, they worked hard on “workers” rights and have 14 percent unemployment, lost 25 thousand small businesses and have been in recession for 8 years. What good are rights for workers if there are no jobs? How about Cuba and Venezuela? Worker’s Paradise : no one can afford anything and every one is poor. There OS nothing mote cruel than someone who destroys the lively Hood of others in the name of protecting them from the very thing that provides them with jobs.

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  5. Reblogged this on Prestaeus on computing and life… and commented:
    I would be very wary, if I were the only female passenger on this ship. I hope everything works out for her, this promises to be a very enlightening blog. The section on worker’s rights is what I have often feared is the case on these ships. When you think that these workers are the lifeblood of our modern consumer culture, it really is a shame they are not treated according to the benefit they bring. I also wonder what the drug culture is like among this subsection of the human population… I hazard a guess that opiates are typically the drug of choice, being so isolated from relationships with the opposite sex, but I digress. Again, this promises to be a great read.

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  6. Wow ! that is awesome !
    I don’t know the full reason why you make this trip, but I would love to do it myself one day. 36 days away from the world, in the middle of the ocean, how many opportunities to think about oneself, to meditate, to just enjoy.

    I have lots of questions, is it noisy on the ship? do you spend a lot of time with the crew? how is the food? what will you do next? is it just a ‘once in a lifetime’ trip or will you make others?

    I love the name you gave to this sea monster 😀

    Continue to share your experience please !

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  7. I’ve done a little bit of work with a ship management company, and I’m really eager to hear more about your work as it progresses. In particular, I gathered from the company where I conducted observations that there is a historical shift in the recruitment of seamen for different capacities from different nations, and both chiefs and senior engineers seem to be often recruited seperately from the crew – often with many conflicts. I would be fascinated to know if you found anything of this in your trip. The regulations applying to the vessels and crew themselves are also incredibly (fascinatingly) complex and antiquated. However, I should also say that the vessels I learned about were significantly less well provisioned than yours! The super’s cabin was often used to house superintendents or safety inspectors though.

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    • @drlauramitchell: thanks for this excellent comment and set of questions. I did indeed find many resonances with your observations while on the ship – most notably the fact that the officers and crew are recruited by different manning agencies, with the former largely from Europe and the latter from the Philippines. Both are subject to different (and very unequal) wages and labor regulations governed by their home countries. As I raise in a later dispatch, these exacerbate already-noticeable cultural divides. I hope my later posts answered some of your questions here!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Fascinating blog – I will be following your journey with much interest. Last year I read ‘Deep Sea & Foreign Going’ by Rose George who undertook a journey not dissimilar to yours but from Felixtowe (big UK container port) to Singapore. It is a wonderfully interesting book and given what you are doing I recommend it to you most highly. The book starts with a quote that amused me:
    ” I’m not a great admirer of the sea.There’s too much of it from my point of view” – Maurice Oliver, lighthouse keeper.
    Bon voyage!

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  10. You had me thinking “No Way!” … and going to an online vessel tracking service (and also Google Images) to see if there really was a ship called ‘Ever Cthulhu’.

    Then I reached the bottom of the page. I am disappointed. On the plus side, I suppose that means the name is still available…

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    • @Morgan I’m disappointed too! How did the shipping industry not snap the name up almost immediately? Please let me know when/if you name your future vessel the Ever Cthulhu. I will come to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

      Liked by 1 person

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