The Chinese Logistical Sublime and Its Wasted Remains

Sent from Taipei, the last post in a container ship ethnography. The entire series can be viewed here.

“We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage”
– T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”


An APL vessel heads out of the port of Hong Kong

On our thirteenth day at sea, after having been battered by 6 meter waves and snow, gale-force winds and storm, having watched the ship’s skeleton snake and bend with the force of rough seas from within the depths of its passageways, I woke up on a calm, quiet morning to a sea that had turned a lighter shade of blue. From my porthole, delighted, I watched as seagulls weaved in an out of the wind currents above the containers, seaweed merrily skimmed the surface of the ocean, and fishing vessels began dotting the horizon. Land was near. Less than a day later, we drew into the port of Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Terminals stretched for miles from two harbor mouths, the air a humid, sticky breeze, the pilot’s Mandarin accent sounding suddenly like home.

The transition from sea to land has been almost too quick. After days suspended over liquid blue, spent imagining the ocean from what Derek Walcott has termed the “subtle and submarine”, the looming horizon of the sedentary state with all its territorial weight seemed almost churlish. Everything since touching land has been a blur. We spent 36 hours in Kaohsiung, during which a majority of the 4000 containers on the vessel were unloaded, then surged onward to Yantian, where 16 hours in port – aided by gantry cranes larger than I have ever seen – allowed not more than a hasty trip to the city center for a dinner of mushroom and chive dumplings (desperately welcomed after a six-week parade of meat and potatoes), before we set sail again for Hong Kong. Now, after a mere 15 hours there, we are in Kaohsiung once more. Tonight we leave for Taipei with four different currencies in my pocket and my head swirling from switching back and forth between two different tongues. After 42 days at sea, in less than twelve hours I will be off the Ever Cthulhu forever, never to return.

In the meantime, I am allowing myself to be taken in by the fearsome, monstrous smoothness of the East Asian logistical sublime. I had expected the delays we experienced on the US west coast to have created a massive backlog in China, but we arrived to clear seas and empty anchorages. The Chinese ports have a clockwork, kinetic edge. The transitions are quick – almost blinding. Once the ship berths, security rolls out a portable security checkpoint on the shore below, gangs of workers appear from under the towering gantries, and a rolling stream of workers climbs up the gangway. Lashings go off, trucks and straddle cranes slide into place, the agent appears, papers and loading plans are signed, and the cargo operations begin. There are no breaks, no pauses, no delays. The entire machinery of the port, already in gear, accommodates the ship in one smooth gesture.

Continue reading

In Non-Places, No One Can Hear You Cry

Post 4 in a series of ethnographic notes sent from the Pacific Ocean. View more from the series here.


Keeping watch at sunset from the bridge

The 3rd mate’s seafaring career began with a desire for basketball shoes. “When I was really young, I saw these guys coming home – seamen from my province – and they looked really amazing,” he shares one afternoon as we stare across the ocean from the bridge, where he is on watchkeeping duty for 8 hours a day. “They had these fancy dresses, basketball shoes… at that time I really liked basketball, so when I saw those brand new shoes, I said, ‘ok, I want that too’. The other men in my town, they were not the same. Even if they had a higher degree of education, they didn’t have those things the seaman were having. So I thought, why study those courses the other guys are studying when I can go with being a seaman?”

Not that his family, in particular two uncles who were seamen, approved: it would be a very hard job, they warned him, and very painful – especially if you have a family. One cousin had died on board a vessel that had sunk over the Atlantic. But the 3rd mate does what he sets his mind to, and so on he went to a Bachelor of Science in Marine Transportation – the college degree a majority of the crew holds.

“And in reality?” I venture, “Is it what you imagined?” The answer is an unequivocal no. “If I had a chance to go back, I would not be here,” he says. “Life on the sea, it’s very different from what I fancied. The stories from previous generations I’ve heard are all quite interesting: no hardships, everything’s ok. But when I got here, I found that everything is saturated. The six months on board… it’s six months of hell. I am constantly missing my loved ones. When I go home, the three months of vacation are even not completely vacations for me.”

Continue reading

Landlessness and the Life of Seamen

This post is Part 3 in a series of dispatches posted from a 130, 000 ton container ship. More here.


The bow of the ship is the only place on the Ever Cthulhu that affords a modicum of silence. To get there, you walk down the length of the narrow grey deck, flanked on one side by containers crowded into towering stacks that scrape and creak against each other as the ship cuts through the waves, and on the other by the powerful sweep of a wind so strong that you have to fight not to be blown backwards. At the foremost tip of the ship, you climb a few steps onto a large open deck painted grey and surrounded by giant chains and fat coils of synthetic rope, and suddenly, the mechanical roar of the ship falls away.

Having finally wended our way out of the US ports, the Ever Cthulhu has been traveling across the massive pacific ocean for more than a week now. Yesterday, we cleared the frigid Kamchatka Peninsula. The snow and ice beating against the ship for the past week has melted away, and the deck crew that has been trapped inside cleaning the walls and floors of the accommodations are now back to work on the endless task of the seaman: fighting against perpetual rust. “You know Sissyphus?”, The captain asks one day as we take a walk around the deck. “Working on a ship, it’s like that. You are fighting forever against the saltwater eating away at your vessel. The biggest enemy of the ship is not pirates, it’s corrosion.” Today, the ship has been awash in the sounds of grinding, scraping, hammering and drilling, scraping rust off and painting over it in an endless cycle that repeats itself every two months. All of this is set to the background soundtrack of an endlessly roaring engine that suffuses the air and shakes the accommodations with a throbbing, pulsating, machinic hum.

But on the bow, penned in from the wind and rage by the Ever Cthulhu’s bulwark, you can look outward onto an endless, unbroken horizon of ocean in near quiet, and almost think that the ship is barely moving. A quick step up onto a grilled ladder quickly dismisses this fantasy of a softly drifting ship: peering over the edge of the ship’s prow towards the churning waters below reveals the ship’s bulberous bow, a 1,000 ton snout-like protrusion of pure aerodynamic steel that cuts through the ocean, almost heaving the liquid blue upwards before pushing it back powerfully against the hull, where the waves churn themselves into a cerulean blue froth and then crest outwards in a diagonal wake. I can’t judge how far we are from the ocean’s surface, so I spit into the sea – crude, really – and count the seconds it takes to hit the waves. Seven. By the time it reaches the sea below, my ball of spit has already flown several meters behind me. We are forging ahead at a speed (18 knots per hour) beyond my bodily comprehension of motion. When you are surrounded by nothing but this limitless, shifting, liquid expanse, stretching in all directions for days before hitting land, all distance becomes incalculable.

Continue reading

The Quiet Port is Logistics’ Nightmare

Dispatch #2 from Charmaine’s ethnography of a container ship comes to us from the port of Tacoma, where the ship is currently experiencing severe delays. Continue to follow the Ever Cthulhu with the tag ‘Slow Boat to China’.

Source: author

Source: author

It is 3am on a Wednesday when we pick up the Port Angeles pilot who will take the ship through the Puget Sound. All day, we have been sailing through a fog that has hung so thickly around the ship that it has seemed we are drifting through clouds. The fog has delayed our pilot by four hours: sailing through the Puget Sound’s narrow channel is already a formidable task, made Herculean by the fact that no one can see past the ship’s nose. Take that, multiply it by the fact that the port of Tacoma is situated in a tight bottleneck of an inlet, that an unusual volume of vessels are docked in anchorages clogging passage to the port, and that the captain is being hounded by the charterer to get us to berth on time, and you get the shipper’s molotov cocktail. Short of risking navigating by radar, avoiding ships via yellow blips on a screen, waiting the fog out is the best option. At dinner, the captain sighs. “Fog, congestion, work slowdowns: at this rate, we will never get to China.”

There is a massive traffic jam on the ocean, and the Ever Cthulhu is stuck in the thick of it. Already, we have been delayed for almost two weeks: the ship stayed for five days longer than the forecasted two in both Oakland and Los Angeles, and is expected to be in Tacoma for ten. Regularity, it turns out, can no longer be expected in the logistics industry, and my 26-day trip on the Ever Cthulhu is turning into a 40-day one. All along the West Coast, ports and berths have been choked with vessels in every terminal, and waiting ships have crowded into anchorages for days in far higher numbers than the captain has ever seen. Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2.5 to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.

The reasons for this coast-wide congestion are unclear. In July, when the current International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract ran out, more than 70 multinational maritime companies and ocean carriers represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) began to negotiate a new contract with the ILWU for the 29 U.S. West Coast ports in its jurisdiction. The process soon turned ugly. The PMA blamed the increasing port congestion on an organised work slowdown by the union, alleging that the ILWU was deliberately not dispatching enough gangs to the waterfront. The union vehemently denied this, and countered that the PMA was deliberately mounting a smear campaign against them by cutting the number of workers at terminals and cancelling critical night shifts that would speed the cargo operations. The media, of course, lapped this all up, blaming rotten agricultural productions, anchored ships, and delayed shipment arrivals on the ILWU, one outlet going so far as to ask whether longshoremen were “spoiling Christmas”.

Continue reading

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


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.

Continue reading