That night, I slept fitfully, kept tossing and turning, and drifting in and out of shallow dreams and memories of the past. Eventually before the day broke, on the morning of 12 May 2008, I got out of bed, eagerly anticipating the visit of Ming, my best friend from school, and Xiu, the girl who once hit me with a rusty hoe and nearly killed me when we were both fifteen while working in the peasants’ field one summer during the Cultural Revolution.
“Why don’t you visit us in Mianyang?” Xiu had enquired the day before. I understood her hospitality, and we had not seen each other for three decades.
“We are completely exhausted from our trekking to Zhangjiajie. Before that, a hectic university reunion in Chongqing. It’s better that you come and see us in Chengdu. Ming will be here too.”
Each left their homes miles away that fateful morning, for a mini get-together in the provincial capital. There were much gushing and excited exchanges. Xiu, just as I remembered, still loud and enthusiastic: “I called Feng earlier. He’s coming to collect us for lunch.”
“Another feast?” My husband John had raised his hands in mock horror. Then patting his belly, he said: “I’ll bail out this time. Besides, I want you to enjoy yourself, without having to interpret for me. Have fun!”
Feng had already made a round of calls to ‘summon’ former classmates within travelling distance. He only managed to get hold of one, the chubby faced man now sitting on my right. I looked across to my Mum. Her glass was full and plate piled high. Earlier they had insisted on picking up my mother, once head mistress in our school.
In front of me, a glass of beer, a small china cup with strong Chinese spirits, and a tall glass full of freshly squeezed melon juice. Two waitresses stood by, attentive and hawk-eyed, ready to refill our glasses the second they became empty. The VIP dining room, lavishly decorated with western oil paintings, with gold patterns on dark red background wallpaper, high-back velvet soft furnished chairs and an exotic Tibetan carpet. To me, it was another example of China’s catering for its new middle-class. Despite the summer heat outside, the room was suitably chilled.
The glasses clinked happily. Feeding our eyes were the bright orange shells of the prawns; the dark red beef soaking in the red chilli source, sprinkled with green spring onions; the steamed river fish appearing almost alive and ready to jump out of its oval plate; and numerous other colourful and hugely appetising poultry and vegetable dishes, expertly cooked and beautifully decorated on fine china and pottery.
“One more, please,” I asked the waitress who was holding my Cannon digital camera at the far corner of our sumptuous dinning room.
Suddenly, the building rocked, shaking violently from side to side. I lost my balance, head spinning. Had I really got so drunk or was it one of my migraine attacks?
“Earthquake!” Feng called out. For a moment, everyone was too stunned to move. The glasses started falling over and smashed. Chairs took on a life of their own.
“Run!” someone shouted.
Chaotic and panicking, people shouted and ran frantically, the air heavy with fear.
In my mind’s eye, I caught a glimpse of John, up on the 13th floor of Emeishan Grand Hotel, falling. I wanted to run to him. Outside, diners were gathered, unsure what was happening. I saw an old man being carried out. He was either too shocked to walk, or had suffered a stroke. Everyone was in different degrees of panicking state. The earth under our feet continued to tremor. I felt as if I was in a stormy sea, disorientated.
I dialled John’s number with my China and UK mobiles. No joy. Around me, everyone was trying to make calls but nobody was getting through.
“Let’s get out of here,” I turned to Feng. In his car I said a little prayer in silence: dear Lord, please let me find John alive and safe; fear was gripping me at the same time. The five minutes in the car seemed to take forever.
When I saw the highest building in the five-mile radius still standing, a relief washed over me: He must be OK.
Hordes of people were gathered outside. The security guard stopped me: “Nobody is allowed in. All the guests have been evacuated.” He looked deadly serious and business like.
“Have you seen the ‘Laowai’?” I asked him. In our hotel John was the only ‘Laowai’, or ‘Old Foreigner’, a local nickname for non-Chinese Westerner.
“He wasn’t in when we evacuated, but I saw him going out that way.” He pointed at the side street. I knew instantly where I could find him, the outdoor public swimming pool across the road. He was the only one still inside the fence. “This is the safest place to be,” he stressed, wise and calm.
The earth shook time and again and the aftershocks punctuated our conversation, waiting in the streets with hundreds of others. It was evening before we were allowed back into the hotel. Lifts no longer working, we had to climb the 13 flights of stairs. The cracks on the walls and debris on the floor told their own story.
Information slowly filtered through that it was the worst earthquake in Sichuan, with 7.9 on the epic centre Wenchuan, northwest of Chengdu. Still no phone connection, we managed to get onto the internet and contact our family in the UK. John also sent an email to the BBC website.
The following day John’s mobile rang continuously. “It is CNN;” he mouthed to me, as he walked away from the breakfast table. Somehow his phone number was passed around, to UK and USA media, and calls just kept coming in, all wanting a piece of his story.
Being one of few western eye-witnesses, John’s testimonies were to appear in various UK newspapers, and his voice on the radio. Instant fame. One friend heard him speaking on Radio 2 as he drove to work in Cheltenham. His wife immediately emailed us: Is that really you in Chengdu? Another family of friends were shocked to see our photo on the front of The Birmingham Post.
That evening, John was called again by Fox News in America: “Mr Kirk, you’re now live. Can you please tell us what you were doing at the time of the earthquake?”
I heard John repeating the same information for the umpteenth time that day: “I was in a swimming pool, when huge waves started, as if I was in a sea. Then there was this almighty roar, like thunder. The building next to the pool started to rock and sway violently, and I heard people shouting ‘Dizhen, Dizhen’, which I now understand as Earthquake.”
He told the interviewer what his wife was doing and how my friends were now unable to go home, due to damage to road and rail systems. In fact, Xiu’s house was destroyed – had we agreed to visit her, instead inviting her to Chengdu, where would we be now?
“How do you think the Chinese government is doing in the current situation? Are the Chinese people happy with their response?” The interviewer probably had a list of questions in front of him, expecting to hear criticism about the Chinese officials. It would make good news-feed.
John was too smart: “I think the Chinese government have reacted promptly and efficiently. Their Prime Minister was on the scene already, and as I speak, I can see Army Lorries passing by our hotel window, no doubt heading towards the disaster area, doing rescue work. Compared to what Bush did when the Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, I’d say that the Chinese are doing a good job…”
Before he could finish though, the interviewers interrupted him: “Thank you, Mr Kirk”. I gave my husband my big thumb. We both knew that they would not call back.
For the next few days, aftershocks continued. One of my uncles visited Dujiangyan, where many of his colleagues were based and then disappeared under the rubble. He brought back many heart-breaking stories, of school children buried and whole towns disappearing under piles of concrete, bricks and stones. Every day on TV and newspapers, stories of sacrifice, bravery and survival were reported. Never before in China had I seen so much live reporting in the media, so much support from all over the country, and from all over the world. Unlike the Tangshan Earthquake in 1976, when the city was destroyed and most of its citizens perished, the outside world had known little. This time, it was different. The whole world watched and shared China’s grief.
The affected towns and cities will take a long time to rebuild. China, after many years of isolation and political upheavals, has emerged stronger than ever before. Like a phoenix, Sichuan will rise from its ashes.