Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Xiamen Typhoon (1920s)

Bill Brown ... Xiamen University
In 1999, a newly arrived American family with Kodak asked me worriedly if the coming typhoon would be bad. "No," I said. "Never a problem. Taiwan always blocks us from them. Besides, locals say the statue of Koxinga on Gulangyu Islet protects us. And so of course Typhoon Dan was the worst typhoon since the 1950s, and devastated the island. It took me 4 hours just to cut my way out of our apartment up on the hillside, which took the brunt.

Ann Mackenzie-Grieves, who lived on Gulangyu in the 1920s, wrote this vivid description of an Amoy typhoon ("Race of Green Ginger," pp. 137-139):

The black ball on the signal station was so familiar a punctuation of our summer horizon that it almost ceased to signify. Typhoons there were, but they passed on up the Formosa Strait. 'The great wind will not pass us today'; our old gardener paused, straddling under the weight of a potted camellia he was carrying under the house....

The sea stretched like lead from waveless edges, the air was motionless. I wanted to hurry into the water, but I was weighed down, pouring with sweat. It had never been quite like this before. A puff of wind lifted the bamboo leaves leaning over the French Consulate wall. Almost at once they fell back into immobility. Stillness and silence were fused; even the cicadas had stopped boring into it. 'Come on, if you're coming.' I saw Cyril's head and shoulders against an empty roadstead. Far out, a few ships were making for open water. Uneasiness invaded me.

'Swim to the raft and back, and then let's go home.'

Just as we reached the garden gate, the trees shook in another spasm like a woman in labour, but the silence swallowed the wind. Lee stood on the bare and battened veranda looking anxious.

'Come quickly.' A second gust swept away his words, but still with a sort of ominous gentleness. Then, quite suddenly, we were shouting as the wind attacked with a roar composed of its own impetus through the trees, the ripping and rending of branches, the clatter ofairborne debris.

'Suddenly the wild horses were galloping madly, compelling six fish-hawks to fly backwards.'

'What on earth ... ?' To me, watching a crack spreading in the sitting-room ceiling, Cyril sounded slightly demented.

'Su Tung-p'o. Quoting the classics as usual-Kung Yang-kao, I think, but I'll just check it.' He fetched a copy of the Fu and began looking for the typhoon essay. The cracks above us were travelling like snakes across the ceiling.

'Why backwards?' But it was the cracks I was thinking of. The rain was hissing in the wind as it pounded the shutters. The house heaved and shook. We sat beleaguered.

'1 say, just listen to this, it's fascinating,' Cyril shouted, holding SU Tung-p'0 close to his face for the electric light had gone out. '"My guest said: this is only the beginning of the typhoon. In a short time it was beating open doors and crashing against the windows, bringing down the tiles in pieces and belabouring the house." What's so amazing about these chaps is that they don't date. . . .' Then the whole of the middle of the ceiling falling on us, cut classical comparisons short.

In the evening we went out to a stripped, skeletal island, lying under a clear indifferent sky. Not a leaf on the bamboos, bare banyan branches, bare roof timbers, flattened walls, mounds and drifts of matting, of tiles, of the most unexpected household objects. In the charming sunlit bay wreckage littered the shore: spars, oars, pieces of fish baskets, brilliant, fragile flower heads, and among them, like a Dali picture, a human foot. In the city lay acres of match-wood, and among it junks, carried incongruously there on wind and flood, leaned horribly this way and that. 'It is even worse than an army passing,' Lee said.

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