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A Passage from Hong Kong

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Edward Burtynsky/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Howard Greenberg and Bryce Wolkowitz, New York
Edward Burtynsky: Container Port, Maasvlakte, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2011; from Burtynsky’s new collection of photographs, Water. The book includes essays by Wade Davis and Russell Lord and is published by Steidl. Burtynsky’s new documentary film, Watermark, codirected with Jennifer Baichwal, will be released in the US this April.

Imagine the Empire State Building. Now imagine tipping it on its side, nudging it into the Hudson, and putting out to sea. That was the scale of thing I contemplated one day in late November, as I gaped at the immense navy hull of CMA CGM Christophe Colomb, one of the world’s largest container ships, which stretched above and out of sight on either side of me, on a quayside in Hong Kong. Nearly twelve hundred feet long, it’s bigger than an aircraft carrier and longer than the world’s largest cruise ships. On Christophe Colomb, all of that space goes to boxes. The ship has a capacity of 13,344 TEUs—“twenty-foot equivalent units,” the size of a standard shipping container (although most containers today are forty feet in length). These are stacked seven high above deck and another six to eight below. In cheerful shades of turquoise, maroon, navy, gold, and green, they look like a set of Legos designed for a young giant.

Trying to see where one even boards such a vessel, I noticed a steep aluminum gangway and went up its seventy-four steps, through two hatches, and into the eight-story “castle” that sits above the main deck and houses the ship’s living quarters, offices, and bridge. This was to be my home for nearly four weeks, as I took passage on Christophe Colomb from Hong Kong to Southampton, England, via the Suez Canal.

No passenger liners cover such routes anymore, but many cargo shipping companies still offer a handful of passenger cabins on their freighters, selling travelers what CMA CGM (the French company that owns Christophe Colomb) calls “a thrilling and unforgettable way to discover the great maritime trading routes” for around $130 a day. I had become interested in these sea lanes while writing a book about the world circa 1900 through the life of the novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924). Before he became a writer, Conrad spent twenty years as a merchant mariner, sailing chiefly between Asia, Australia, and Europe, and his shipboard experiences informed books such as Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. When I saw the itinerary of Christophe Colomb today—which plies a regular eleven-week circuit between China and Europe, taking in Hong Kong, the Straits of Malacca, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Gibraltar, and the English Channel—I saw a track that Conrad had often followed and wrote about in his fiction.

In Conrad’s day the world’s great cities had busy commercial waterfronts teeming with longshoremen, manufacturers, wholesalers, carters, innkeepers, ship-chandlers, and prostitutes. Port calls took days if not weeks, as each Burmese teak plank or branch of Central American bananas would be hefted in or out of a ship’s big open hold on a stevedore’s straining back. Ship officers had to double as logistics experts, since how efficiently you loaded your hold could affect how much cargo you could fit into it and how much profit you could make; and how you balanced its weight affected the speed and safety of your voyage.

In the 1960s, the shipping industry was transformed by the widespread adoption of the standardized shipping container. Developed by American trucking entrepreneur Malcom McLean, the container served as a one-size-fits-all package for goods. These twenty-foot boxes could be packed at the place of consignment (whether a factory, a warehouse, or a person’s front door), hitched up to a truck, driven to the quayside, lifted off the truck by a crane, and loaded directly into their designated places in a ship’s hold—thus eliminating expensive, time-consuming transfers from land transport to port warehouse, warehouse to ship hold. If 13,000 containers seem like a lot to load onto a ship, consider what it was like when every single item within those containers would have to be loaded individually; inventories of even modest-sized ships in the pre-container age ran into the hundreds of thousands of items. Now it can take less than a minute for a gantry crane to grab a container off the quayside, lift, swing, and drop it into place on a ship, then slide immediately back for another.

Containers needed ports able to handle them, with giant multistory cranes and stacking machines doing the lifting once performed by dockworkers. As new, mechanized ports opened—often at some distance from city centers, to have more space—one urban waterfront after another became a historical relic. By the mid-1970s, the wharves of Brooklyn and Manhattan were, according to Marc Levinson, “mostly a memory,” put out of business by the container port at Elizabeth, New Jersey.* In London, vast networks of docks that were handling 60 million tons of freight per year in the early 1960s were, by the early 1980s, a silent, shuttered wasteland.

When a container ship arrives in port today, it slides into a 24/7 operation superintended by logistics experts in distant offices. On board ship, the chief officer checks to make sure things go according to the computerized plan sent to him by the logistics office. As we watched the boxes pile on board Christophe Colomb in Hong Kong, I asked the chief officer if he had any idea what was in them. He shrugged, not even curious. All he knows—all anybody on board knows—is whether they need to be refrigerated, or whether they contain hazardous materials and need to be placed in a secure storage area. A port call lasts only six to twenty-four hours, and sailors rarely bother to get off the boat. The containers thus put up a wall between sea and land, making each side less accessible to the other.

By reducing the cost of transport, containerization accelerated a process of global economic integration whose earlier stages Conrad had witnessed. Today “shipping is so cheap,” writes the British journalist Rose George in Ninety Percent of Everything, “that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters.” Residents of the English port city Southampton were recently asked what percentage of goods they thought traveled by sea. All their answers, George says, “had the interrogative upswing of the unsure. ‘Thirty-five percent?’ ‘Not a lot?’ The answer is, nearly everything.” Ninety percent of everything, to be more accurate: most of the clothes you put on this morning; the coffee or tea you drank; your car, or at least parts of it, and some of the gas you put into it; your computer, television, phone, earphones—in short, the stuff of daily life.

George learned abut shipping firsthand by traveling from Europe to Asia on board Kendal, a 6,188-TEU ship belonging to the world’s largest shipping company, Danish-owned Maersk. She stresses the rarity of gaining access to “a working ship, usually barred to ordinary citizens.” What she reveals is an industry replete with appalling labor conditions, physical dangers, personal hardship, and environmental costs.

George organizes the book loosely around her voyage, using each stage to delve into associated aspects of merchant shipping. Her choppy, hard-edged prose rebuffs hopeful illusions about the sea. If you think the life of a sailor must be full of adventure and excitement, you’re wrong. It’s exhausting, poorly regulated, profoundly alienating, and often downright dangerous. Though “ships are the greenest of mass transport,” their noise pollution wrecks marine habitats: “A supertanker can be heard in the sea a day before its arrival,” and so you’ll see few dolphins or whales. Do you find sparkling blue seas beautiful, seductive? Look again at this “sonified, plasticated, damaged ocean.” “These are sad seas,” of desperate migrants clinging to makeshift rafts, harrowing shipwrecks, and ravaging storms.

Shipping companies are among the most “defiantly opaque” businesses in the world. They are masked by the system of flags of convenience, under which ships are registered in countries other than their owners’, allowing them to skirt fees, taxes, and labor regulations. Nominally, the world’s three biggest merchant fleets belong to Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands, even though not one of those ships likely has a Panamanian, Liberian, or Marshall Islander associated with it. More than a hundred ships are registered in landlocked Mongolia and Moldova. A ship will often be owned in one country, managed from a second, and chartered to a third, in “a dizzying Russian doll of ownership.”

Such shell games allow all kinds of abuses to pass unchecked. “The nonpayment of wages is common and blatantly done,” reports George. So is double bookkeeping, in which companies report one set of wages to appease the International Transport Workers’ Federation (which represents seafarers), but pay their employees substantially less. Criminal activity can be nearly impossible to prosecute. If a citizen of the Philippines working on board a ship flagged to Liberia, owned by a Greek, and sailing in international waters gets assaulted by a Croatian shipmate, then where would he or she file suit? Out of cell-phone range and with little or no private Internet access while at sea, crew members have no recourse to external help if anything goes wrong. In practice, the high seas are a legal no-man’s-land, where the captain’s will is law.

George dedicates two excellent chapters to the best-known form of lawlessness, the Somali pirates who have been the scourge of merchant shipping since the early 2000s. Unlike buccaneers of old, their primary objective isn’t to seize cargo; it’s to take hostages for ransom. Piracy has rendered the entire western half of the Indian Ocean a “High-Risk Area” on navigational charts. Ships crossing this area—which half of all container ships do, including Kendal and Christophe Colomb—are advised to adopt numerous security measures and to travel through the Gulf of Aden on an internationally patrolled transit corridor. George condemns the way “people love pirates. They are cartoons and thought harmless.” Harvard Business School even “chose Somali piracy as the best business model of the year” in 2010—a year in which 544 seafarers were captured in the first half alone. “In this rational business activity, attack rates on seafarers exceed violent assaults in South Africa, the country with the highest level of crime in the world.”

George spends a week on board a European Union (EU-NAVFOR) counterpiracy patrol vessel, part of an international policing operation in the region that has had considerable success. In 2013 there were only thirteen reported incidents of Somali piracy, as opposed to 2009, when there were more than two hundred—including the capture of Maersk Alabama, dramatized in the recent movie Captain Phillips. Even so, “EU-NAVFOR releases 80 percent of detained pirates because it can’t find willing courts,” says George, and as long as ransoms are paid, the pirates will come.

As Christophe Colomb cruised toward the Gulf of Aden, the crew took precautions. The sailors mounted fire-hoses over the rear railings, placed plastic sheeting over low openings to repel grappling hooks, padlocked the hatches, and scrambled our position information in the Automated Information System that tracks ships. Four sets of heavy bulletproof vests and helmets were laid out in the bridge. Notoriously, companies including Maersk and CMA CGM do not allow armed guards on their ships. Instead, if pirates do board, best practice recommends that everybody hide out in a safe room called a citadel, lock the door, and wait for naval rescue. Christophe Colomb’s citadel was stocked with two days of bottled water and emergency food rations, a chemical toilet in a box, a pile of air mattresses with pumps, a satellite phone, and a Monopoly set. “Whose idea was that?” I asked. “The company,” said the captain, smirking. “The idea is that while the pirates are on board we will be here buying and selling the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Gare du Nord.”

“We are like semi-prisoners,” said one of the Filipino officers on watch duty, his soft brown eyes fixed on the horizon ahead. “My life is on G Deck and B Deck.” He wrote the letters on the margin of the navigational chart in front of him, and pointed to them with the tip of his pencil, “That’s it.” He rubbed the letters out. I was reminded of Samuel Johnson’s quip, quoted by George, that “being in a ship is like being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” So why, given everything that I’d learned about the industry, would anybody choose to participate in it?

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Ocean/Corbis
A container ship and tugboats in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour

Compared to cruise ships and navy vessels, with their crews of thousands, container ships are ghost ships. George’s Kendal had a crew of twenty-one, and there were thirty on Christophe Colomb: eight French, twenty-one Filipinos, and one Indian—all men. The Frenchmen were all officers, but most of the Filipinos were low-skilled ordinary or able seamen working as oilers, fitters, deckhands, and kitchen staff.

About 20 percent of merchant seamen worldwide are Filipino. Shipping companies seek them out because they speak English, have a good reputation for reliability, and don’t cost much. (CMA CGM used to crew ships with Romanians, whom the French judged better trained, but they now prefer working with Filipinos, who always greet you with a smile.) The lone Indian, for his part, was a painter: Indians always work as painters on CMA CGM, I was told, because they’re even cheaper than the Filipinos.

As the ship’s only passenger and only woman (also French-speaking and half-Asian), I made the most of belonging nowhere to talk to everyone. I got to know the captain best, an energetic fifty-year-old who seemed forty. On the job he was an attentive and exacting manager; on the side, he was a lively raconteur and wit, his expressive face twinkling with ironic humor. When he joined up, in the early 1980s, to be a captain in the merchant marine was “to be something”: a job of great distinction, with plush living on board, well-qualified crews, interesting ports. No more. He scoffed at the ship’s “plastic” (wood veneer) trim, the tacky reproductions of Klimt, Dalí, and Van Gogh that adorned every deck in heavy Korean-made frames. He bristled with irritation at navigational errors by his lieutenants, and hollered at the steward for failing to put out the correct knives with fish. As for the romance of the sea, for many crew, I found, time at sea is a constraint that buys freedom back on land. The French work on three-month contracts, interspersed with three months of leisure sur terre.

The Filipinos go to sea on nine-month contracts, and to a man, they said they did it for the money. Most were earning between $1,500 and $3,500 per month—high wages even by Western standards. In the Philippines, they told me, they would have to be the CEO of a major company to earn as much. A young engineer, who was just starting his career at sea, said that if he could work for even half the salary in the Philippines, he’d do it, but the jobs weren’t available. The most senior of the less-skilled workers, the fifty-three-year-old bosun, had toiled since his early twenties in some of a ship’s most menial positions, and earned his way upward. His workaday face, a sunburnt scowl, broke into a gap-toothed grin as he proudly described his four grown children’s careers in law and business.

These jobs can take a big personal toll. The Filipino engineer had gotten married five days before starting this contract, and already had a baby on the way. He didn’t suffer from seasickness, he said, but “we get homesickness. A lot.” Some of the men on board had families recently affected by Typhoon Haiyan. “The company gave one free phone call home for those affected,” an officer told me, and the phone networks were frequently down.

In shipping, as in so many other “globalized” concerns, one man’s cost-cutting may create another’s opportunity: a job outsourced from Europe translates to a job, sometimes a good one, created in Asia. Shipping captures the conundrum of globalization. By bringing better-paid jobs to Asia and cutting costs for Western consumers, the industry may be doing such damage to working conditions, to the standard of pay, and to enforceable regulations that it may end up sinking a great many of the people involved.

I was curious about how the two distinct communities on board Christophe Colomb—French and Asian—lived, separately and together. I came closest to shipboard life at mealtimes, when I dined with the French in the Officer’s Mess.

I’d been primed for bad food by Rose George, who endured self-service buffets of French fries and hot dogs stuffed with Cheez Whiz, prepared by a well-meaning Filipina with minimal training. Maersk banned all alcohol on its ships a few years ago, and, adding insult to injury, had just decided to save money by replacing paper napkins with paper towels (a savings of $50,000 per year).

Christophe Colomb should have merited a Michelin star by comparison. Before meals the officers quaffed aperitifs in the Officers’ Recreation Room (the chief engineer favored the perroquet, pastis mixed with crème de menthe, which perfectly matched the room’s lurid green furnishings). They descended into the dining room together, dressed in white shirts with shoulder tabs, blue trousers, and loafers, and sat at a white cloth-covered table at appointed seats, marked by cloth napkins in labeled pouches. A white-jacketed steward served every course—appetizer, main course, cheese board, and dessert—beginning with the captain and me, and continuing down the table by rank. We had red and white table wine, baskets of baguettes, and neatly printed menus describing the day’s fare.

But such ceremony merely pointed up the nastiness of the food itself: monotonous, oily, overcooked. “Rice and potatoes, potatoes and rice,” groaned the chief engineer. And meat, meat, meat—mostly gristly cuts purchased in China. The captain grew so frustrated that he prowled around the storerooms hunting for neglected treasures. A case of mangosteens, rescued on the point of rotting, was a special prize. One night, for a change, I cooked dinner for the officers myself.

I had some sympathy for the Filipino cook, since he was expected to produce dishes as foreign to him as Chinese delicacies might be for me. “How did you learn to cook?” I asked him one evening. When he’s in the Philippines, he said, “I see the videos in the office”—instructional films shown by the catering company. He had also taken a two-day course in Manila on “Eastern European Cuisine Introduction,” and had a certificate attesting to his specific training in Ukrainian, Russian, Croatian, and Polish cooking, and—in case it hadn’t been covered sufficiently yet—“potato cooking.”

As the officers glumly chewed their rice and potatoes in near silence, I came to see the dull food as a particular injury to a community so starved of variety in their daily lives. Small talk limps when there’s no outside news, nobody different to talk to, usually not even notable weather. Anecdotes from ships past, or anticipations of homecoming, can only go so far among men who, as the captain observed, “will never talk to you about their lives.”

At the other end of the passageway, in the Crew Mess and Recreation Rooms, a different culture prevailed among the Filipino officers and crew. Food centered around a giant cauldron of rice, and usually a chicken stew, every man serving himself. After dinner, the threshhold of the Crew Recreation Room would be crowded with plastic sandals. I could tell the men inside were watching a movie when the only thing coming out was cigarette smoke. I could tell they were playing the video game Counter-Strike when there were sudden whoops and cheers.

And I could tell when the captain had opened the “Slop Chest,” the onboard store where the Filipinos could buy beer, when they started to sing. One evening I crashed the party to join guys in T-shirts and shorts, sitting with their feet up on a long couch, around coffee tables crowded with cans of San Miguel, Coke, and Pringles. At the far end of the room sat a heavily tattooed and muscled sailor in a Barcelona football jersey, belting out a love song. On the TV in front of him a karaoke machine spit out the words against a sequence of images from home: folkloric festivals, waterfalls, beaches. As the men passed microphones up and down and crooned their sentimental favorites, I remembered how sailors have always been known for their songs. Karaoke is the twenty-first-century seafarer’s version of the shanty.

To help captains manage the predominantly Filipino crew, CMA CGM supplies a pamphlet entitled Understanding the Filipino Seaman: His Values, Attitudes, and Behavior, by Dr. Tomas Quintin D. Andres, an “intercultural consultant.” Published in 1991, it reads like it was written at least a century earlier. “Filipino seamen are a happy blend of several races, basically Malay with Chinese, Spanish, Indian and American admixtures…. In their veins run the rich Christian values of Europe, the pragmatic and democratic values of America, and the spiritual values of Asia.” Andres goes on to characterize subtypes of Filipinos in terms reminiscent of dog breeders: “The predominantly Malay Filipino…is trusting a child, naturally tolerant, forbearing and kind but belligerent when provoked,” “The predominantly Spanish Filipino seaman is generous but arrogant,” etc.

There is nothing in the guide about one of the more intimate habits of Filipino seamen, namely bolitas. These are small inserts that many Filipino sailors put in their penis, by making an incision with a razor and sliding something into the wound: a ball bearing, say, or the tip of a plastic chopstick. This becomes a “secret weapon,” according to the Norwegian scholar Gunnar Lamvik, which makes it easier for Filipinos to attract Brazilian prostitutes; George quotes Lamvik: “the Filipinos are so small, and the Brazilian women are so big.” The captain had heard horror stories from colleagues about ad hoc surgeries they had to perform (there are no doctors on these ships) on Filipinos’ swollen and infected members, when the insertions went wrong.

For Filipinos, bolitas or no, there aren’t many opportunities during a nine-month contract on this route to find women if they want. Many ports are too far from a town to go ashore (Tangier, Port Kelang), and in others prostitutes would be too expensive (Southampton, Rotterdam), so they are left with brothels in the smaller Chinese ports (Yantian, Chiwan). Other than that, there is the never-discussed but age-old assumption—supported by the dwindling condom supplies in the infirmary while the ship is at sea—that sailors have sex with each other.

My experience on Christophe Colomb resembled George’s on Kendal, and I learned a great deal from her book about things I couldn’t see: the backstories and systems that make shipping operate the way it does, such as the byzantine ownership patterns and contorted legal regulation. Like George, I came away from my voyage with great admiration for unheralded seafarers, and appreciated her book for bringing them to notice.

Is that enough? She hints at some remedies for the industry’s ills. Make working conditions much better, regulation much tighter, enforcement much stronger, ships much greener and safer, and the industry—and the planet—will be much the healthier for it. The most sweeping reform would be to rein in the system of flags of convenience. Even simply giving sailors regular, inexpensive Internet access would mark a major improvement in their quality of life. This also means consumers should be willing to pay more for imports, or forgo them altogether. It’s certainly easier just to thank the sailors.

I learned things from going to sea that I could never have grasped just from reading George’s book. She admits that “shipping can be poetic despite itself. There is the singing of its winds” and the evocative language of navigational charts, dense with terms applied by “men who sailed through emptiness and tried to anchor it with names. Fairy Bank, King Arthur Canyon, Shamrock Knoll.” She finds beauty, as did I, in the brightly colored boxes that hold our goods. But these are man-made things.

Often, living between sea and sky was simply magnificent. Standing at the prow of this Empire State Building–sized ship, racing toward the horizon in almost pure silence, I saw flying fish leap up and outpace us, skimming dozens of feet across the sea. I walked through the below-deck alleyway over a giant steel floor panel that had been buckled and bent by the sheer power of the waves. I woke up in the night because my bed was moving beneath me. I saw the green sea foam in angry wind, and the cobalt sea slip and slap in calm, and sharp blinding sheets of sea in sunlight between gray blurs of rain.

On one of the lower decks, by the starboard lifeboat, the sailors one night set a converted crankshaft over an oil can filled with charcoal, and slowly roasted a suckling pig. We had an outdoor barbeque party, on a broad strip of deck walled on two sides by containers. The karaoke machine was brought out, and buckets of Tiger beer, and the cook hacked pork while others flipped squid and hot dogs on a giant grill. For a few hours, all thirty-one of us ate the same food around the same table, passed around the karaoke mikes, chaffed and laughed, and we could look up between the containers at stars as clear as you’ll ever see them from earth, and forget—or celebrate—that this was happening a thousand miles from anywhere a person might call home.

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    Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 97. 

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