by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
On 8-8-08 when the Beijing Summer Olympics begins, the world will see that the Maoist doctrine of the Cultural Revolution has been replaced by capitalism and McDonald’s – all in the name of progress. This modern China bears a striking resemblance to the West it once condemned. But what will not be proudly displayed in shiny new shopping malls is the reality that modernization comes at the displacement of millions of people who must abandon the only way of life they know and join a new China.
Life on and around the Yangtze is particularly turbulent because the Three Gorges Dam – which will be the largest hydroelectric power station in the world when it is finished in 2011 – is raising water levels dramatically, thus displacing over two million people who live on the banks of the largest river in Asia. As Chang says during his narration, “Everywhere there are signs of progress and sacrifices.” Entire cities have been abandoned and residents must move to higher ground, often against their will. For those who live in poverty, the move is particularly difficult; as an antique shop owner facing forced relocation tells Chang, “China is too hard for common people.” While being interviewed, the man sits in front of a bust of Mao Zedong that is for sale in his shop.Sixteen year old Cindy Yu Shui, a shy middle school graduate, lives with her family in a homemade hut with no running water or electricity on the banks of the Yangtze near Fengdu, the infamous Gates of Hell in Chinese mythology. She dreams of going to high school and later college in hopes of becoming a scientist, but finds her aspirations out of reach due to her family’s dire financial situation. Both of her parents are illiterate; they tell her she must go to work to support the family – in part because her parents lack the skills to complete in the current job market. Cindy Yu Shui reluctantly leaves her family, carrying all of her belongings in a single pathetic plastic shopping bag, to live and work on a Victoria cruise ship on the Yangtze.
Jerry Chen Bo Yu’s life is a stark contrast to Cindy Yu Shui’s poverty: as an only child, he lives a middle-class life with his grandparents in the small city of Kai Xian close to the Yangtze. In his first on-camera scenes, nineteen year old Jerry Chen Bo Yu is at a trendy karaoke club doing shots of Absolute Vodka between drags of his cigarette. In his own words, the cruise recruiters approached him at his school because he is good-looking and speaks English – his attitude is very typical of China’s one child policy that has produced a generation of “little emperors.” The decision to work on the cruise ship did not come out of necessity; Jerry Chen Bo Yu has ambition characteristic of a new capitalist China, he wants to make a lot of money.Once they report to work on the cruise ship, Cindy Yu Shui and Jerry Chen Bo Yu are given new striped polo shirts and dark slacks. In addition to the uniforms, they are required to adopt English names (“Cindy” and “Jerry,” respectively). Apparently the chubby American tourists wearing “Beijing 2008” hats who populate the cruises are incapable of pronouncing “Yu Shui” and “Chen Bo Yu.” During military style training, the new recruits line up in their matching uniforms and the teacher instructs everyone how to pronounce basic English phrases. He tells discouraged students “Where there’s a will there’s a way” and “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Watching the training is surprisingly funny, especially when the teacher tells everyone to use the word “plump” as a euphemism for “fat.”
The film vividly captures the bizarre nature of the Las Vegas-like cruise ships; floating down an ancient river it’s as if these foreign passengers are trying to glimpse a way of life that doesn’t truly exist anymore. Chang pensively personifies the conflict between the two Chinas through the natural fleeting beauty of the Yangtze and the contrasting commercialism of the cruise ships that sail on its waters.Initially, Cindy Yu Shui and Jerry Chen Bo Yu’s futures on the cruise ship seem predestined: she will fail at the daunting task of assimilating into this new modern China, and Jerry Chen Bo Yu will flourish because he has already embraced the Western values necessary to succeed in a capitalist society. But Chang’s documentary is more subtle and surprising than obvious stereotypes.
Cindy Yu Shui’s life is significantly more compelling than Jerry Chen Bo Yu’s. My heart broke for Cindy Yu Shui when her crying mother tells her that, despite her tender age, she must abandon her own educational dreams to work and support the family. Once on the mechanized cruise ship, she is so overwhelmed doing the dishes she breaks down crying. Cindy Yu Shui lacks confidence, experience, and English language skills, but she must persevere because her family’s future, which is already in jeopardy as the flood waters rise, depends on her income. The only emotion you can muster when Jerry Chen Bo Yu is on screen is mild indignation at how spoiled and overconfident he acts.
Instead of just telling you about the two Chinas, Chang’s direction humanizes the progress and sacrifice of millions of people through the life of Cindy Yu Shui. After working on the ship for a few months, a coworker helps her buy some new trendy clothes at the mall (despite her wincing at the prices), she starts wearing dangly earrings and makeup, and cuts sassy new bangs. During a visit to her family’s hut, she carries two plastic bags of personal belongings. China is changing and so is Cindy Yu Shui. But while she is assimilating into a capitalist world, her family must carry all of their belongings to higher ground before the rising waters wash away their home.
In the new modern China there isn’t room for everyone, and Up the Yangtze makes it clear that many lives and histories will simply be submerged in the name of the progress.
About the Author Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in San Francisco, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.