In 2011, Andrew Arnett traveled with his father, Peter Arnett, to China. At that time, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Peter Arnett was teaching journalism at Shantou University.


by Andrew Arnett

The first thing I see as our bus enters the city limits of Shantou is a smashed scooter and shattered glass scattered throughout the road, with a man laying face down in the gutter. People are running down the street, screaming and crying. It looks like a hit and run incident, one that had occurred just moments before our arrival.

“Did you see that?” I say.

Peter leans over and peers out the window.

“Oh, that’s an ugly scene,” he says, “Unfortunately, it happens all too often here in Shantou.”

I point out the tire grooves etched across the accident victim’s back.

“I’ve seen my fair share of accidents,” he states. “Well, you know how people drive here, no one follows rules. And no traffic cops enforce them. People do whatever they want, and they don’t even wear helmets. Every time they get on the road they take their lives into their own hands.”

“Welcome back to Shantou,” he added.

It was a sobering sight, one that kept us silent and reflective for this final leg of a bus trip that started seven hours earlier in Hong Kong and would end in downtown Shantou at the Meritus Hotel.

“Tom should be waiting for us at the Meritus.” Peter say’s.

“Let’s hope Tom is waiting for us,” he adds.

Sure enough, trustful Tom is there to greet us with smiles and a wave as we disembark from the bus. Tom has been Peter’s driver for the past four years. Tom does not speak a word of english and conversely, Peter doesn’t speak a word of Chinese. And yet, they’ve been able to maintain a close working relationship all this time.

“Tom and I communicate using sign language,” Peter tells me as we jump into Tom’s brand new VW hatchback.

“Bus ride very long . . . tiring,” Peter say’s as he clutches an imaginary steering wheel (bus), straightening an arm (long) then holding his hands together and resting his head on it like a pillow (tiring).

Tom laughs in agreement and perfect understanding.

“That’s pretty good. You guy’s communicate better than I do with cabbies in New York City.”

“Tom has created an industry around me,” Peter explains. “His wife does my laundry once a week. He runs errands for me around town and sometimes I order a fleet of cars from him when I’m entertaining groups of people, like later this weekend when I take the students out for karaoke night. In fact, Tom bought this new car with the money he’s made from me. Isn’t that right Tom?”

No doubt, it was a nice ride. Tom nods approvingly.

“Take us to the ACC,” Peter tells him while curling his index finger in the shape of the letter “C.”

The ACC is a hotel on the edge of campus where visiting faculty and guests of the University stay. They also have one of the best restaurants in town.

Tom nods obligingly and swings the car into traffic.

Andrew Arnett in Shantou, China (2011) © Andrew Arnett

Shantou is a little rough around the edges. I sit in the front seat and stare out the car window as Tom drives us through town, cutting his way through the disheveled streets. It is a different kind of city from say, Shanghai or Beijing, with their ultra modern aesthetics. Shantou reminds me more, in parts, of Baghdad, circa 2003. And maybe that’s why Peter feels right at home here.

There is undoubtedly a burnt out, war torn appeal to the place, especially on the outskirts of town. Garbage lays strewn on sidewalks. Dogs run freely down the boulevards. Rickshaws vie with cars and trucks for dominance of the road. No one pays any attention to traffic signals. Stop signs are ignored. Vehicles drive against traffic, heedless of life and limb. It is not unusual for a car to drive directly at you.

Like Mel Gibson in Mad Max, Tom is expert at navigating us through this post modern urban chaos. He is not a defensive driver. He forces the car aggressively into the maelstrom, honking his horn obsessively. His intimidating driving technique is very effective, as scooters and donkey carts jump quickly out of his way to avoid collision.

“It takes nerves of steel to drive through Shantou,” Peter tells me. “That is why I never do it. Tom drives me everywhere.”

A couple of times during the ride, I let out an audible gasp at some near miss, bracing for an impact that never comes. Tom smiles understandingly. Tom’s confidence is unwavering, but he doesn’t judge me for my timidity. Peter, on the other hand, is oblivious to the carnage barely averted. He is comfortably ensconced in the back seat, discussing the politics coming out of Beijing, and the Chinese economic miracle that is happening all around us.

I agree with everything he says, but stay firmly fixated on the road. Streets are lined wth shops peddling cell phones, electronics, and toys. Roast duck and barbecued pork hang in windows dripping grease. The road to the University takes us through Old Shantou.

Shantou, China (2011) © Andrew Arnett

“Old Shantou has a curious history intertwined with America,” Peter explains. “Up until the 1930s, American sailors could be seen roaming the streets of Shantou, or as it was formally named, Swatow. In 1860, like Hong Kong for the British, Swatow was conceded by the Chinese as a “Treaty Port” to the United States for having lost the Second Opium War. This meant that the US could set up residences there and trade without restriction. Invariably, this trade would mean opium and coolies, the prime commodities of import/export to the west.”

“How about today?” I ask him.

“Today, Shantou’s economy is made up of light industrial manufacturing. Its principal products include plastics, garments, and canning.”

The outskirts of town are populated with the factories and warehouses of this production. It is unattractive, not unlike driving into New Jersey from New York City, or any other place where nature has been scarred by industry. Then there is the air pollution. The ubiquitous surgical face masks are worn by many here, but to what avail?

When you’re stuck in traffic, the only thing that can protect you from the poisonous air is a good air conditioned car. I once made the mistake of rolling down the car window for a little fresh air when the diesel fumes from a passing cement truck suddenly turned the car into a lethal mobile gas chamber. It is the only time I’ve seen Tom break his native geniality with a frown. Of course, to survive in an ever increasingly hostile landscape, one needs to adapt, and indeed, Tom is a survivor. My learning curve was steep, but I quickly understood how a simple pane of glass could mean the difference between life and a slow lingering death.

Of course, pollution is a problem all around the world. Unfortunately, here is one of the worst case scenarios. The town of Guiyu, located in Shantou prefecture and just ten miles from downtown, is the biggest electronic E-waste site on earth. These environmental health issues are a major point of contention for international organizations such as Greenpeace.

ACC Hotel overlooking lake at Shantou University, Shantou, China (2011) © Andrew Arnett

The University of Shantou is located on the outskirts of this industrial wasteland, but when Tom drives us through the school’s front gates, it feels like we’ve driven straight into one of those traditional landscape paintings found in so many Chinese scrolls. The University is nestled in a bucolic valley surrounded by rolling hills situated around a picturesque lake.

The ACC overlooks the lake, with the hills behind it crowned by low hanging clouds. I check into my room and settle back on the bed, taking in the view. It had been a long trip but we finally made it. I lay down on the bed and pass out for twelve hours straight.