I knew people were hurt, but I had no idea they were dead.
When I woke up on January 1, 2015, my heart started racing immediately. The first thing I always do is look at my phone to check the time. But this morning, the home screen was filled with notifications.
“Are you okay? Please tell me you’re okay!”
A quick glance at any media source revealed that at least 36 people had been trampled and asphyxiated to death, with at least 45 additional injuries occurring at Shanghai’s famous Bund just hours before.
And I was there.
I’ve been hesitant to post about this experience because it’s a politically sensitive topic. I’m definitely adventurous - I can jump out of a perfectly good airplane and move across the globe on my own, but being interrogated by a foreign government has never been on my bucket list. I am, after all, a guest in a communist country and I’m no fool.
On January 5, TIME reported, “Chinese censors are also going after online commentators who blame the Shanghai government and police for the disaster, deleting the posts, tracking down the writers and summoning them for interrogation.” Obviously, I want no part of that. I have no doubt that the Chinese government is aware of and/or in complete control of everything published by its residents, even when using a VPN, so it’s always important to be careful. After a highly criticized, deadly incident like the NYE stampede, government censorship and surveillance is at a record high.
After much contemplation, I began writing this almost four weeks later from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
My original plan was to spend New Year’s Eve in Yongchuan or Chongqing before heading to Shanghai to meet my dad and brother on January 2nd. I was under the impression that I had to teach on New Year’s Day until about two days before Christmas. Such is the way of life in China – school schedules are always changing and plans are very last minute. Unlike the U.S., there is no academic calendar published months or a year in advance.
I was able to change my flight at the last minute, but administering a final on the morning of the 31st put me in Shanghai late – around 9pm. I dropped my bags at the hostel and hurried toward the subway, because I wanted to make it to the Bund to see the midnight fireworks with a few Canadian friends. One step into the metro station told me it wouldn’t be the pleasant NYE I’d originally envisioned. The scene looked something like this…
People were “helping” by pushing each other into subway cars so the doors could close. If I had any type of claustrophobia, I would have had a breakdown for sure. Packed in like a sardine, the whole experience was hilarious to me and I giggled the whole way to East Nanjing Rd Station where I exited for a short walk to the Bund. But the crowd there was even worse! It was a pure stroke of luck that I managed to find my friends.
We pushed and shoved our way through the slow moving sea of people and managed to find a prime location on Zhongshan Road, just across from the river and directly below a nightclub called Bund 18. We waited for the firework show to begin, but the only lights we saw came from the merrily lit buildings across the river, a handful of chinese lanterns floating in the sky and the emergency vehicles that passed. The sight of ambulances didn’t phase me at all. It’s inevitable that there would be some minor injuries (maybe someone drank too much?) on a night like NYE.
From what I remember, it was about 11:15pm when a tall blonde kid (he could have been American) stuck his head out the window of the club above us and started throwing money to the crowd below. People screamed and ran toward the “dollar bills” which turned out to be fake. This happened literally feet away from where we were standing. A few sidesteps would have put me smack dab in the middle of the money hungry jumble, but I just shook my head, laughed a little and stayed put. I could see that a few people may have tumbled to the ground, but I wouldn’t believe it if you told me they were dead.
The pulsating masses were loud, wild and impatient. Another burst of “dollar bills” fell from the sky and people pushed and shoved in that direction. A passing ambulance cleared the road and people took the opportunity to make headway by running after it. The scene was reminsicent of Spain’s Running of the Bulls. A few bodies stumbled to the ground and I knew they were hurt, but they couldn’t be dead.
For some reason, ordinary vehicles were still able to drive down Zhongshan Road, among the ambulances and thousands of people crowding the street. A girl I was with commented, “with a crowd this big, why isn’t the road closed?”
Midnight came and went. Without explanation, there were no fireworks. I remember thinking that the buildings across the river had dimmed their lights as a signal sending us home. Why had the show been cancelled? Had we been misinformed? If we had, why were thousands of other people misinformed as well? Surely, if there were no planned fireworks, the Chinese locals would have spent their NYE somewhere else?
I was a bit sad that my New Year’s Eve was such a dud, but I was exhausted, cold and relieved to escape the insanely, uncomfortably packed bund area. As I walked down the crowded sidewalk of East Beijing Road, ambulances flew past, with herds of people running after them, trampling each other on the way. A few people sat on the curb looking physically injured and mentally lost, but again, they weren’t dead. With the subway closed and taxis impossible to find, I was willing to pay an exorbitant 100¥ for a random motorcycle dude to take me home. I was in bed by 1:30am.
Early reports on the NYE incident blamed the aforementioned fake money that was thrown from a popular nightclub’s window. What probably began as a silly practical joke resulted in Bund 18 closing it’s doors indefinitely. As I said before, I was there and can assure you, the flying fake money may have resulted in a few injuries but is not to blame for such a massive, deadly stampede. I can only hope that young Mr. Moneybags is safe and sound with a clear conscience.
Even having been in the area, I don’t know exactly how so many people lost their lives that night and I’m sure I never will. Average citizens and journalists alike have placed blame on the Chinese police force for their lack of oversight that evening, but those voices have been silenced. We’ll never get a completely accurate portrayal of how it went down.
As good Shanghai tourists always do, I spent a considerable amount of time at the bund in the days that followed. With dead serious expressions and guns shining, thousands of Chinese military and police marched in unison to reaffirm their control and authority in no uncertain terms. Suddenly, there were rules about waiting for crosswalks to go green before wandering wherever my little heart desired. And the wagging of a gun-wielding officer’s fist told me the rules applied to me! Imagine my surprise after five months of uninhibited jaywalking (or I’d never get anywhere in China).
This was a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m just happy my friends and I all made it out okay. Prayers for the families of those injured and killed in Shanghai on December 31, 2014.