Excerpt: Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan

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Mimi is drowning in the world’s trash.

She’s a waste worker on Silicon Isle, where electronics — from cell phones and laptops to bots and bionic limbs — are sent to be recycled. These amass in towering heaps, polluting every spare inch of land. On this island off the coast of China, the fruits of capitalism and consumer culture come to a toxic end.

Mimi and thousands of migrant waste workers like her are lured to Silicon Isle with the promise of steady work and a better life. They’re the lifeblood of the island’s economy, but are at the mercy of those in power.

A storm is brewing, between ruthless local gangs, warring for control. Ecoterrorists, set on toppling the status quo. American investors, hungry for profit. And a Chinese-American interpreter, searching for his roots.

As these forces collide, a war erupts — between the rich and the poor; between tradition and modern ambition; between humanity’s past and its future.

Mimi, and others like her, must decide if they will remain pawns in this war or change the rules of the game altogether.

Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan is on sale April 3o. Please enjoy this excerpt.


Clouds roiled in the southeast like runaway horses. Typhoon Saola, still three hundred kilometers away over the sea, was approaching Hong Kong.

The typhoon’s course, fleet-footed and erratic, was just like its namesake.

A vision of that graceful animal, now existing only as pixels in image databases and stuffed museum specimens, flashed before the eyes of Sug-Yi Chiu Ho.

The name “saola” (scientific name: Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) came from a Dai word used in Vietnam. Scientists had to wait eighteen years between the discovery of some unusual skulls and the first reported sighting of a live specimen by peasants; five years later, the species was extinct.

White stripes covered the saola’s cheeks. Long, straight horns, curving slightly backward, gave it the nickname “Asian unicorn.” The species possessed the largest scent glands among all then-extant mammals—also an important cause for its demise. In the folklore of Vietnam and Laos, it was a symbol of good fortune, happiness, and longevity.

Now all that sounded like a joke.

So damned cold! Sug-Yi gripped the side of the tiny speedboat with one hand and pulled the jacket tighter around herself with the other. The Hong Kong Observatory had issued tropical cyclone warning signal number eight, indicating a sustained wind speed between 63 and 117 kilometers per hour, with occasional gusts exceeding 180 kilometers per hour.

I really picked a good day.

Coltsfoot Blossom leapt, breaking through a series of foam-crested waves, and gained on the 8,000-TEU cargo ship Long Prosperity. The cargo ship had crossed the Pacific from the Port of New York and New Jersey. It was bound for the wharves at Kwai Tsing, from where its cargo would be distributed to smaller ports in China.

The pilot gestured at Sug-Yi, and she nodded back. Her face, buffeted by the strong wind, appeared especially pale. The numbers scrolling across Sug-Yi’s goggles indicated that the target had decreased its speed to ten knots in accordance with the port authority’s regulations, meant to reduce the amount of pollution spilling into the port’s waters as well as to lessen the effect of the ship’s wake on smaller vessels.

And it provides a good opportunity. She waved at her crew, reminding everyone to be alert.

Coltsfoot Blossom accelerated and converged on Long Prosperity’s heading until it was right up against the side of the ship, matching its course and speed. Next to the giant container ship—built by Samsung Heavy Industries, 334.8 meters long and 45.8 meters wide—the speedboat looked like a remora attached to a basking shark.

“Hurry!” Sug-Yi’s voice was almost drowned out by the roaring motor.

The magnetic rope ladder shot out like a spiderweb, firmly attaching itself to a spot about two meters below the starboard rail of Long Pros­ perity. The bottom of the ladder remained connected to the speedboat to provide stability. A fully armed member of the assault team nimbly began the climb up. He dangled from the underside of the ladder so that his back was toward the sea to take advantage of the hooks attached to the soles of his shoes as well as to avoid becoming dizzy from the visual impact of the surging waves.

Though he was well-trained, the lone vanguard swayed terrifyingly like a wounded insect on a thread of spider silk, buffeted by the wind and waves. The twenty-five meters he had to traverse looked short but would be arduous.

Hurry, hurry! Sug-Yi’s dread rose with every passing second. Colts­ foot Blossom’s agile interception of Long Prosperity had happened so fast that the crew of the cargo ship had not yet recovered enough to react. But time was running out. Once they reached the shallow water inside the harbor, the waves would become even higher, increasing the danger of the maneuver.

“Are you getting all this?” she asked the young woman next to her, who nodded anxiously, the miniature camera mounted next to her ear bobbing with her head. This was her first mission. Sug-Yi gestured at her to stabilize the camera.

The show must go on.

She let out a laugh. When had she changed from being disgusted by this philosophy to being its loyal practitioner? This was akin to the “non-violent direct actions” that Greenpeace engaged in: lying down on tracks to stop trains, climbing landmarks, assaulting whaling ships, intercepting nuclear waste . . . time after time, each performance more outrageous than the last, relentlessly challenging the tolerance of governments and megacorporations. While these acts earned her organization a growing measure of notoriety, they also brought public attention to environmental problems and perhaps helped to enact environmental protection legislation.

That’s justification enough, isn’t it?

She recalled the speech given by her mentor, the founder of the Coltsfoot Blossom Organization, Dr. Guo Qide, at the most recent reception for new members.

The lights had dimmed, and a painting had appeared on the giant screen: amid mountainous waves, a three-masted sailing ship was about to capsize. Some of the panicked crew had escaped on life rafts, leaving behind a few hopeless men to struggle aboard the ship. The chiaroscuro of black sea and white waves arrested the eye.

“This painting, L’Incendie du Kent, was the work of Jean Antoine Théodore Gudin in 1827.” Dr. Guo’s mesmerizing voice captivated the crowd as he declared, “The world we live in is that ship, about to be lost. Some have already jumped on life rafts, but some still remain ignorant and unaware.

“Our job at Coltsfoot Blossom is to sound the drum and strike the gong, to play the clown, to swallow fire, to use whatever tricks we have at our disposal to catch everyone’s attention. We must let people know that the ship is on the verge of sinking, but those responsible for our condition think they can get away untouched. Unless we tie their fates to ours, we will be the ones left behind to pay for their mistakes.”

A sharp cry interrupted Sug-Yi’s reverie. She looked up and saw several crewmen looking over the gunwale of Long Prosperity. They were trying to pry loose the rope ladder’s magnetic point of attachment, but since the ship’s hull was designed to maximize the cargo deck area, the top edge of the hull curved out at an extreme angle. In order to reach the ladder, the men had to lean so far out that their bodies dangled over the side. Fighting ineffectually against the strong wind, the crewmen finally gave up after a few attempts.

The man on the ladder climbed even faster. Only about ten meters left.

A white stream of water lashed out from Long Prosperity’s deck and struck his body. The rope ladder swayed like a swing. The man’s hands slipped off the rope, and he began the long plunge into the surging waves below.

Sug-Yi’s hand covered her mouth but she couldn’t look away. The young woman with the camera screamed.

But the man stopped falling. He hung upside down in the air: the hooks on the bottom of his shoes had saved him at the last moment. He jackknifed in the air, caught the rope with his hands, and continued to climb up.

“Nicely done!” Sug-Yi shouted at him.

Long Prosperity’s crew continued to spray the man with the high-pressure hose, treating him as a living flame spreading up the rope ladder. The greater danger to the man wasn’t the impact of the water against his body, but the temporary deprivation of air due to water filling his nose and mouth. Luckily, he was prepared. Pulling the clear visor down over his face, he continued his upward journey fearlessly. Eight meters, seven meters . . .

A smile appeared on Sug-Yi’s face. She seemed to be watching herself from years ago, a young woman who had covered herself in saola scent and then squeezed herself onto crowded buses, subway trains, and ferries, ignoring the angry looks of those around her covering their noses, telling anyone who would listen that the most precious perfume, when made at the price of the extinction of a species, would turn into an intolerable stench.

Countless people had asked her: was it worth it? She had answered countless times: yes, of course it was. Even if the entire world treated you like a troublemaking attention whore, as long as you held on to your faith, it was enough.

The cargo crew shut off the high-pressure hose. Perhaps they’ve found a new trick?

“They’re changing course!” shouted the speedboat pilot.

Sug-Yi read the data off her goggles: Long Prosperity was turning toward Coltsfoot Blossom and simultaneously accelerating to twelve knots. This was an attempt to disrupt the speedboat’s mission without drawing the port authority’s attention. The speedboat began to bob up and down more erratically from the cargo ship’s wake. The rope ladder twisted and swayed in the air like a snake, and the man on the rope was hanging on for dear life.

“Accelerate and match course,” she ordered. “Keep it steady.”

The man on the rope tried to keep climbing. His body contorted to adjust his center of gravity and posture, maintaining the stability and balance of the rope ladder. Five meters, four meters . . . he was like a skilled yoga practitioner dancing on a rope in the middle of a storm.

Almost there. Sug-Yi held her breath and counted down in her head.

The young man’s next task was to use suction cups to climb from the rope ladder’s attach point all the way up to the deck while dodging the crewmen. Once there, he’d have to chain himself to a container like Houdini—preferably after having unfurled the flag of the Coltsfoot Blossom Organization somewhere prominent—and then wait until the media and the Environment Protection Department showed up. Ac- cording to the decision acquitting the six Greenpeace activists in the Kingsnorth Power Station case, as long as Coltsfoot Blossom could provide a “lawful excuse” tied to environmental activism, their actions today would not be deemed illegal. Of course, everything depended on whether the information they were relying on was accurate: that the containers on this ship, originating in New Jersey and bound for Silicon Isle, held the so-called Devil’s Gift, toxic waste capable of creating an ecological disaster.

It was not a simple plan, but the hardest part was about to be completed.

. . . two meters, one meter. The man was finally at the top of the ladder. But he didn’t put on the suction-cup gloves. Instead, he held on to the rope and swung back and forth, moving his body like a pendulum.

“What’s he doing?” Sug-Yi asked angrily.

“Thomas . . . likes parkour,” the young camerawoman murmured, and continued to film.

So he’s called Thomas. These days, so many skilled and idealistic new members were joining the organization that it was no longer possible for Sug-Yi to know everyone’s name. Being young is a good thing. Most of the time.

Thomas continued to swing as he anxiously calculated the distance and angle. The maneuver he had in mind would require him to let go when his body was at the top of the arc, leap through the air while simultaneously turning ninety degrees to catch the top of the gunwale. It demanded the utmost of his muscle strength, flexibility, and mental faculties.

“Thomas, stop!” Sug-Yi shouted. “Don’t jump!”

Too late. She saw that athletic, balanced body leap into the air, seeming to freeze for a moment in the wind, slowly and elegantly turning through a quarter of a circle, until his hands slapped loudly against the side of the ship. The steel plates vibrated while his body dipped under gravity. All he had to do now was to flex his arms and stomach to pull himself up and complete the beautiful gymnastic move.

Sug-Yi got ready to applaud this daring performance.

Maybe it was the wind, or maybe a patch of water left on the gun-wale, but there was an ear-piercing scraping against metal and Thomas’s hands slipped off. He began to fall irrevocably. Panicked, he grabbed on to the swaying rope ladder with one hand, but his momentum carried his whole body toward the hull of the ship. There was a loud, crisp crack from his visor, and his neck buckled, leaving his head at an unnatural angle. Thomas’s hands let go and he continued to fall.

His body plunged into the sea in a noiseless splash, an indelible image.

The young camerawoman was stunned. The lens next to her ear had captured the entire scene and the accompanying screams and cries. This video would later be played over and over in the media and on countless websites, and internet commenters would dub it a “recruiting ad” for the Coltsfoot Blossom Organization. The campaign slogan? “Youth does not mean stupidity.”

Sug-Yi took in the scene, her mind dazed. She didn’t give the order to retrieve the body, neither did she move or show any expression.

Is it really worth it? She didn’t know if she was asking Thomas or herself.

Long Prosperity continued to accelerate and turn toward the speedboat. Sug-Yi’s pilot, having received no new orders, didn’t take any action. Coltsfoot Blossom’s hull collided with the cargo ship and was pushed up, and the dull sound of metal being deformed filled the crew’s ears. They grabbed on to whatever was at hand, trying to avoid being thrown into the water from the tilting deck. Freezing seawater, full of whirling eddies and foamy, white spray, poured into the boat.

Now the boat was really going down.

Copyright © 2019 by Chen Qiufan

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