For years, I've heard fables and legends about a mysterious cemetery somewhere in China.
PHOTOS BY LUCA GABINO
or years, I’ve heard fables and legends about a mysterious cemetery somewhere in China. I heard whispers on the internet and from Chinese friends about mountains of broken computers, heaps of chips, motherboards, and printer cartridges virtually filling the streets of a South Asian village. But it was kept quiet by the notoriously tight-lipped Chinese government. It was kind of like the elusive elephant graveyard, but with technological offal and guarded by mean communists. I decided that I would make it my mission to go there.
I slowly discovered that 80 percent of all the electronic toxic waste collected around the world ends up in Guiyu, a small town in the southern China province of Guangdong. The town imports more than 1 million tons of this stuff every year. Almost 90 percent of Hong Kong’s computers end up there, but 60 percent of the total waste originates in the USA. The exact location of Guiyu has been kept secret by the authorities, but I already knew that Shenzhen was the biggest city in Guangdong and that it was just an hour and a half away from Hong Kong.
Even with Hong Kong being Chinese again, we had to go through customs to get into Shenzhen. We boarded the bus to Cheng Dian, guessing it was the nearest city to Guiyu. On the bus the situation got even creepier when the hostess pulled out a video camera and started filming each passenger for “security reasons.” I was the only Westerner on board. During the three-hour bus ride the same advert looped on the in-bus televisions. It showed Shenzhen as a city of fun, happiness, and luxury. Looking out the window at the gray factories, the sea of cement, and the columns of smoke I had to ask myself if any of the other passengers were falling for it. Toward the end of the journey I found a university student who spoke a little English. Taking a chance, I asked her where Guiyu was. She acted quite perplexed at first and replied that no such place existed. But I could tell she knew something, so I begged her until she scribbled directions on a piece of paper.
We arrived in Cheng Dian at night and I took a room in a cheap hotel. I spent the next day trying to find someone who would tell us more about Guiyu. The locals denied its existence. Fortunately I found a taxi driver who was willing to take me there for the relative mountain of cash that is 40 euros. I handed him the directions that the girl on the train had written for me, and we set off in almost total darkness. The driver eventually dropped me off at the only hotel in the proximity of Guiyu. From the car, all I could see was a big white block of cement surrounded by garbage. I stepped out into the most surreal landscape I have ever seen.
It was a sea of garbage. The heaps of trash began accumulating next to the hotel walls and did not stop for as far as the eye could see. The whole town was a construction site, with the old wooden barracks being replaced by unfinished houses. You can still spot Guiyu’s rural past in the barracks that once clearly constituted most of the town, but the e-waste economy required more accommodation for the 200,000 migrant workers who moved to Guiyu in the past six years. Everywhere around us people were busy carrying or unloading computer parts. Huge piles of outer shells lay next to construction sites, layers and layers of motherboards and CD players were dumped in the courtyards, and thousands of bags of chips spilled inside and outside, forming massive mountains between the tiny dwellings. Children were dividing tiny chips by color in the street.
dults were grilling circuit boards on barbecue grills. They melted the soldering and removed the chips, and then the women would separate the parts in different bags and wash them with water. After the circuit boards were soaked in acid to recuperate bits of gold, they were finally either burned or buried.
I witnessed kids between the ages of five and ten working in barracks with no ventilation, with people all around them burning everything from the metal components of computers to wires to extract the copper. When the PVC and the brominated flame retardant around the wires burn, they emit high levels of chlorinated dioxins and furans, two of the most persistent organic pollutants. As a result, the local river is so contaminated that the levels of acidity are almost total. The water contains an estimated 2,400 times the recommended levels of lead, and it’s not hard to notice: The river is literally black from the toner of printer cartridges and from washing the burned motherboards. The toner contains carbon black, a known carcinogen, but the locals wash themselves, their clothes, and their food with this water. It’s so toxic that even boiling it doesn’t come close to purifying it. Above the water, the air was thick with smoke. Around it, the land is so irreparably poisoned that nothing can grow. All the food and drinking water is imported from out of town.
On my third day in Guiyu, I managed to get to the main dump. The mountains of computer parts I had seen so far were nothing compared with what awaited. The roads were in a constant state of traffic jam with trucks, motorbikes, and even mules carrying parts to be “recycled.” It was hell. Thick smoke hung like storm clouds. It hurt to breathe.
As I stopped to take pictures, a furious woman came out of nowhere, charging me with her broom, trying to grab my camera. Not wanting to cause trouble in an illegal toxic-waste dump in southern China, I ran back to the car. She followed, waving her broom around like a baseball bat, banging on the windows. She broke the windshield. She was blind with rage, trying to break the remaining bits of glass off with her bare hands. When she saw she couldn’t do it she stuck her broom through the hole she’d made and started smacking me in the head.
Then the police showed up to—I naively thought—rescue me from the crazy woman. I was very wrong. They ordered me to wait in the car while they interrogated all the witnesses except for the woman, whom they let calmly walk back to her barrack. People crowded around the car and stared at me as if I were an exotic animal in a cage. After an hour the police told my driver to follow them to the station, where I was interrogated for an hour with the aid of a translator. I told them I was a university student on vacation. I had previously hid the better rolls of film, so I could hand them the ones that were no good to me. They let me go back to my hotel, chauffered by the poor driver whose car had been beaten up by the crazy old woman.
A few days later there was a knock at my hotel door. It was the cops again. They took me back to the station, where I was questioned by six cops. I thought they were going to beat the shit out of me. After an hour of repeating myself, I convinced them that I was merely a student on holiday. They believed me! That is, until they got the owner of the hotel to show them the ID card I’d used to sign in. Under job description, it said “photographer.” Whoops. The interrogation started again. I played it dumb, hung my head, and told them I was just a silly student who takes amateur pictures and has no idea what is going on in their town. Three hours later they finally released me and I hightailed it right the fuck out of Guiyu. I will never go back.