Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi Freighter

Charlotte Phillips

Chinese officials
jerk away the
welcome mat

Eighteen days after boarding the 680-foot freighter Trade Bravery in Long Beach, Calif., and crossing the Pacific via the Aleutians, I see Hong Kong looming in the distance. And that is where it shall remain. We dropped anchor about 12 miles from shore and will do our cargo unloading and loading from here, using crane barges.

Trade Bravery's captain, Ronald Kellner, said this has been the shipping line's procedure for quite a while, not because of SARS fears but because of economic realities. The line saves a bundle of money by avoiding the docks. I am not overly disappointed. I have been to Hong Kong. I'm more interested in Chiwan and Shanghai, our ports of call on the Chinese mainland.

The captain has not forbidden us to go ashore, but the officers and crew will be working much of the time we're here, and the $200 cost of hiring a boat to go to Hong Kong for a short visit is a strong deterrent, so no one plans to go ashore.

Shanghai's stunning sunrise helped dispel the lone passenger's disappointment about being banned by Chinese immigration officials from going ashore.

The harbor pilot boarded our freighter at 12:30 a.m. and we were anchored by 3. By 6 a.m., the ship was surrounded by crane barges -- giant cranes mounted on platforms, with part of each platform reserved for cargo containers. The barges are ringed with tires to act as buffers during their inevitable contact with the ship. The ship has three huge cranes of its own, gleaming gold in the sunlight, but several hundred of our 1,600 containers have to be taken off and hauled to shore and hundreds of new containers have to be brought to the ship so the crane barges are essential.

The harbor is a whirl of activity. It is filled with a mass of tugs, cargo ships, barges, harbor boats, sightseeing boats, motor boats, sailboats and all kinds of vessels, big and small, crisscrossing this way and that, many of them narrowly missing each other. I watched the dizzying activity for a couple of hours before going to my cabin.

Immigration summons

As soon as I reached the cabin, the phone rang. I answered, "Yes, sir," knowing I would be hearing the captain's voice.

"Char-lotte," he said, with the accent on the second syllable, "immigration authorities are not satisfied with the paperwork; they insist on looking at you in person."

"Are they with you in the office?" I asked.

"No," he replied. "It will be necessary for you to go ashore. Perhaps the ship's agent will let you do some sightseeing before you return."

I grabbed my camera and gloves and raced down to the ship's office on the poop deck. I would be visiting Hong Kong, after all, thanks to immigration officials. Three Chinese men were sitting around the table with the captain, as stacks of money and cigarettes and such were counted and organized. The men did not look happy to see me, but I gave them a friendly greeting, anyway.

Although by international agreement, English is the worldwide language of the shipping industry, communication is often difficult. The shipping agent, Eric Cheung, told me in fair English that we would go to immigration and that he would show me where to meet him a couple of hours later for my return to the ship.

One of the other men, however, bluntly said, "No, she will return straight to the ship." So much for sightseeing.

The agent had boarded the ship by rope ladder, but Steffen Mydlak, Trade Bravery's chief officer and my friend, was already getting the gangplank lowered for me. It seemed much less scary than usual, considering the alternative.

I was aghast at the small boat that had come for me. Once I got near the bottom of the ship's swaying gangplank, I had to get the end of it as close as possible to the moving deck of the boat, jump onto the boat, and then walk around the outside, holding onto rails to get inside.

Whew, I thought, that's over, but as the boat bounced around like a toy, I realized that getting aboard was far from the worst part. The ride was much rougher than anything we had encountered crossing the Pacific. A sign on the boat read: "Remain sitted until save to depart," but with the boat dipping sideways into the water while speeding along, standing up was the last thing on my mind. It was a long 12 miles.

At the immigration office, we took a number and waited for one of the dozen uniformed officials to call us. I tried to talk to the agent, but he said little, except for asking where my family was. We went back and forth to the windows, showed my passport and Chinese visa, filled out forms and waited. On the fourth trip to one of the windows, more than an hour later, the officials finally seemed satisfied that I was legally here and stamped my passport -- twice -- to show that I entered and that I left.

Tiny shops offering primarily food, clothing, leather and electronic goods line the streets of Pusan, South Korea.

The agent immediately led me to a rickety tug to return alone to the ship. The tug was even worse than the boat going to Hong Kong. It was old and worn and looked homemade -- just boards nailed together and tires fastened around the outside. Empty soda cans rolled around and other garbage littered the boat. We seemed close to turning over several times as larger boats cut in front of us and left us bobbing in the turmoil of their wakes. We nearly got hit by a ferry while the tug's driver was talking on his phone. Then he got up and wandered around, looking for something, leaving the tug spinning around. Getting back onto the gangplank to reboard the ship was a little iffy, but instead of seeming perilous, the gangplank had suddenly become a safe haven. I was very happy to see it.

The trip to Hong Kong made no sense. Trade Bravery was anchored 12 miles out. I had no intention of setting foot on Hong Kong soil, so any issue Hong Kong could have with me would be moot. And once the officials had concluded I was legal, why not let me stay in Hong Kong so the trip to shore would have some value for me? But the ship's officers say freighters so seldom bring passengers here that a passenger's rare presence sends the ship's agents and the immigration officials into a tizzy.

The officers had first put me on the manifest as a "supernumerary" to keep from calling me a passenger. Then they tried putting me as crew. But when the agent decided to call me a passenger, immigration officials' ears perked up. Never mind that foreigners visit Hong Kong all the time. They usually come by air and often in groups. The officers tell me the harbors are a world apart and ordinary rules do not apply to ships, especially to freighters, and certainly not to a lone American, even one with a temperature safely below 98.6 F.

We actually got off easy on the temperature matter. The officers, crew and I had to take our temperatures just once so the captain could log them and present the information to Hong Kong authorities. I later read in an issue of the South China Morning Post, published in Hong Kong, an editor's story about how, after pretending SARS didn't exist, China went into a temperature-taking frenzy. He said his was taken 25 times during an eight-day trip to mainland China, and when he tried to check in at the Sheraton Hotel in Chengdu, and his temperature registered 37.5 degrees Celsius instead of 37 C, he was told to sit in the lobby "to cool down" before being given a room.

Shanghaied in Chiwan

Our next port was Chiwan. The shipping agent there was even more agitated by my presence than were the agents in Hong Kong. He did not want me to go ashore. The captain argued my case without my knowledge, then called me, exasperated, to tell me that in spite of his efforts, the agent had demanded a bribe for immigration officials because they would not otherwise stamp my passport and let me go ashore.

I agreed, although it was beyond my comprehension why I had to bribe someone to do something I could legally do. After all, my visa gives me 90 days in China. After the captain told him I had agreed to pay the bribe, the agent took my passport to get it stamped and returned it to the captain.

The captain said he didn't know how I could get to town, but I told him Ronel Montero, the mess man, knew, so he fetched Ronel, who walked with me to the gangplank and gave me instructions for getting to the gate. Ronel then asked, "What about your ice cream?" because Sunday noon is all-important-ice-cream time on the ship. "Please save it for me, Ronel," I yelled as I went down the gangplank.

While the freighter was docked in Chiwan, Chinese men boarded the ship, dropped a scaffold over the side and replaced the "Trade Bravery" lettering with Chinese characters. They then stenciled "Trade Bravery" below the ship's new Chinese name.

I had to walk around countless stacks of containers in the rain to get outside the gate to wait for a minivan. After showing my passport to the surly men at all three guard posts at the harbor entrance, I was allowed out. I was standing on the road, hoping transport would come, and was grateful when the bosun, Manuel Tres Reyes, and Ronald Sogo-An joined me. That's when I learned Ronald's name and realized that he was the one who had helped me get aboard the first day. When we passed on the stairs earlier, and I told him I was going ashore, he had given me a five-yuan note so I could pay the one-yuan fare.

We piled into the miniest van I have ever seen. I stepped over vomit to sit down. The traffic was insane. No one pays attention to rules. The driver sped, careened and blew the horn all the way to the small town.

A lot of leather goods, such as suitcases, briefcases, tote bags and purses spilled out onto the small sidewalks. Most of the shoes in the stores had extremely high heels and very pointed toes. Clothing was in super-small sizes and was geared to young people who want to dress like performers in American videos. Even the T-shirts were American. I saw none emblazoned with "China." The tiny shops also offered electronic equipment of all kinds.

I decided to look for a camera case in a small department store, but before I could enter, the guards made me check my camera and a bag of lychees I had bought on the street. Scads of employees filled the store. A couple of young ones, apparently schoolgirls, were fascinated by the lone American and wanted to try out their few words of English. But most of the people just glared at me.

Later, I met Ronel and the bosun at an electronic shop to get a taxi back to the dock. The shop had DVDs of new movies for $2. To avoid having to change my remaining yuan back to dollars, I bought a few DVDs, knowing the content may or may not match the covers. I had found one on the ship for "Showtime" but it reversed the identities of Eddie Murphy and Robert DeNiro, and the blurb describing the movie says: "Hard time is over. She will be kill. And sexual for everybody!" It starts as "Showtime" but switches to some other movie. So much for pirated movies.

I left my passport in the ship's office so the agent could take it back to immigration for an exit stamp. When the agent returned, the captain called and said maybe I would have better luck if I dealt directly with him. But as soon as he saw me, the young Chinese agent started babbling nearly incomprehensible words, and I knew he was complaining that I was there. He gave me my passport with the Chiwan exit stamp, and I gave him the bribe money, but then I saw a line drawn through my visa. I asked why. He said I was finished in China and could not go ashore again. I calmly explained that I had a visa good for 90 days that I had legally obtained from the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles and that the Hong Kong officials I had seen in person had stamped "90 days from date of entry" in my passport.

"Hong Kong isn't really China," he said.

I told him I wanted to see the officials in person. He said that wasn't possible. We argued for more than a half-hour. I understood bits of what he said. Apparently he believed that anyone who could pay a lot of money for a trip like this should have given him and his immigration cronies cigarettes and a big bribe upfront. And then I could have gone ashore though some other arrangement without using my passport, but now it was too late.

I asked him, "Is it because I'm an American?" He didn't answer but his look of contempt indicated that was part of the problem.

"Are you saying that legal visas in legal passports are worthless and only illegal bribes work in China?" I asked. "And that I still have to pay this bribe, even though you have illegally canceled my visa that the government of China issued? That makes no sense."

"You cannot go ashore again in China," he kept repeating.

Colorful crane barges surrounded Trade Bravery shortly after it dropped anchor 12 miles from Hong Kong, and began plucking off containers two at a time and transporting them to shore.

Our dispute had gotten so heated that Steffen, who was working in the office, had called the captain. I knew there was nothing we could do because we would be sailing for Shanghai soon and the captain had spent enough time trying to reason with an unreasonable man, so I left the office.

I tried to put it in perspective. It isn't the first time I have run into immigration problems on one of my unconventional trips. Besides, the ship's officers have told me about some illogical and upsetting immigration ordeals they've endured, even in America.

In another strange twist, Chinese men in Chiwan -- presumably authorized by someone, although the captain was unaware of it -- took off our "Trade Bravery" lettering at the bow of the ship and put Chinese characters in its place, then put the "Trade Bravery" lettering below, slightly crooked. We hope the characters stand for "Trade Bravery," but they could mean anything.

After we left Chiwan, we had a brush with a typhoon. Luckily, it just skirted our area, but the ship was rocking and I was rolling in my bunk all night long, holding onto the wall on one side and the night stand on the other. The officers told me there's a rail under the mattress that I can put up to keep from falling out of bed if the sea gets rougher. Everything that wasn't on a non-slip mat was scattered all over the floor of the day room. I decided against taking my routine stroll on deck that day.

We again were moving too fast and would reach Shanghai too early so we had to stop overnight in a large anchorage area, miles off Shanghai. When we entered the harbor the next day, my spirits were as dark as the murky water. Although this adventure is primarily for the voyage itself, it is still hard to be this close to Shanghai and not be able to visit.

At this point where the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the Yangtze River (the new name is the Chang River, but no one calls it that) meet, the water is ugly and muddy. Even the wake is a dirty brown.

After dinner, I went to my cabin and was watching the loading process from my portholes when the phone rang. Steffen asked, "Do you want to go into Shanghai?"

"What?" I yelled.

He said the agent looked at my passport and agreed that the people in Chiwan had no right to cancel my visa and that I could go ashore.

I raced down to the ship's office after putting on my cargo pants, and hiding money, my camera, batteries, paper and a pen in the various pockets, saving one pocket for my passport, which the captain had in the ship's safe. After all, it was nighttime and I was the only person going ashore. The agent, Xu Gu, told me he would take my passport to immigration and explain the problem and then would drop me off in town, which was about an hour away. He wrote out in Chinese the ship's location so I could show it to a taxi driver when I was ready to return to the ship.

I scampered down the gangplank and excitedly waved goodbye to everyone. Xu Gu and I took a shuttle to the gate, got into the car that was waiting for him and drove for a few minutes to the immigration office. The driver and I waited for more than a half-hour. When Xu Gu returned, he apologetically told me that even though the officials recognized that the Chiwan people were wrong, there was nothing that could be done at this point. I could not go into Shanghai.

"You were very brave to come to China alone," he said. "I am very sorry that you cannot see Shanghai."

Capt. Ronald Kellner was amazed to find Flensburger, a favorite German beer, at a small restaurant in Pusan, South Korea.

He seemed to be as disappointed as I was. He kept saying that what they did in Chiwan was not right. He urged me to write complaint letters to the immigration office in Chiwan and to the Chinese officials at the Los Angeles consulate.

"I apologize for my country," he said, when I got out back at the dock.

"It's all right," I told him. "Your efforts to help me made up for the problems, and I will always remember your kindness." So I didn't see Shanghai, at least not this time, but I made a friend.

The Shanghai sunrise greeted me, its glow beckoning from a porthole. I took a series of pictures from the moment the golden rays started bouncing off the water until the sun was fully visible. The beauty took my breath away. Thank you, Shanghai.

Soon after we left, the captain showed me a fax he had received from South Korea that said no shore passage would be allowed with a passenger on board. He was told to rewrite the manifest and show me as a member of the crew.

Seaman for a day

Soon after we arrived in Pusan, the South Korean agent, whose limited English did not keep his pleasant personality from shining through, gave the captain and me a lift into town. The captain said we would not need our passports because the agent had prepared shore passes. We breezed through immigration at the gate. Then I noticed that I was classified as an "O/S" or "ordinary seaman," and realized that's why we got no hassles from officials. Still, I was surprised that no one questioned my crew status.

The traffic was deadly, but the agent was a skilled driver. He spent the entire trip on the phone, but he was using a headset so it did not interfere with his driving. It was raining when he dropped us off, but we still walked around to see the city. The people were friendlier than in Chiwan. When we stopped at a small restaurant and bar, the captain was delighted to discover that they had Flensburger beer, so we had Korean food, including several types of kim chee, and beer, and then I left him to have another beer while I looked for souvenirs. Items for sale in tiny shops were similar to those in Chiwan: leather goods, electronics and Americanized clothes. I was surprised to see how many signs at the shops were in Russian.

A few hours later, the agent picked us up and took us back to the ship. What a great souvenir the shore pass will make, I told the captain, with my "seaman" designation. But the agent confiscated it when we got to the ship. So it is as if I never went to South Korea. No stamp will show on my passport and no paper exists to prove it. As the officers keep saying, the docks are a world within themselves and officials at each dock make up their own rules as the mood strikes.

Two hours later, the pilot boarded to guide us out of Pusan's harbor. And I was in the wheelhouse with him, the captain and Steffen as we bade goodbye to Asia. I feel very lucky to be on Trade Bravery and look forward to whatever awaits on our trip back across the Pacific.

Charlotte Phillips is fulfilling a lifelong desire to travel via freighter.

Related stories:
06.22.2003: Be a seafaring vagabond on a trip to anywhere
07.20.2003: Freighter crew pampers its unexpected passenger
09.14.2003: Adventure on the high seas


E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Calendars]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2003 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --