'There Is No God Here': An Excerpt From Life on Taiwan's High Seas Vessels

'There Is No God Here': An Excerpt From Life on Taiwan's High Seas Vessels
Credit: Li A-ming / Times Publishing
Why you need to know

'If all the fishermen were Taiwanese, would the conditions be any different? This a question I have thought about for a very long time.'

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Showering

Taking a shower is not easy for a migrant fisherman.

Fishing ports usually only have around two showers. At dusk, after a spending a day working up a sweat on board, you will always see a long snaking line of fishermen waiting to rid themselves of the smell of fish. Unfortunately, all showers are located at opposite ends of the fishing port. No matter where your ship docks, you still must walk a bit of a distance in order to get to the showers.

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Credit: Li A-ming / Times Publishing

When fishing boats are docked at replenishment terminals, migrant fishermen will illegally steal fresh water and get on deck to wash off. Water hydrants on land are all equipped with an iron frame lock, which can be unlocked during the day so that fishing boats can replenish their fresh water, but they must be locked again afterwards. However, migrant fishermen know the tricks to secretly pick the locks and access the endless water supply. The water is cheap anyway, and the ports don’t care too much.

During the summer, when the rain begins to pour, migrant fishermen solve their shower problems by lathering up under streams of rain water from the cabin roof. This saves them trekking through the rain, waiting for the showers, and then trudging back through the rain again afterwards. These ingenious fishermen even use bottled water to rinse their teeth out when brushing, causing their companies to curse them.

Those too lazy to wait in line for hours will take a bucket and fill it with the water used for flushing the port-a-loo urinals. After all, it is all just water, and if they get a shower, that’s all that counts.

These also aren’t your run-of-the-mill buckets; they are mostly used paint buckets with the thick metal wire handles. Everyone relies on these buckets for washing themselves and their clothes, especially as migrant fishermen will never spend money to buy “real” buckets.

Some even wind up going to gas station toilets to wash off, which has caused public outrage and led to certain gas stations locking their toilets after business hours. One time, this nearly killed an old man who still hadn’t learned how to squeeze out a ‘Number 2’ while squatting portside. I once had to mince my way over a kilometer in the middle of the night just to find a convenience store with a john.

To this day, I still don’t understand why the fishing ports, with all the money they make, refuse to install a few more showers. If all the fishermen were Taiwanese, would the conditions be any different? This a question I have thought about for a very long time.

Electricity

After the squid ship unloads the day’s catch, both the main and auxiliary motors stop running. At night, there is usually no water or electricity. During the daytime, we even had to lug generators on to the deck to give the Taiwanese mechanic power to repair things. There are site-dependent time restrictions for using the generator, and it was often this old repairman’s job to monitor it.

Agree overtly, oppose in secret

At night, someone from either the port or our company would patrol the area. If they saw that the ship lit up from bow to stern, then some serious wrist slapping would ensue, with the petty officer bearing the brunt of it. This is the guy in charge of the workshop full of migrant fishermen, who holds the key to the generator.

It was always an endless game of cat and mouse, one which made me Saigo Ba-ba-San (the best father figure) in the eyes of the migrant fishermen, because I would turn a blind eye whenever they would cheekily switch on the generator. (Most petty officers are elderly 60 to 70-year-old Taiwanese men who act as legal guardians to the migrant fishermen, and therefore, they usually call this person “Papa-San,” which is derived from the Japanese language.)

Electricity was important in helping them wind-down after work as having a reading lamp, a small mp3 player to listen to music, and of course a working mobile phone so that they can speak to their relatives and friends in their hometown, share their feelings and kill time, all relied on the power supplied by the generator.

I find it hard to understand these shipping companies. They make hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, so is it necessary to save a few hundred NT dollars on the diesel fuel needed to run the generators at night? Why can't they have a little more compassion for these industrious migrants who break their backs just to earn a minimum wage?

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Credit: Greenpeace

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The reasons given for cutting the power at night by certain boats was that they were afraid the electric cookers that the migrant fishermen used would cause a power surge and trip the ships power or, even worse, cause a fire. Another excuse was that, if the boat had power, every single fisherman would end up on the ship, which would increase the risks for management.

I often went over to neighboring boats to ask them to lend our ship some power, but that it did not need to be a high-voltage generator. I would always promise to keep an eye on the fishermen and make sure they all paid attention to safety measures.

When the ship was anchored a little further off shore, everyone would intuitively know not to switch on the main lights on the ship. The cabin lights themselves were not as easy to spot from a distance, and the port patrol didn't really bother heading out to inspect all the boats around the port. Everyone was just trying to live their lives. Even with the large gap in salaries and roles, we all kept a mutual respect in order to make it through each day.

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Credit: Li A-ming / Times Publishing
Fire up the stove

Having a non-professional, unranked part-time chef, who was respected and admired by everyone on the ship, was a unique situation. The captain, the chief engineer, and the first officer all wanted to have good meals and would require food to be cooked in addition to their three main meals, especially mid-night snacks. This of course meant that the kitchen had to stay open. How well your food was cooked – and how good your food tasted – would most definitely depend on how close you were to your chef.

There was once a cargo ship whose chef was Filipino. Even though his pantry wasn't a full-sized vault, he did have a small food bank and even set-up a Filipino migrant fisherman association. Cargo ships are like the heavy-duty semi-trucks of the sea, but they usually would not cross over into the fishing industry. Instead, what they sometimes did was sail to the fishing site and help fishing vessels transport their daily catch to a designated fishery or port (a practice called transshipping), which allowed the original fishing vessel to continue fishing in that fish farm.

Those crews were also seafarers, but they were considered a relatively lucky group as they didn’t need to sacrifice their sleep and work all throughout the night. Cargo ships are also the largest vessel type on the sea, so the ship had power 24/7 and would leave the air conditioning on, with independent air-conditioning units in the sleeping quarters.

Their shipping company was more generous than most as they offered the crew benefits, opened its kitchen every day, and gave the chef a food allowance to stock the pantry with fresh ingredients so the crew didn't have to eat the same old lunchbox meal every single day. The Filipino chef was also allowed to buy extra ingredients, especially for different public holidays. He would invite all the Filipino fishermen from all the other ships to go aboard, including all the Filipino crew on my ship, which is how the Filipino migrant fisherman association was established.

This was a very common situation: migrant fishermen of the same nationalities would gather on various ships, especially those with electricity, and would never hang out in groups of different nationalities. The chef had the most resources because not only did they have a small food bank, they also had an external door to allow easy loading to the pantry. They could pretty much do as they pleased with the food, like taking fish from the boat to exchange for other ingredients in the morning food markets. When returning, all they would have to do is leave breakfast hanging outside the sleeping quarters of the higher ranked officers. As the meals were prepared and delivered, none of them would really complain.

While the ship was anchored close to the shore, A-shou (阿壽)and I would often get invited by the Chinese chief engineer from their ship to have dinner with him in the small officer’s restaurant. It was not that we were particularly popular, but more that we understood the “etiquette” and would bring beer or whiskey with us as a thank you. He was a bit of a beast: he definitely knew his liquor and could single-handedly clean off a bottle of Black Label over the course of a meal. As all the food was supplied by the shipping company, treating us to a meal never cost him a dime, so whenever he got a hold of some good fish, he would send it our way as a thank you for the alcohol. One of the most enjoyable things I did during those days was “gorging on fish” with A-shou. This was because we both lived alone, so we rarely ate these larger species of fish and could never finish a full-box of frozen fish. We would both re-gift these to others if we were ever given them: as they say, everything is better when shared with friends.

Whenever the fishing boat finished unloading the fish at the harbor, the freezer would need to be flushed out and any “leftover” fish would have to be taken care of immediately. If we couldn’t sell it in time, then it would just defrost, stink out the ship, and finally get thrown back into the sea. That meant we often had crewmembers running like headless chickens with half frozen fish in hand trying to offload it to someone. Of course, the other seafarers would take the opportunity to purchase them at super-low prices. The migrant fishermen would also give the leftover fish to this dear old Papa-San, but in the early days I felt I should be honest and not take what wasn’t rightfully mine, so I would often adamantly refuse the fish, which made them all feel a little awkward.

Giving and taking is one of life’s constants, and that was even truer for life at the fishing ports. The most common scene was seeing two guys treating each other to drinks at a bar. Yet, of course, there are also those that only take and never give back – or worse, those who always ask for things. If you would come across someone like this in your crew, you would have no choice but to deal with it – but you could always deploy “damage limitation” and give them a wide berth every time you saw them.

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Credit: Li A-ming / Times Publishing
Extra food

If you ever wanted to know if a migrant fisherman was in need of money, all you had to do was check how much of his lunchbox meal was left over. Whenever they had money, they would often leave more than half of their meals. So, if I was free with nothing to do, I would take all the leftovers down off the ship and feed the dogs at the port, so as not to waste all the food. When they had no money, not only would they lick the boxes clean; they would also think up ways of getting extras.

When it came to finding extra food, I couldn’t help but admire these guys. As long as there was electricity, they could cook up any number of great tasting homemade dishes. After cooking white rice in an electric cooker, they would dig it out into other containers and replace the usual inner pot with a thinner pot. They would then cook whatever ingredients they could get their hands on, either from the ship’s stores or from the local markets; first toasting their spices and then stir-frying the protein of their choice – chicken, duck, fish or meat – followed by a douse of their most familiar hometown seasoning. Before long, there was enough food for all.

Sometimes they would insist that I try their dishes, so I would give all these exotic foods a taste. Although the majority of flavors were pretty different, I never ate anything that tasted terrible. However, as you can imagine, the environment on the ship was messy and sanitation wasn’t at its best. Cockroaches and rats scuttled around in every nook and cranny. In addition to this, I had such a weak stomach, which was so sensitive that after only a few mouthfuls I would have to make a beeline for the bathroom immediately. I never meant any disrespect by it: actually, it was more like the curse of growing up in an ultra-sanitized environment, so my stomach could not withstand even the most common of bacteria.

One of the deck rules was that we couldn’t have naked flames on deck, but the migrant fishermen couldn’t care less about regulations and would gather together to have a barbecue even during the day. I never knew where they found their supplies, as they would have these giant slabs of uncut meat slapped on to a charcoal grill that would just seem to appear. Whenever they fired up the grill, there would always be a cloud of smoke, but they would still cook it all without any problems.

Unfortunately, the thick smoke drew the attention of the port patrol, and it was a little embarrassing when they came aboard to check. I obviously knew we weren’t allowed have fires on deck, but not only had I not intervened – I was standing in the midst of it, enjoying the atmosphere. As the patrol saw that I was keeping an eye on the barbeque, he knew it wouldn’t get too out of hand, so he just reminded me to make sure the fire is extinguished after they finish, then just casually left without saying anything else.

The port patrol was particularly cool about these things, and usually wouldn’t come in cracking their whips, Of course, everyone had to show enough respect to the authorities so that they would let things like this slide.

Cigarettes

Cigarettes were the key to good public relations at any fishing port, especially for the migrant fishermen, They were always grateful to receive cigarettes, no matter the brand. Officers, however, had more of a “preference,” so all tobacco and alcohol was carefully checked in front of you. Sometimes you would even hear them exhale the word saidei (poor quality in Japanese). They were probably the pickiest people around!

Oftentimes, when a new pack of cigarettes was opened, one person would hold out their hand, and then every else would suddenly appear. In a true showing of national pride and solidarity, even those who clearly didn’t smoke would stick out a hand, then secretly palm it off to one of their friends. Many of these guys grabbed cigarettes like they were drawing cards from a deck, so I couldn’t let everyone take one as there are still financial limits to saving face.

Sometimes I would purposely go out of my way to get a hold of cigarettes that weren’t available at the ports to use for this sort of exchange, especially ones that migrant fishermen had no idea about. These were often unknown and inferior brands, but as long as they were weren’t cigarettes that the migrant fishermen were familiar with, such as Taiwanese brands printed with Chinese, the fishermen were still relatively pleased to take them.

Some migrant fishermen were very kind to me and would sometimes secretly slide a packet of their local branded cigarettes in my pocket. One Indonesian brand had a very strong traditional medicine flavor, so strong that I just couldn’t enjoy it. It probably wasn’t a low-quality brand of cigarettes; afterwards, A-shou informed me that this brand of “Chinese medicine smokes” went for NT$200 (US$6.47) per pack and was somewhat of a rarity. From the perspective of a migrant fishermen’s income, for them to give me something like this, it meant that they saw me as family.

There were a large number of migrant fishermen on each ship, but there was only ever one Papa-San. Unfortunately, there was always a minority that had endless requests, and every time I turned around, they would be asking for cigarettes or alcohol. Almost all the Papa-San knew these principles well, and for that reason, many of them wouldn’t drink or smoke on the ships. Some even went as far as not interacting with the migrant fishermen just to save themselves from the hassle.

However, for me, as these young men were similar in age to my own children, I felt an affinity towards them. In material terms, I was far wealthier, but that made me more inclined to hanging out and having a laugh with them once in a while.

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Credit: Times Publishing
Book introduction

There Is No God Here: Fisherman, Papa-San and Those Women,” China Times Publishing Co.
With every purchase of this book through the link above, The News Lens will donate those proceeds to the Child Welfare League Foundation.
Author: Li A-ming (李阿明)

After being inspired by a friend’s words: “You want to photograph fisherman? There’s so many of them, just come aboard and live with them!” Li A-ming ended up spending four years taking photos at the fishing port. He spent his days accompanying the fishermen smoking and drinking. At every opportunity he would sneak out of the shipping company’s sight and mingle with all the migrant fishermen. Li A-ming saw himself as one of them, and whenever he is with them he feels completely “free.” Necause of this he maybe doesn’t think of the migrant fishermen as strange or exotic creatures like most city dwellers do. Instead he feels a deep empathy for them.

The violent oceans are not a place that God cares to oversee, yet there are many groups of people are travelling through them freely.

If we can stay forever on land, who would want to drift out upon the open sea?

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Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Read Next: Taiwan's Fishing Captains Protest in Defense of Embattled Industry

This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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