Notes from a Strange Island: Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda
A day, a night, a weekend: your life is turned upside-down, your routines scrambled. School is closed by government order.
Typhoons are like peculiar and demanding relatives who call at odd times: ‘I’m arriving at midnight on Thursday! Don’t worry I can stay on the couch! I can’t eat pork. Or oranges. In fact I can’t eat anything orange. Do you have Winky’s number? Bye!’
A day, a night, a weekend: your life is turned upside-down, your routines scrambled. School is closed by government order. You rush to the bank. Your mobile phone alarm siren sounds Typhoon 8 and the government shuts Hong Kong down. You cancel your engagements, deadlines slip. The storm hits, shakes your twenty-floor story high-rise, and then it passes and the clear-up begins.
The word typhoon comes from the Cantonese tai fung, ‘a big wind’. It’s simple and direct, and describes a typhoon well, though really typhoons are as much about the rainfall and the flooding and landslides.
Yesterday the world’s most fierce some storm for fifty years struck the Philippines. The Philippines is an emigrant’s nation, and all about me on Discovery Bay I see the Filipinas on the phone, to each other, to friends, family, looking for news. And chances are there are Filipinos near you. Doing the same.
The word typhoon is listed by Hobson-Jobson as coming from the Arabic, Persian and Hindi word, tufan. The 1903 dictionary states that ‘the probability is that Vasco [da Gama] and his followers got the tufao ... direct from the Arab pilots.’ The earliest mention of the word is in a book named ‘The voyage and trauell of M. Caesar Fredericke, Marchant of Venice, into the East India, and beyond the Indies.’ ‘…there are not stormes as in other countreys; but euery 10. or 12. yeeres there are such tempests and stormes, that it is a thing incredible, but to those that haue seene it, neither do they know certainly what yeere they wil come.’ The shipwrecking of the Sea Venture, on the islands of Bermuda, was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
In Hong Kong we call this typhoon Haiyan. In the Philippines it’s called Yolanda - the kind of name you’d give to a stout middle-aged Filipina maid - who spends her single day off along the Hong Kong Harbour front disco-dancing: childless, overweight, carefree. Yolanda does not mean ill, but she is in a rush and lots to do, and she gets so little time off she must use every second.
Yolanda is a ditzy maiden aunt with destructive tendencies.
The word typhoon comes from the Greek typhon ‘whirlwind,’ last son of Gaia, fathered by Tartarus, the abyss where the titans were banished. Some images show Typhon with a human head, others as a hundred-headed dragon. But all agree he was a giant, a monster, the father of winds, the father of monsters, whose body reached the stars, and his arms spanned the sky. I saw a production of Ovid’s Metamorphosis in New York. A ship sets sail, and actors were the winds, tossing it, teasing it, throwing it up and then smashing it down under the waves.
The Pacific, with its wide, warm waters (19,800km wide – in comparison to Atlantic’s paltry 2,575km) churns cyclones out like spinning tops. They are caused by upwellings of warm air, sucking up more and more hot, moist air; the low pressure sucking the ocean up like a blister under the eye of the storm. Anti-clockwise swirls; they look like galaxies, black holes, foaming water going straight down the drain.
In the Tang Dynasty the Whirl was a famous dance, inspired by the whirling dervish dances of the Turkic peoples of the steppes. It was wild, mesmerizing, captivating, dangerous. Bai Juyi, the Tang Dynasty poet celebrated it; lamented it as well, as Lu Anshan and Yang Guifei both danced the whirl. When Lu Anshan rebelled and the emperor and his favourite concubine fled from the capital, his guards forced him to kill his beloved: his infatuation was blamed for the state of the nation. Yang Guifei was strangled with a silken cord.
Two days on, hundreds of miles away, Lantau Island is hit by gale force winds. There are flecks of rain in the hot strong winds. The outdoor pool is empty: it is a little blue storm sea of its own.
Three days on Yolanda’s spinning dance is almost over. She is tired, exhausted, the twirl is over, but still her storm-skirts trail after and our bay is full of sheltering rubbish. The sky grows darker and darker as the day goes on. The seas are storm green and choppy, the palm trees rave - their stiff hair ruffled and unkempt – like the maenads (lit. the ‘raving ones’ who followed in a frenzy, Dionysus, God of Wine, and tore King Pentheus to pieces) – continually dancing, unable to stop.
Four days on the sky is still dark, but the wind has gone; the sea is still; Yolanda has gone.
From Lantau I look out. The warm sea is still and quiet: innocent as a cat.
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