At low tide in Xiamen thousands go into the surf to collect free food from the sea.
I noticed that the guy sitting across the aisle from me on the bus was carrying the front half of the cage of an electric fan. He had punched pencil width holes in the center part of it and had tied it onto the end of a stick. I stared at it for a moment like it was the usual sort of Chinese oddity. The guy looked pretty poor — he was dirty, his clothes were ragged, and he was carrying the tell-tale red checkered polyethylene bag of the Chinese underclass. I thought little of his contraption — China’s urban poor carry all kinds of strange things around with them — until I noticed that four other passengers on the bus were carrying the same thing.
They were obviously for something in particular.
When we got off the bus I followed the quintet to the beach. Their fan cages were either dangling from the end of sticks or were strapped to their backs. Once on the seashore I found myself encircled by thousands of people with similar devices. These electric fan cages have been re-purposed en masse as clamming screens.
When I say that there were thousands of people digging clams on this beach I am not exaggerating. It was as though a jam packed soccer stadium had been tipped over the sea shore like a salt shaker and shook a couple of times. Grains of people were scattered everywhere. The view out to sea was all stooped backs and conical hats.
The tide gets incredibly low here during the summer, and the clam diggers could walk for over a kilometer out into the sea without the water rising above knee level. I stepped out onto the squishy, moist sand, and it was clear why this was such a prime spot for digging mollusks. I was essentially walking on a bed of shellfish. They crunched under my toes and scratched the soles of my feet. It was almost unbelievable, but there was clearly enough clams for the the incredible of diggers that surrounded me. They all had buckets at their sides, and they all were being filled up.
It was all you can take clams for everybody.
The diggers came from all around China. Some were local to Xiamen, while others I’d talked to had come over from Guangdong and other provinces. Though they all had at least one thing in common: they weren’t going to pass up a free meal, courtesy of the sea.