CHEN SI IS STILL ON PATROL AGAINST DEATH

Remko Tanis • 31 January 2019

He’s still at it, Chen Si. Since 2003, he’s been patrolling the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge every weekend to find and stop people who are about to jump into the river to end their lives.

Chen Si on suicide prevention patrol on the Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

Chen Si on suicide prevention patrol on the Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

He has saved many, bringing them safely to an apartment he rents where people can come to grips and look for help. Chen’s own count, which he records in his diary, stands at 350 saves.

I visited Chen way back in 2010, when he had already been doing his voluntary patrols for seven years. At the time, state media in China claimed the bridge had overtaken San Francisco’s Golden Gate as the number one suicide spot in the world.

As expected, Chen had an impressive and emotional story. I think about him and his work frequently, lately wondering whether he would still be at it.

The Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

Happy to say he is - the reason for his work will never fully disappear after all. This week I came across a great long read from GQ China magazine, published to their WeChat/Weixin on Chen. It’s written by Li Yingdi. Great photos as well. They’ve labeled him the ‘Suicide Terminator on Nanjing Bridge’.

My own feature on Chen Si is here. What he told me over lunch in the tiny hole in the wall restaurant underneath the massive bridge sticks:

The Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

The Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

His latest rescue happened on a recent Saturday. “There was this 35-year old migrant worker who had lost all of his money. I didn’t spot him until he was hanging half over the side of the bridge. I chased over there and was able to get him fully back on the bridge.”

It was a positive result Chen badly needed. “Not long before this rescue, I saw a man hanging around the public toilets on the bridge. I wasn’t able to get to him in time. I saw how he covered his face with his coat, scared to stare down into the depths. That's when he jumped.''

He says he learned not to care too much about these ‘misses’. “I’m all by myself doing this work. With my regular job I cannot be here all the time. I also have to be at home for my wife and daughter.''

Not that the missed rescues don’t haunt him. Chen leads the way to a small, windy restaurant at the foot of one of the bridge’s pillars. It’s nothing more than a badly lit gathering of a handful of campsite tables and low, plastic stools. Food is served in styrofoam trays.

Chen takes a sip of baijiu, strong Chinese liquor. Against the cold, he says. But it helps numb other feelings a bit as well. He puts his glass down.

“Often enough I fail to save someone. Just when you think they’re not going to do it anymore, they jump. Every now and then those images return in my dreams. Some of them cry like wolves when they fall. That excruciating sound haunts my head at night.''

Chen found a solution that works for him when the haunts start to dominate a bit too much. “I’ll get drunk with some friends. Then, the next morning, I visit the temple. After that, everything in life looks perfect again.''

He will need a lot of boosts like that once spring arrives. That’s the unfortunate season when most people climb those 140 steps in those dark pillars up the bridge, with only one way down in their heads. Down and out.

Just like then, now again spring is around the corner.

Suicide Crisis Hotlines around the world can be found here and here.