Author : Glenn Blakeslee
In Guiyu, Kwan sits on a small concrete slab in an e-waste facility. Cascading piles of displaced circuit boards, ash-encrusted plastic hulks of outmoded tower computers, and ratnest tangles of cables, harnesses and plugs deposited haphazardly over a dioxin-laced mud surround him. He’s only eight years old but you wouldn’t know it — his eyes are squinting red-rimmed slots framed in a grimy face, his thin wrists creased and sharply tendoned. He has a constant sharp bloom of pain in his abdomen and unknown to him a small but well-formed tumor —an astrocytoma— growing in his brain, but we won’t tell him.
Kwan reaches behind him and pulls another board off the pile. He holds the end of it flat-down on a small metal sheet which is heated from beneath by a grid of flame from a natural gas manifold. His glove-covered hand holds a pair of cheap pliers, and as the board heats and the solder loosens he pries off transistors, capacitors and micro-switches and sorts them into an arrangement of Styrofoam cups. He warily watches for the owner of the yard, Mr Yueh.
While Kwan’s hands methodically do the work his mind wanders, but soon the board is clear of components and he flips it onto a pile across the yard and reaches behind him for another. This new board is different —it calls to him— and he examines it then places it on a clear space on the slab, the side of the board aligned with the impact-spalled concrete edge. He rises, slowly because he hasn’t moved in hours, and rummages through the board-pile until he finds another component that appeals to him and he places it on the slab next to the first.
He moves surreptitiously across the yard, collecting an armload of familiar components, and returns to his slab. There’s an I/O board from a once-beloved MacBook, a power supply from your old Dell, a flyback anode from a decrepit NEC CRT, and a small matt-green canister with an embedded lens. He arranges the parts in a grid just so, knowing semi-instinctively where to place each, and then links the whole with ribbon connectors and cables. He plugs the first board into the power supply and flips the switch.
Up from the center of the assembly springs something never before seen in the world —a small blue-bright field, columnar and robust. Kwan is delighted and he reaches in and pushes at it with his gloved hand. It yields slightly and then gives, bending to the pressure of his hand and then rebounding. When he strikes the field with his fist it moves not at all.
Kwan doesn’t know, doesn’t understand the import of what he has created. When he dies in a few years he’ll take this with him, but now he smiles and believes the small blue miracle to be the work of someone else, facilitated with just a few of the parts he spends his life dismantling. He thinks, oh these western wonders, and plays with the field for a moment before he hears Mr. Yueh approaching.
Kwan quickly unplugs the components, scatters them with his gloved hand. When Mr. Yueh appears between the piles of discarded electronics Kwan is back at work, prying tiny bits of ceramic and precious metal off a circuit board he knows too well.