NANJING, China // A burly Chinese man with binoculars slowly scans the centre span of the massive Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, looking intently at people standing along the walkway, searching for the telltale signs he has seen so many times. The self-appointed guardian angel of the bridge, Chen Si has over the past five years coaxed - and sometimes physically wrestled - down no less than 153 people intent on leaping to a certain death in the murky waters 90 metres below.
The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge was considered an engineering feat when it was built four decades ago, and it remains a national landmark. Today it is also a preferred site for distraught Chinese seeking to end their lives. Since it was first built in 1968, an estimated 2,000 people have committed suicide here, with as many as three or four taking the leap on some days. According to the Chinese media, 268 people attempted suicide here in 2006, many of them victims of the far-reaching changes that have dramatically changed China in recent years.
Statistics show more than 287,000 people end their own lives every year in China. Mr Chen made his first rescue in 2000. He was riding a bus across the bridge, and as he looked out the window he saw a woman crying on the footpath, reminding him of a story he had read two days earlier about a man who had killed himself at this very place. He got off the bus and raced over to the woman - who was in fact planning to jump - and convinced her not to do it.
She told him how she had been cheated out of a year's income and felt despondent. She had not eaten for days and could see no hope. "That incident had a huge impact on me," said Mr Chen, standing not far from the spot. "It made me realise that if someone just talked to the person, you could stop him or her." Three years passed, during which time Mr Chen noticed a growing number of news reports about people, mostly migrant workers, taking their lives in this way.
"A lot of them were outsiders like myself, and they faced many difficulties," said Mr Chen, himself the son of migrant farmers. "I'm one too and I wanted to do something." Obligated to work to support his family during the week, Mr Chen began patrolling the bridge on foot every weekend between 8am and 5pm. Today he rides a motorcycle - the brand aptly named Tianma, or Heavenly Horse - so he can reach people faster.
He said that if he can get to a person in time, he is confident of saving them. "I've not lost a single person," he said. The oldest person he saved was a man in his 80s, the youngest a small baby about to be taken over the side of the bridge in her mother's arms. He has seen more than 50 jump before he could reach them. He leans over the bridge and points to a spot where one man leapt to his death just days before.
Mr Chen said he has no training in counselling people, other than a few bits and pieces he has read by Sigmund Freud on suicide. He said, however, that he can offer a friendly voice and a helping hand. "I tell them, 'I can't help you, I can only give you a road'," he said. After talking someone out of suicide, he will go with them to a church or temple, or will buy them a meal and talk with them.
Still, he is frustrated he does not have the power to fix their lives. "Although I pull them from the verge of death, I can't fix the problems that drove them there," he said. In his experience, said Mr Chen, three main reasons drive people to consider jumping: psychological problems, failed romances or marriages, and financial difficulties. "They're easy to pick out," said Mr Chen. "When someone is troubled, they don't have any spirit when they walk. And they carry no bags."
And there are some unusual trends to the suicides: men tend to jump onto land at the front of the bridge, while women tend to choose the river; and there are more suicides during the spring and less during the hot summer months. Stranger still, Mr Chen has formed close friendships with some of those he has saved. Shi Xiqing, who had racked up US$15,000 (Dh55,000) in debt to pay for his daughter's leukaemia treatment and then assaulted by angry loan-sharks, was saved from jumping by Mr Chen.
"Mr Chen is a very good person, and what he's doing is very special," said Mr Shi. "Had he not had heart-to-heart talks with me, who knows, I might have attempted to commit suicide a second, third or fourth time." Analysts debate the reasons why so many people choose the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. Some say it is because the long leap to the river below is a painless and foolproof method of killing oneself. Others say it is one of the most scenic spots in the city. Mr Chen said dying here in one of China's most famous waterways "is like returning to the mother river".
Mr Chen's efforts have drawn others who want to save lives, much to his delight. A few American volunteers now help him and he has managed to get funding to set up a four-bed shelter for people he has saved, many of whom have no money and nowhere to go. Several Chinese university students help him monitor these people. Mr Chen is hoping that more people will focus on the rising number of suicides in China, a problem that until recently has not been given much attention by the government. Making matters worse, psychological help is not easily available - or sought - in China.
The weight of his work and the sadness he has encountered is visible in Mr Chen's face. And his wife resents the time he spends on the bridge and dealing with the problems of other people. "She's not that happy about this," he said. Mr Shi said Mr Chen's work takes a toll on his emotional well-being. "Sometimes I accompany him on the bridge on the weekends and we often eat together," said Mr Shi, who has tried to repay Mr Chen for saving him with emotional support. "We're close friends now."
Mr Chen said he is now less willing to do interviews, because he finds it too painful to repeat so many sad stories. "I don't want to think about it," he said. He has set up his own website, the Big Bridge Diaries, with the stories of some of the people he has saved, the purpose of which "is to release my pain", and offer a lesson for those considering suicide. "I sometimes burn incense," he said, turning and squinting in the sunlight.
When asked if this is for the people who have committed suicide, he turns back, at first looking uncertain, but then replies: "No, to soothe myself." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org