Salmon Fishing in Dong Bei


While visiting my second daughter in California last July, she tried to sit me down to watch the movie Salmon Fishing in Yemen, a flick starring one of British favorites, Ewan McGregor. We were not successful in the viewing part, but the movie title and story stayed in my mind to checkout later.

Let me get the reader comfortable with Yemen. In biblical Solomon’s Queen of Sheba (Sabeans), Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen folks are in the ball field. Look at the map and the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula at the juncture of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (that spills into the Arabian Gulf) across the Horn of Africa, Yemen is on the right (east), while Sabean Africa is on the left (west). Aden was the British Admiralty’s old coal port city, and Yemen’s capital Sana’a is north close to Saudi Arabia’s border.

Imagine Somalia pirates though do not equate the picture with Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom of the Pirates of the Caribbean. The movie’s plot of salmon fishing in Yemen is just as preposterous as the Black Pearl calling on Port Royal, though the pirates is not inappropriate as Yemen is riddled with many rebel groups. A tad tactile “feel” of the place, Yemen is bisected by 15 degrees latitude, which puts it in the same latitude as Saipan, Guam, and Luzon of the Philippines.

The image of rebels is helpful. In the movie, they oppose Mohammad the dreamer, a Yemeni who did well in England, build a dam to irrigate downstream dessert fields and fill it with Salmon to encourage fly-fishing in Yemen. The rebels smell foreign influence in the sport, so they bomb the dam that is an intrusion into tradition with an assassination attempt on the Sheik.

Our allusion to similarities of temperature with our familiar tropic isles is deceptive as Yemen’s aridity is many times over, even with its western highlands. Our Yemeni salmon proponent, in damming a river, is actually retaining the humidity upland as streams from the highlands evaporate before making it to shore. The humidity on the highlands adequately supplies water to streams and rivers but retaining it before it hits subterranean aquifers is the terrain’s challenge.

Those unfamiliar with salmon, it is a cold water fish prevalent in the temperate zone, the salmo salar in the Atlantic, the Pacific salmon that includes the chinook and the coho. Fishermen are familiar with the other salmonids like the trout and the char. Google the subject if interested.

Those acquainted with the Cagayan River of northern Luzon knows of the specie called Ludong that used to be common in the river of my youth but has been overfished through the years, also succumbing to the chemical effluents of the Green Revolution that decimated native species of marine life. Anyway, the endangered specie Ludong spawns on fresh water where it was born before swimming to the ocean’s seawater, and returns upriver to die in the fresh water, akin to the salmon.

OK, so we got Yemen and the salmon pat; as to the movie, we will skip the country-rebel relationship in Yemen’s politics, and the UK’s PR shenanigans in the Middle East, or the characters’ romance that ends in a happy ending. The movie is about injecting something new into what is ordinary and natural by transforming the environment. The salmon is unnatural to the Yemen terrain but the building of the dam allows for a cold fresh body of water that could possibly sustain a life from elsewhere into a new environment.

The Sheik plays the visionary entrepreneur, a biologist reluctantly joins the project since it defies reason, an opportunistic UK official sees in the project a political opening, and a heart-broken assistant whose beau went missing in a war zone, all suspend the limited wisdom of science to allow hope to inject itself into the process, both in the salmon enterprise as well as in their individual lives. The surprise comes in the salmon’s ability to defy expectations and move upstream after rebels bombed the dam hoping the salmons flow downstream to die. The salmons decided to swim their own destiny!

Dong Bei salmon fishing is no problem since the Primorsky Krai of far eastern Russia (Maritime Province where Vladivostok is located) has salmon from the Sea of Japan wade upstream the Amur River bordering Russia and China’s Manchuria. The real salmon fishing is about an old life from another dreaming a new life by altering environment. In our case, it is this lao ye ye (old man) who is doing just that!

I watch from my solarium the neighborhood street sweeper who keeps our one-block commons tidy and relatively clean the place just because one day, this dude brought out a trash picker and started picking up the trash on the street. Didn’t do anything strenuous but he saw a salmon swimming upstream, and decided to follow. I noticed a grandma doing the same on the other end of the commons.

The salmon in the movie survived. In Dong Bei, I will, too. How are the salmons in Saipan doing?

Jaime R. Vergara | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Jaime Vergara previously taught at SVES in the CNMI. A peripatetic pedagogue, he last taught in China but makes Honolulu, Shenyang, and Saipan home. He can be reached at

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