Flower Town (part two)
All good things must come to an end – by Sascha Matuszak
Zhou Sushen’s head must be spinning. When she was little, all the pretty girls bound their feet. While she bent over day after day and pulled weeds and food from the soil, China went through the convulsions of a lunatic. Every so often she would stand up and steady her back with one hand, ankles deep in mud, and listen as the local Party Secretary rolled through Unit 4 and blared details of the most recent political campaign through a bullhorn. As the years went by, the messages of the cadres became increasingly arcane and indecipherable. Confused and trusting, she learned to just nod her head approvingly.
“Our Secretary Luo would never lie to us,” she declared to the group of worried younger women that gathered in the wake of the announcement. “The government will take care of us.”
Nobody looked convinced. Over the years, countless horror stories involving greedy developers, duplicitous politicians and desperate peasants had made the villagers nervous. Will they be compensated fairly? Will there be apartments waiting for them here when this is all finished? Will the government help them find new homes for the interim period?
Secretary Luo had promised the villagers that they would only have to move elsewhere for two years, and then they would be moved back to Unit 4, to live in apartments – 30 square meters per person. In the interim, the government would pay 600 yuan per month to each family as well as a lump sum based on the value of the house.
Zhou’s nephew, Li Fafu, was doubtful.
“Its hard to say what they will do with this land," he said. “This is good land and it's in a prime location. I can’t imagine that they would let us back on here after they get us off. Especially if they can make millions doing something else. The government doesn’t want farmers anymore. We’ll see what they say at the meeting.”
The meeting took place at the house of the village head, Deng Weixin, on June 15, 2008 at 10am. Everyone seemed excited – almost playful – that morning. I had butterflies in my stomach. I was expecting a showdown between the peasants and the politician-developer bad guys over the future of Unit 4. I might even keep my home, I thought to myself, as I skipped across the fields to the sprawling white concrete house of the village head, which doubled as one of the best B&Bs in the area.
Secretary Luo, his lackey Mr Zhou and six other officials sat outside the house, at a long table under a grove of plum trees. The villagers gathered in a semi-circle facing the table. Children scampered around and picked plums off of the ground, wiping them off and taking big, juicy bites. The men ringed the back of the gathering, smoking and chatting, occasionally shaking a small tree and enjoying the plums that fell. After a few minutes, the lanky Mr Zhou stood up and gave the opening speech.
“The municipal government has decided to modernise the facilities of all villages in accordance with the central government’s plans to develop the countryside and enrich the farmers. The re-development and construction phase will begin in August and will last two years. In these two years, all residents of 10,000 Fortunes, Unit 4 will be compensated with a monthly stipend. Furthermore, the municipal government has ordered the developers to build a new, modern apartment complex to house all of the villagers of 10,000 Fortunes, Unit 4. Each resident will be given 30 square metres per head, which for most families equals 90 square metres, to compensate for the loss of their homes and fields. This can be allocated according to your wishes. Furthermore, the government will pay each resident a lump sum based on the amount of land owned, the extent of development of each parcel, the type of cultivation currently on each parcel, and also the size of each dwelling.”
Murmurs rolled through the crowd and a few of the women yelled out, demanding to know the details of the payment process. Mr Li, Vice Secretary of Huayang district, the next level of government up, stood to address the crowd. He was a young man with an intelligent expression and close-cropped hair. Of all the officials present, he was also the only one not chain-smoking.
“Good afternoon comrades, I am glad all of you are here for this important meeting and I am happy to be here as well. This is a very important day for Huayang, Flower Town, as well as 10,000 Fortunes, Unit 4. The government is modernising and developing this area and soon this will be a bustling center of commerce with schools and playgrounds for your children and business opportunities for your families. The city of Chengdu is developing very quickly and soon not only will the Third Ring Road be developed, but the Fourth Ring will surely be modernised as well in the coming years. Our China is growing rich and the government is bringing these riches to the countryside as is dictated in the five-year plan recently agreed upon in Beijing. All of you will receive fair compensation for your homes and land and you will be able to live here forever in nice, modern homes provided to you by the government in return for your sacrifice. This area will become even more beautiful as modern development techniques are utilised to keep the water clean, to protect the fields and to provide electricity and even the Internet for the entire area."
At the end of his speech, Mr Li gave the villagers a chance to ask questions and speak their piece. No one moved at first, then one lady rose up and started talking. Her voice shook and her face reddened as she gained momentum.
“I have lived here all my life. My mother and father are old and sick and live with me too. My husband is a labourer in the city and I work in the fields. We have no money. How are you going to compensate me for losing my home? What am I supposed to do for two years while I wait for you to finish this building? How do I even know that I will have a place here in two years? I know you will change things midway. How are we supposed to live in the city with those high rents and no skills? I am a farmer. I want to know right now how much money I can get for my fields and how much money you are going to pay me each month and how are you going to guarantee that I receive my money each month. I can’t sign away my life to you. We know you officials and developers don’t care about us."
The villagers chimed in with similar stories and began crowding the table. Mr Li nodded and asked everyone to calm down.
“There are clear laws and regulations that govern these types of transactions. The government will abide by all laws and regulations and pay each and every person according to those laws. There is no way the government will break the law. It is all set down in a contract that each villager will receive. You can visit Secretary Luo or Vice Secretary Zhou anytime and they are required by law to give you all the information you need. In addition, there will be a document in public view both here at the village head office and in Unit 4 as well. This document will have the information of every home that has been sold, for how much, how much the land sold for and how these numbers will be calculated. There will be no secret negotiations in this transaction.”
As Mr Li continued, the villagers started getting restless, and repeatedly called for details about the one-off sum each family will receive, the amount of monthly compensation and how long it will take to get paid. Then one of my neighbours, Guo Xiulan, pointed at me and yelled out, “Let the laowai speak! Let the laowai speak!”
I had told my neighbours before that I would speak on their behalf. All of the villagers stepped away from me and started clapping, then went silent as I cleared my throat and began.
“Hi, my name is Ma Shan. Most of you know me already, but for those who don’t, I am the only laowai who lives out here and I have been here for about ten months. I moved out here because this area is beautiful and peaceful. I love living here. I have come to know my neighbours and you have all taken me in as one of your own and treated me very well. When we heard that the village was going to be torn down it was a great shock and also a big disappointment. All over China places like this are being torn down to create apartment blocks and to make way for the city. The real China is disappearing. There is no place for anyone to go and see the beauty of this country anymore because the cities just keep growing. Is it really necessary to tear this place down and make another city? I must tell you, even though I am now the only foreigner here, many of my friends have moved across the way into Xingfu Meilin and they love it there as well. Many of my artist and musician friends are moving out here. There is great potential for tourism here if we can just maintain what we have and keep it pristine and natural. If you develop this place, you might regret it in a few years when this becomes just another dirty, crowded city suburb. My neighbours love this place and this is their home. I urge the government to consider maintaining 10,000 Fortunes as it is and focusing on tourism and bed and breakfast revenue, focus on the artists that want to live out here. I hope you can keep the environment here as it is."
I faltered and went silent. I realised halfway through that my arguments were senseless and falling on deaf ears. Not even the peasants entertained any thoughts of “keeping things natural” or any hope of making money with a bed and breakfast business. Progress was a foregone conclusion and the real crux of the argument was not whether or not to proceed, but how much money was going to be paid out and when the payments would happen. The villagers clapped and cheered, but I knew in my heart that I was a clown.
Mr Li got up to answer.
“We know that Westerners enjoy the rural beauty of China. That is why we are keeping all of this area exactly how it is. The government has promised that Flower Town and 10,000 Fortunes will always be available to our foreign friends. We are committed to a Green City and to green development. The apartment building will take up only a little bit of space and it is there to house the villagers. Their homes will be torn down to make way for a large park and beautiful villas that will be rented out and sold to foreign friends like this laowai [Ma Shan!, yelled one of the women] and also to the artist community. We welcome you to return to Flower Town in two years, Mr Ma Shan, and I am sure you will love what we have done with the place.”
As soon as he finished, the arguing started back up between the villagers and the officials over the terms of payment. At first, Mr Li waved them down and tried to continue, but the din grew so loud that all of the officials eventually had to stand up and yell the crowd down. A phalanx of women crowded the table and slammed their hands down, shrieking at the officials to provide details.
Eventually, Secretary Luo waded into the middle of the fracas and shouted his villagers into submission. He took over from Mr Li and delivered a succinct speech, waving a sheaf of papers as he shouted.
“No one here is going to walk away without their proper amount of cash, don’t worry about a thing. But until every last one of you signs this document here, releasing your home to the developers and confirming that you accept the government’s generous offer, no one is getting paid anything!”
“We’ve been through this before,” mumbled one old peasant as he handed me a cigarette on the way back to Unit 4. “They talk big and promise everything, but a year from now the money will be gone. Then what are we supposed to do, huh?"
I shrugged, lit his smoke for him and walked back home through the rose fields.
I wish I could tell you that the village banded together and marched in defiance against the bigwigs to demand justice and compensation, but that isn't what happened. We just lived out the last days. One by one the families signed their homes away, took what cash they could and moved out.
They left in clumps. Several families moved to Luojia Alley, the outskirts of a town that itself was the outskirts of a town. The space between Unit 4 and Luojia Alley is just a jumble of overgrown fields, stacks of bricks and crumbling ruins. Other families went further out to Luodai, the old Hakka headquarters. Wang Meijie, Li Guangwen and their daughter Tiantian left for Longcuan, a larger town farther south where Wang Meijie had a sister with extra rooms.
The weeks that followed the meeting filled me with the same resignation that permeated Unit 4 since that first day when Secretary Luo had backed into my courtyard and swept the future away with a wave of his hand. As July rolled in, I learned I had a job working for a security firm in Beijing during the Olympics. I had been trying to get hired for months, and I was happy and relieved to finally have some gainful employment. If I took the job, I would miss the bitter end of Unit 4, when the bulldozers would finally come and destroy the village where I lived. If I didn’t take it, I would go hungry and miss the Olympics. There was no hesitation at all.
I was in Beijing for two and a half months. I scalped tickets, watched Serena Williams play tennis, and got paid. Near the end of August, I flew back to visit my old home, to see what had happened. I had moved most of my things into a new apartment in Chengdu before leaving for Beijing, so going back was just indulging my curiosity.
I pulled into the courtyard of my old house late at night. The headlights of the yellow cab illuminated a gutted building and piles of scrapwood. Unit 4 had become a dark world of shadows and scavengers. I saw two men with flashlights come stumbling out of my front door. One had bits of rope and string in his hands, the other was carrying two baskets of broken metal and wood. I saw one of my flip-flops in his basket. I saw the drawers of my old closet – the one with the peach-peel filled chalice in the bottom drawer – and a mattress I had left behind.
As I looked around at the destruction the night looters had wrought, my chest grew constricted and cold. The windows of my old home were Wang Meijie's gouged out eyes; the doors, tattered frames half stripped of nails swinging in the wind, were fading memories of children screeching as they played. Sunlight on a guitar string. Wisps of long black hair. A cigarette. Li Guangwen washing his motorbike with a toothbrush. Drinking with Li Fafu. His laugh. Roses. Lamplight on a gathering.
Today, Unit 4 is one large fallow field. The small pond where herons used to skewer frogs is filled with mud and dirt. A few puddles belch out mosquitos into the humid air. The rose fields that once surrounded us have given way to weeds and scrub. Yellow foam padding lies piled up where my house was, and a few bowls and bottles speak of the squatters who gather here at night, still scavenging the ruins perhaps, or just drinking under the moon.
Li Zhongwen, one of the elders of the village, tills the fields were his house once stood. He grows “bashful plants”, so named because if you poke them, the leaves curl in on themselves. He sells the plants for 0.8 yuan a piece at the local flower market, and harvests onions and greens for his home.
“The government isn’t doing anything with this land,” he told me in July 2012. “So we’ll keep tilling it until they make a move."
My old neighbour, Li Dongmei, sits in her living room two years after her home was torn down, and looks at old pictures with me. She tells me that the monthly stipend of 600 yuan ended two months ago. She was promised a lump sum of 15,000 yuan, but it was split into three payments. She has only received 5000 yuan of it so far, enough to pay for a year's rent on her current place, above a small convenience store a few blocks down from Unit 4. I wonder out loud why a rich developer would need to split such a small sum into three installments. She raises her head and I see that the thought had never occurred to her.
“Nobody speaks for us, nobody cares about us,” she says listlessly as her daughter does homework on the bed. “Here we are renting this tiny place ... it’s sad. Because we used to have a home.”
When we talk about Unit 4, she is forgetful, irritable, indifferent. She is more interested in my life. Where I work, how much money I make. We go through the rest of my old pictures from Unit 4 and then wait, in silence, for me to finally take my leave.
Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer based in Chengdu
All photographs are of Flower Town by Andreas Mueller