Ghosts under water

China’s Three Gorges Dam inundates a way of life.

World Reports

Until last year, I had only witnessed the destruction of old Fengdu in photographs. In the early stages, only the blood-red symbol “tsai” marked the buildings that would be torn down and submerged by China’s massive Three Gorges Dam, which has turned the fierce waters of the Yangtze into a giant bathtub.

Old Fengdu had been surrendering to pickaxes for several years, and I arrived on New Year’s Day 2006 to look for her stragglers, the elderly and infirm who refused to move out, as they could not afford the higher rents in the new town. I was drawn to hear their stories, and I was also returning to the homeland that my father fled more than 60 years ago. I wonder what it is like to be a refugee in one’s own land, to be forced from one’s home, which encompasses more than wood and brick and mortar, but a sense of belonging to the place where one’s ancestors are buried.

My driver took me across the river, through a thick fog into the ghost town. I stared at the shell of a high-rise emerging from the flattened landscape, dotted with men who were steadily chiseling away at the concrete edifice. Along the remaining road in town, there were huge bales of wire, like tumbleweed, and long copper rods bundled together. These had been salvaged from the wrecked buildings. All around, as far as the eye could see, the old city was a mass of rubble, with a few pockets of life. The apartment buildings I came to find were gone, the stragglers having lost their battle to the indomitable tide of change. Old Fengdu would be completely submerged in a few months, its rubble sinking beneath the silt-laden brown waters of the Yangtze in summertime.

photo of a ruinous building, with a misty body of water behindLi Miao LovettA mud-brick shack in old Wushan stands against the tamed waters
of the Yangtze.

I stopped where a woman and her child were standing outside their shack. It was constructed of plywood with a red-white-and-blue striped tarp commonly used on construction sites. “How old is your child?” I asked in Mandarin.

“Oh, he’s two,” she replied. “I found the child. His mother had left him when he was seven days old. It was the middle of winter, and I found him in the snow.” I stared at the boy, Chen Huei Nien, whose cherubic face lit up when his mother gave him a hot bun. The woman’s encampment was the only one visible in this part of town. The humble abode was equipped with a bed, some clothing, a small coal heater, and a small bamboo chair. Her husband was on the demolition crew, and they went home to the new city each night.

When I took her son’s picture, she gave me a mailing address in the new city. What compelled her to spend her days here if they had a nicer home across the river? She did not speak of remorse or longing, yet I sensed that deep roots tie her to this place, and those memories would remain far after the entire old town disappears under water.

photo of a small boy, with some toys, and wreckage behindLi Miao LovettChen Huei Nien enjoys his steamed bun, unaware that Fengdu
is crumbling.

Down the road, a demolition crew hacked away at remaining buildings, stone by stone, brick by brick. I passed by a thin old woman doing construction work alongside the men. A man stacking salvaged bricks on a palette spoke to me in the Chongqing dialect, and I strained to understand the melodic inflections that bubbled from his quiet frame. He pointed through the fog to Mt. Mingshan, whose temples and grisly images of the netherworld will continue to attract tourists arriving by boat after the lowlands are flooded. Another fellow told me that the officials were corrupt, and he gestured by stuffing invisible money in his pockets. Across the street, a group of old men sat around a fire, laughing and playing cards. At the dozen or so stands along the remaining road, there were fruits and vegetables for sale, and gum, cigarettes, water, and freshly slaughtered hens.

As we left town, we passed by the bricklayer and his dusty stack. “That’s Mr. Wang,” my driver told me. “He used to be a farmer, made a living by selling rice. His business failed, and then the government took his land away.”

In 1949, when my father’s family fled the Shandong countryside, the new government seized their land, ostensibly to divide it among the peasants. As a landowner, my grandfather was tortured and imprisoned until he turned over all his possessions to the Communist state. But more than half a century later, the peasants have no land they can legally call their own. Millions have been forced out of their homes to make way for large dams and economic development. Land seizures are a major cause of the tens of thousands of peasant protests that take place in China every year. Did those of my grandfather’s generation suffer in vain?

My father has only recently begun to tell me about his life in the Shandong countryside, where a hundred people in his village shared a surname, a close-knit community, and a history. Little Chen Huei Nien will have few memories of old Fengdu in its watery grave across the Yangtze. If he is lucky enough to be educated, his prospects for the future, for a better home, will be brighter.

On that winter’s day, small testimonies of hope remain: a child offering food to his mother, a single tree rising out of the barren landscape, a statue of Kuanyin, the goddess of compassion, which stood straight and unwavering against the misty waters of the Yangtze. The buildings of old Fengdu may be condemned, gutted, and flooded, but home is a sacred memory, and that cannot be so easily destroyed.

Li Miao Lovett writes about cultural and environmental issues from the San Francisco Bay Area. She has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED Public Radio, and Planet’s Voice. Her upcoming novel, In the Lap of the Gods, is a tale of defiance and survival amidst the rising waters of the Three Gorges Dam.

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