The Void

The Infinite Train: An Old Lady in Huludao

  • TypeText
  • Time2021-10-10
  • SourceField research
  • MC-T-001
  • VenueHuludao
  • CreditInterviewee
  • MC-T-001

We compared the old and new maps to find a centralised shelter for the remnants before they were repatriated. We were lucky enough to find the narrow entrance next to the elementary school.

It was  noon. We walked to the middle of a stretch of low brick houses. A potholed tarmac road stretched straight to the bridge at the end, covered by weeds. An elderly woman sitting on a stone bench, sunbathing, saw us and asked why we were there. We went up to her and explained that we were Beijingers on a study trip to Huludao. She looked up. A pair of cloudy grey eyes, I doubt if she could see us clearly. Her tanned face was deeply wrinkled, her brow furrowed, and before we could open our mouths, she continued to speak ...


Grandma: What relocation? Not easy! I have been looking for five or six years. People went to look for it again, they told you: you go back and wait for everything to be well-planned, go back and wait for a notice. Then years after years, nothing has changed, right? This is how it is every year. This year (you see) the water, at my home there (pointing to the brick house next to her), the water in the house was so deep (pointing to her knee), the first day after rain, I was so worried. 

Look at the back of the house, the back of the house, not the highlands, the back of the house, the water is all over the bed, no one cares. You know, the director does not come, the subdistrict office does not come, the government does not care, who’s in charge? No one will do anything, they say that there is no money. I've been living here for over 70 years. How many square metre do you think this house is? 27㎡! 27㎡ only, I’m 83 years old this year. How to fix this? I can lead you to our house, where you can see the hut in person, too dark to see clearly. The Japanese house we moved to in the 1950s, more than 70 years ago. How many years since Japan surrendered? Japanese houses? All around here (referring to the surrounding), some of these houses are retrofitted by themselves, the rich ones. People like us, we have no money to buy a house. What can be done even if we have their promises? No one will do anything. The district government says it is none of their business and we should find the city government, the city government refers us back to the district government, saying that you have to wait because the district government does not have money, so we wait, and as years go by there’s still no updates. Year after year, year after year, six or seven years, why? This water, you see, surrounding my house, the water rose this high, my daughter-in-law poured water out by hand, my legs have been sick.

SJ: It's easy to get rheumatism from the cold and damp. Is your house covered by collective heating in winter? Winter is tough.

Grandma: The rain is even harder. This area always suffers from flooding, it’s been that way for so many years, at least five or six years. Who’s responsible? The regional officers do not come, the sub-district officers do not come, the government does not care about you. I’m too old to move around, but you know, they don’t feel ashamed of this. I told the government that we are still living in Japanese houses for more than 70 years – don’t you feel ashamed? Luckily the Japanese left these houses, or else where can we live? If I have money, I can buy a house. But we can only live here, nowadays my family is the only one still staying, the family next to the tall cottonwood tree, their daughter-in-law owns a flat, so they can live there whenever they want to. Where can we go? I do not have enough money to buy another house, a flat costs at least 200,000 yuan now. Yes, without money you do nothing but stay here. Once it rains, my son will be worried. The doorway must be stacked with sand bags, to block the entry, even so it barely works. With their feet soaking in water, my daughter-in-law said to me: ‘Don’t come out, mother, you’ll get cold’, so I just stayed inside.

SJ: It has been quite rainy this year.

Grandma: And you know what? There were others who also went to the governments. (The governors answered) Don’t come again, should there be any updates they will be forwarded to your sub-district. Then you’ll all get informed. Informed of what? It’s totally a lie. I’m in my 80s, who knows if I will hear from them again.

SJ: Don’t say that, Grandma, you’re in good shape.

Grandma: Not good, my legs suffer from the cold. I can’t walk to the government now, if I still can, I will keep complaining. I can’t anymore. You see, no one takes care of this area, the others got rich and bought houses elsewhere and then moved away. All gone, only us left.

SJ: Isn’t there a plan to demolish the whole region, and if they did that, would they rebuild here?

Grandma: You can look after it, or demolish it, or the country gives us a little bit of money to trim a bit, or refurbish the house. We know there’ll be no refund, who has the money to spend on it? In the end, the officers get promoted to other cities, the new officers won’t be responsible. Then I just spend my own money.

SJ: Grandma, do you remember before the Liberation there were a few Japanese to be repatriated back to Japan, when they stayed a while here in these houses?

Grandma: Yes, a while. They departed from Huludao, then went back by the sea. They left these houses behind back then, this is only part of it. There is a small villa in Lingdong, which is the officers’ residences. I know that. These houses were built for the civilians, and the foundations are sinking. We understand the difficulties, but problems need to be solved, no? You see, sandbags at every house door, water floods into every house, onto the beds in the worst situation. Fridges and everything else are soaked in the water. Who cares? The government? No one! There was a year when some officials came to comfort us and handed out some flour and oil. In recent years, there was nothing and even no one asked about it. The previous officer retired, and I don't even know the new officer. You say it's good to have heavy rain, but you should take a look at the poor people, no matter what. There are some other houses, do you want to have a look?

SJ: I saw near the pier there’s a new area being reclaimed.

Grandma: Everything has been moved to the new district. The relocation order came down six or seven years ago, saying that this area is ready for demolition and relocation. Where has the money gone? Now you want to move, you can’t without money, the government can’t take action. The officers spend their days smoking and drinking tea in the office but they do not care about anything, you tell me if I shouldn’t be angry. They don't care if you people live or die… I know, back then I was about ten years old. How can I not know this? I know that the Japanese left us this house, this 27㎡ hut. We had 7 or 8 people living here, the oldest son and the youngest son, both sons were born here. How long has it been since the Japanese surrendered? Have you not gone to the west end to see the houses? You can go in there, but I can't. The small bungalows in the west, the Japanese houses. They've all collapsed, they're too old, all rotten. Their houses have collapsed from the centre, the wood has decayed. When there is a bit of water, it floods, the water is up to the shins, and the guy doesn't even say it hurts. I spent more than 3,000 yuan to buy coal for winter heating. I do, otherwise we’ll be frozen to death. I can buy some coal, but the money to buy a house? In the days when the Japanese were there, other people did not know, but I know. I say that when Japan surrendered, they departed by the sea.

SJ: Grandma, when they left many of them were soldiers or railway workers, were there any women and children?

Grandma: Yes, all gone, no one left, no one. Old residents like me, I didn’t go anywhere, I still live here.

SJ: Then your house was allocated by the country?

Grandma: The country allocated us this house from the national railway enterprise at that time, but later the railway enterprise didn't want this house anymore, no? They sold the house to us for 490 yuan. Right then, we signed the contract and the property ownership was handed over.

SJ: So now there aren’t any authorities that could resettle you. Normally houses like yours should be conserved by the Heritage Bureau before resettling you into new houses.

Grandma: If they can find us a new place, whatever they do would be better (compared to now). We don’t need any luxurious places, only asking for less suffering, so that I can survive the winter. How many years do I have left? Several years at most. I’m more than 80 years old. I just want to leave something for my children.

SJ: It’s so rough…

Grandma: My second son is in his 50s, almost 60 years old. What to do with such a small, ramshackle house? I’m worried sick all day. When it rains, my son stops going to work, the doors and windows have to be blocked, yet still water is running in.

SJ: (Pointing to the drainage ditch by the house) Here the water could flow in through the ditch right into the sea.

Grandma: It floods back when the rain is heavy. Like just a few days before on the 17th of August when it poured. This year the rain was so heavy that it flooded everywhere. Originally, this place was so close to the sea and the water could flow into the sea. Now you can go to the back and take a look. It is so blocked under the bridge, and nothing can go across. You can see that it's blocked, nobody comes to solve it. One time they drove the bulldozers here and dumped  dirt, and people were so angry that they went to the government, and the government came with a car and pulled away all the dirt, but more than half of it had not been removed. When it rains, the water backs up to the north, back there. No matter what, it is still blocked. The bridge and ditch, when it was five or so years ago, could still be crossed by cars, back and forth, but now people can't even get in on foot. My son said, ‘You don't have to spend a lot of time in this area, after that you still have to buy coal every year. Anyway, I said we would buy three tons of coal this year, and after we bought three tons of coal, we wouldn't buy any more later, we would stay in the small house until we have somewhere else.’

SJ: Have you asked for help from any journalists? Do they dare to report this?

Grandma: Do they dare? No. They have to listen to them, to the government? Can they change anything, the journalists? No.

SJ: Grandma, it's so sunny today, my legs hurt from the sunlight. Have you had lunch?

Grandma: I have. My daughter-in-law has been very kind to me. My eldest son died the year before. My husband died last year, also from an illness, so I'm left on my own, and I'm left with two people to look after. What is there to live for? What is there to live for? There is no future. All day long I don't have anything to do, I just stay here, nagging when there are people around, and just stay silent when there is no one to speak to, you see the officer, who knows the new officer? The drainage pipes are also clogged, they're all clogged. Whatever they do with this place, they should have given a direction at least. There’s none. You say you have to report this to the government, should it be the district or municipal government, you have to first go to the district government, which is  in the railway north residence, railway community, (ask them) what do you plan to do? Leaving it as a half dead issue, if anyone wants to fix the house, after fixing it, suddenly you are going to resettle or demolish. If you leave it as it is without fixing, this house has sparse leakage and will collapse, you also do not care. The fact is that we can petition, but we can't go to Beijing, so when you pass Shanhaiguan (the border of Dongbei and North China), the government officer will send you back home. Once they know that you are from Liaoning province then no one cares.


Leaving grandma, we walked into those short brick houses. The houses were aligned in a neat rectangular square, the outside of which, as grandma said, is in a state of disrepair and even in danger of collapsing. Some of those houses had brick walls to the north and stone walls to the south, like the old Russian houses we saw in our journey. A few steps away, we were stopped by weeds taller than a man's height, and grandma said the bridge blocked by rubbish was at the end of the weeds. The rubbish collector said ‘there was nothing to see’ and told us not to come any closer. We circled around a few times, but we couldn't find a way out. Finally, we managed to emerge from the lowly bungalows to a wide and open road, a five- or six-metre-wide pavement on either side of the road and a dozen metre high residential building. Looking back, the brick and mortar houses were hidden in the shadows behind the tall buildings, unnoticed by those who walk past. The houses stay in the shadows, just like grandma, the same sadness resurfaces  every few sentences.