Saying goodbye to a life of grime

Updated: 2014-05-09 07:50

By Zhao Xu (China Daily)

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In the meantime, the area assumed a new appearance: The grassy, slightly desolate countryside was covered by a plethora of small low-ceilinged houses with front yards, connected by muddy, narrow roads. Businesses that traded in similar items clustered together, their arduously acquired commodities piled high in the open air.

A sense of pride

Despite the grime and arduous nature of their work, Dongxiaokou's residents saw themselves as an essential part of the city's infrastructure.

When she heard about the impending fate of Dongxiaokou in 2011, Chen Liwen, an environmentalist with Nature University, a Beijing-based NGO, began making videos to record the residents' lives. "I was struck by how acutely they remained aware of their importance to the city," said the 32-year-old, who first arrived in the area on a snowy February morning right after Chinese New Year. "It was their busiest time - Beijing had produced a month's worth of waste in just a few days," she recalled.

At one point, Chen encountered a waste collector, who took out an unbound notepad and started leafing through it with blackened fingers. "Look at how many wine bottles I've just collected! Just think what things would be like if we didn't do this," he said.

"There was a poignancy in his pride," Chen recalled.

Xu said: "At its peak, through the collection, trading and recycling of waste, Dongxiaokou provided livelihoods for nearly 30,000 people.

"The demolition risks returning these people to their pre-Dongxiaokou days, when they roamed the city and found temporary refuge in unlikely places," he continued. "I'm not saying that the removal isn't right. In fact it's very timely and unavoidable, especially given the speed of development in Beijing and the environmental issues that have long plagued the area. But these people are indispensable."

According to Xu, it's impractical to relocate operations outside the city boundaries because the increased transport costs would make the recycling businesses economically unviable.

"Compared with the burning and burial of waste, now a common practice in Beijing, recycling has the obvious advantage of creating less pollution and saving natural resources," he said. "Solving all these interrelated problems requires a farsighted approach, and vested interests must be curbed."

A new start

Three years ago, when the long-rumored demolition first became a certainty, Xu helped his father draft a detailed business plan to create a second, but far more wholesome, Dong-xiaokou on a piece of rented land farther to the north and seven times larger than the family's original plot in Dong-xiaokou. Despite their efforts, the Xus were disappointed.

"In that model, which was partly informed by standards adopted in certain European countries, the waste storage area was completely separate from the residential area. We intended to set up an ultra-large factory-cum-community in which people worked, but no longer lived with, the waste. There were even detailed plans for reducing the risks to safety and the environment, and for building community schools and shops, but no one gave the plan serious consideration," he said.

Xu now works for a large financial concern. The family sees their journey from a small village in Henan to Beijing's Central Business District as symbolic of recent changes in China, but they know their rise from rags to riches is a distant, unattainable dream for most of their former neighbors in Dongxiaokou.

Time to leave

Liu was busy rinsing a pair of skates for her youngest son, He Ming, an 11-year-old student at a primary school in Dong-xiaokou. The school, which is privately operated, doesn't receive government funding. The parents of the 300-plus students pay 2,500 yuan a year so their children can sit in the dilapidated classrooms with peeling walls and filmy curtains. However, it has allowed the children, who are unable to attend public schools because they don't have permanent residency permits for Beijing, to remain with their parents. Now, the school is due to be demolished too.

A blackboard bears the names of last semester's top 10 students. Liu was delighted to see her son's name on the list.

However, the boy will soon leave with his parents and siblings, joining the more than 100 students who have left since the beginning of last year.

"When I first came to Beijing, I was driven here by the poverty in my hometown, so I'm not going back at any price," said Liu. "We'll start a new life somewhere else, and I just hope that this time we'll find a real home."

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Wu Wencong contributed to this story.

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