A new life off the water

Updated: 2015-12-24 07:53

By Hu Meidong in Ningde, Fujian and Peng Yining in Beijing(China Daily)

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Former residents of boat homes reap rewards from government program to help them survive and thrive on land

Lianjiachuan, meaning home on a boat, is a type of residential cargo boat that was once common in China's southeast coastal areas.

The 6-meter-long boat has a flat deck for carrying goods such as coal, tea, food and fish, from port to port, from village to village.

The boat owner's family lives under a bamboo cover at the stern that shelters their bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, and is sometimes used for keeping poultry.

Before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, people who lived on lianjiachuan were called Qu Ti, or curved hoof, which was a disparaging name describing them squatting on the boat.

Poor and uneducated, Qu Ti people occupied the bottom rung of society and suffered severe discrimination. They were not allowed to live on the land or receive education.

Since the 1950s, boat people have been gradually moving to areas on land. Xipi, a coastal village in Southeast China's Fujian province, built its first house for boat people in 1956. Six boat families moved into the 400-square-meter house.

But the relocating process was slow.

In the 1990s, more than half of the boat people settled on land. There were still a few living on boats offshore in Fujian, Hainan and Guangdong provinces, as well as in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

In 2013, as part of efforts to eliminate poverty, China relocated most of the boat people, estimated at more than 20,000 families. The group has rapidly moved from the waters since.

The following two accounts describe some of the lifestyles and changes related to boat people in two villages in Fujian.

Xiaqi village

Xiaqi is located at the tip of a small cape in eastern Fujian.

In 2015, 120 boat families around the cape moved to the village. They were the fourth group since the relocation program was launched in 1997.

Fujian had more than 4,000 boat families, the largest number in China. Xiaqi village had 782 families, with more than 3,500 people moved from the waters.

"I grew up on a boat. My parents steered our boat from another county to Xiaqi," said Jiang Chengcai, a 48-year-old Xiaqi villager. "We lived on deck day and night. Before I moved to the land, my biggest wish was to sleep on a stable bed."

Jiang was part of the first group to move from boat to land in 1997. He worked in construction and later became the owner of a construction company. But it was hard for many boat people who were not educated and did not speak Mandarin to find jobs on land. Some of them moved back to the boats.

To keep them on land, the local government provided free land and a 1,300 yuan ($203) house-building subsidy for each person. Water and electricity, cable services, medical facilities and schools were also provided to people who left their boats.

But land resources became limited as more people moved.

Land reclamation would cost too much, and people did not want to go further inland as their skills were mostly related to maritime work. The local government tried to break them into smaller groups and relocate them in different villages, but they would face more problems as they wouldn't be able to blend in with the local community.

Since 2014, Ningde city, where Xiaqi village is located, has been using 8 percent of its public funds on poverty alleviation in six counties. From 2014 to 2017, 100 to 200 million yuan will be spent on the project. From 2018 to 2020, the amount will be 200 to 300 million yuan.

This year, the local government bought 0.8 hectare of coastal land from another county to settle the 120 families that had just left their homes on the water. Each family was given 100,000 yuan to build homes.

The land is close to mud flats and a fish farm. The government also provided subsidies to encourage villagers to farm mudskippers as a new source of income.

Xipi village

Jiang Songbin, a 36-year-old resident in Xipi village, said she was born and raised on a boat.

"When a typhoon hit us, our boat, our home, was thrown around like a fallen leaf in the angry waves," she said. "I still remember the feeling of helplessness."

She moved onto the land with her parents when she was 14.

As one of the few young people able to get a college education, Jiang went back to Xipi after graduation and opened a fish farm.

Earning more than 100,000 yuan a year, Jiang now lives in a three-story house.

"If I were still living on a boat, I wouldn't be able to live such a good life," Jiang said, as she held the latest iPhone model in her hand. "You can't imagine how tough boat life was."

Jiang Kuanquan, the village head of Xipi, said the typical boat family had three generations living on a small boat, with torn fishing nets hanging on the rusty deck. The little fish and shrimp they caught were traded for rice and vegetables. When it rained, bamboo covers leaked.

The village's library displays the life of people living on boats through black and white photographs. One of the photos shows skinny, half-naked villagers paddling in rough waters.

In 2013, all boat families moved onto land. Xipi village now boasts 632 households, with more than 2,600 people. More than 1,000 villagers are involved in fishery production.

Last year, the average annual income per capita reached 13,590 yuan, up from 850 yuan in the 1990s. The village's income also rose to 1 million yuan in 2014, from 66,000 yuan in the early 1990s.

"Boat people used to live in poor conditions and were looked down upon by people living on land, but now we finally have a decent life," the village head said. "In the past two decades, the local government pulled us out of poverty by providing subsidies, vocational training and fry for fish farming."

Xipi has also invested 20 million yuan in infrastructure, including parks and nursing homes, he said.

Medical insurance covers every villager, he said. By 2020, each villager's real income will reach 27,000 yuan and the village's annual income will hit 2 million yuan.

"It is not a simple change moving from boat to land," he said. "It is a fundamental change."

Contact the writers at pengyining@chinadaily.com.cn

A new life off the water

 A new life off the water

Scenes from the past (from left): Boats of Lianjiachuan people - or those whose homes were on water - near Xipi village in Ningde city, Fujian province, in the 1960s. Several children on a residential boat in Xipi village in the 1960s. The first house in Xipi village, built in the 1950s. Photos provided to China Daily

 A new life off the water

A former boatman takes care of his aquatic farm in Xipi village, Fujian, after taking training courses sponsored by government. Wang Shen / Xinhua

 A new life off the water

Two residents enjoy time with a toddler in Xipi village earlier this month. Hu Meidong / China Daily

 A new life off the water

Children attend a class at Xipi Village Primary School in Ningde city, Fujian province, earlier this month. Lianjiachuan people, or those whose homes were on boats, have gradually settled on land in the coastal village since the 1950s. Wang Shen / Xinhua

 A new life off the water

Xipi Village Primary School is one of the highest and most modern buildings in the community. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily 12/24/2015 page7)