During the month of December, the topic of conversation racing throughout our area was the impending doom of Wa Ya Bao Lu, our Yangtze River road.
We along the river were given notice on December 2nd that everyone must move immediately to make room for the widening of the narrow river road and the beautification of the shoreline. This evacuation included all the little mom-and-pop shops that hugged Wa Yao Ba, not to mention a strip of our campus.
Four faculty apartment buildings, the campus guesthouse, the music student’s dormitory, the school clinic, the industrial arts classroom building, the tennis courts, the front gate and the entire administration and departmental office building were in the line of fire.
And, wouldn’t you know it, my aging, dilapidated apartment building was to be the first to go.
This unexpected announcement caused headaches, scrambles, frustration and anxiety on everyone’s part. No amount of guangxi (relationships) our college leaders had in the city government office had any effect in canceling our move, which was first scheduled for December 18. The only headway our college president made was in finally convincing Luzhou officials that the administration building had to stand. Without it, there was no way to operate an entire college or finish out the semester. College President He Jiping also managed to gain an extra week to find the teachers new housing facilities, moving our “out-of-here” date to December 25, Christmas Day. (China’s national holidays include Chinese New Year, known as Spring Festival, not Christmas so moving on December 25th was not considered odd.)
The Process for Displacement in China
Land in China belongs to the government but the buildings on the land belong to whomever has built and paid for them. For people to leave, reasonable compensation must be given for what has been placed on that land.
Some of the apartments on campus belonged to the school while others had been purchased by the teachers, thus making the process of leaving a bit complicated. The school had no idea who the owners were because some had changed hands numerous times over the years. And some owners were renting their apartments to outside folk who had already paid a year’s rent to stay there. That left the tenants having to figure out where they were going to live next as well as track down their landlords to get their money back.
Procedure for Displacement
I had not a clue what the procedure is for displacement in China. What I discovered was quite fascinating.
All land belongs to the government but the buildings on the land belong to whomever has built and paid for them. To force out residents, reasonable compensation must be given for what has been placed on that land.
Some of the apartments on campus belonged to the school while others had been purchased by the teachers, thus making the process of leaving a bit complicated. The school had no idea who the private apartment owners were because some had changed hands numerous times over the years. And some owners were renting their apartments to outside folk who had already paid a year’s rent to stay there. That left the tenants having to figure out where they were going to live next while tracking down their landlords to get their money back.
Within a week of the government’s announcement for our removal, each apartment was evaluated by city housing authorities to estimate an appropriate buying price. Number of square meters, condition and decorated aspects paid for by the owner were all carefully documented. The owners were involved, walking with inspectors and pointing out what they felt were important details to include in the estimates. A few days later, those involved gathered in the school’s senior citizens activity center to meet with city inspectors. A price for each apartment unit was offered and if the owner agreed, documents were signed, completing the entire procedure for moving.
I later heard money for relocation was also included in this payment or apartment owners had the option of moving into newly built city government apartments designated for such relocations. The apartment complexes are very nice, often better and much bigger than what residents lived in before. However, as all apartments in China, housing units come as empty concrete shells meaning that all ornamentation, decorating, electrical wiring and plumbing must be paid for by the new owners. The cost of such ventures ranges from the bare basics (60,000 yuan or $9,120 US) to as high as the owner wants. One of my former students, whose parents are farmers, moved into a countryside government housing unit and spent 90,000 yuan ($13,680) to make their home acceptable. Their adult children and relatives pitched in to cover the cost. After a year, the core family members, totaling 7, moved in to finally enjoy their newly completed, modernized housing environment.
According to Chinese law, citizens can’t be kicked out of their homes until agreements are met and the displaced family or person has somewhere to go. For the school-owned campus apartments, it was a fairly straightforward process. Our college leaders quickly approved of the city’s payment, including a relocation amount for each teacher, and finished all the documentation within a day.
As for the other apartments and people living there, I noticed that, lingering into January 8 (long after I’d left), there were a few of my neighbors still living in my building. Since demolition hadn’t started yet, I guess the housing authorities and the owners were still disputing compensation amounts.
Where did we displaced teachers go?
The school office in charge of searching out alternative faculty housing truly had to hustle. In a very short time, they needed to find us places to live. This also included apartments for our campus president and several administrators who also found themselves in the same boat as the rest of us.
The hope was to keep all of us together but finding an outside place to accommodate everyone was impossible. At present, 65 of my Chinese colleagues are located far across town in quite large and spacious units. Next semester, a bus will be chartered to bring them to and from school every day so they don’t have to worry about transportation.
The 3 foreign teachers (two with the Peace Corp and myself with the Amity Foundation) are more fortunate. We are now a 20-minute walk from the campus in plush apartments, costing the school 1,800 yuan ($300) a month for each rental. Utilities are also paid for by the school, which have been designated for each of us as 100 yuan ($16) a month for electricity and 50 yuan ($8) for water and gas. If we use more than that, we are required to pay for it ourselves.
When I moved in, I was told $16 a month was more than what the average Chinese family used. In other words, the school was being very generous in giving the foreigners such a sizable monthly stipend for electricity. However, I quickly learned frugality is not one of my strong suits. In a week, I used up my $16 because of the heater, which I left on for about 8 hours a day to stay warm. The Chinese rarely, if ever, turn on their heater/air-conditioning dual units. They either layer in clothes (indoors and out) during our region’s 40-degree winter temps or just suffer in the roasting heat when summer days hit 90 degrees or above.
Nor was I the only wasteful American. The Peace Corp volunteers were likewise quickly reaching their electricity limit. I just beat them to it. Looks like these fancy dwellings we have come with a bit of a backlash, and that is more money out-of-pocket if we want our creature comforts.
A December of Living On Edge
Of course, now I’m moved and greatly relieved to have done so but it was truly one of the most stressful times I’ve ever experienced in this country.
The announcement of this impending move came just as I was decorating for Christmas, planning Christmas gatherings for students, and baking, as is my holiday tradition. I managed to cram all my festivities into one week, including 8 open houses in 5 days of afternoons and evenings. This frantic dash was made along with teaching duties, preparing students for finals, extra church choir practices for Christmas Eve and the horrendous job of packing everything into over 100 boxes for the big move.
I even squeezed in my pool times, not to mention walking the abandoned dogs at the animal clinic every day. I don’t think I’ve ever, in all my years in China, had so many “go-go-go” days in a row that there seemed to be no end in sight.
In all, I think I received about 5 hours of sleep every night for about 2 weeks, just so I could fit everything in.
The Moving Day Finally Arrived
Although the school wanted me out earlier, with all my church activities going on building up to Christmas Eve, the best I could manage was Christmas Day. So after all choir performances and duties had finished on December 24th, I gave the go-ahead for my move.
At 9 a.m. on the 25th, the school workers came to begin hauling my furniture, appliances, and over 90 large boxes down the steep stairwell and piling these onto the school’s small truck. I had more things than anyone else due to living so many years in China. Jackie and Garett took about 3 hours and my Chinese colleagues took even less than that.
But for me, it took all 9 workers available to move my belongings, with 2 truck hauls and a finishing time of 3 p.m.
It was a huge undertaking on everyone’s part. I wasn’t about to let those involved (receiving a measly $60-a-month salary) go unrewarded. I prepared Christmas cards, including the foreigners’ holiday photo, and goodie bags filled with candies and a couple packs of cigarettes. For our one woman worker, not a smoker, I added American chocolates which she could share with her little boy.
I imagine my U.S. readers right now are cringing at the thought of me increasing lung cancer risks among the chain-smoking Chinese but in this culture, cigarettes are the gift of choice. A monetary tip was unacceptable and the only way to show my appreciation was to “do as the Romans do,” so cigarettes it was.
And I can honestly say that, from their total surprise and pleased acceptance of my presents, it was the right thing to do.
Sadness in Change
Of course, I’m sad to have left my Yangtze River home.
Since the kitchen, washing machine, sink and bathroom cubicle were located on the balcony, I spent quite a bit of time out there. Cooking, doing laundry, showering, washing dishes – a majority of my apartment life at the college had me overlooking the Chang Jiang (Long River, known to us as the Yangtze) where barges and sampans chugged by on a regular basis.
I never tired of watching this infamous waterway stretch before me in all its mirky, mysterious grandeur. From my lofty vantage point, I’d reflect upon the adventures Chinese throughout the ages must have had living either next to it, like myself, or living on it, like the boatmen or fishermen I saw drifting by.
After over a decade of sharing river stories with relatives, friends, acquaintances, and a multitude of faithful readers, I feel as if I’ve become an integral part of the river itself.
Hard to imagine it flowing onward without me, but I’m sure it will.
From the 22nd floor of Lu Cheng Mansions, on a balcony overlooking a rapidly changing China, here’s wishing you Ping An (Peace) for your day.