In the past week, the news that several poor elderly people were found to live in heating sewers at the heart of Beijing has been making the rounds on the Chinese Internet. Most of these “manhole dwellers” are elderly impoverished migrant workers who cannot afford even the cheapest rent in China’s glorious capital. Desperate for a “home,” they moved underground into the city’s heating manholes, which, though filthy, can be “heaven-like” warm shelters during Beijing’s harsh winters.
52-year-old Wang Xiuqing from the nearby Hebei province has lived in one of manholes for more than 10 years. He has caught special media attention among two dozens of other “manhole dwellers.” And it’s for a reason.
Wang lives alone in a manhole in Beijing’s Chaoyang District. His wife and three children live in the northern outskirts of Beijing, in a real home. He works as a car washer during the day, with some 2000-yuan income per month. The reason why many Chinese netizens feel particularly sympathetic towards him is because his impoverishment is partly caused by government fine – he violated China’s one-child policy for having 3 children.
Below is a translated interview of Wang by New Beijing News. Wang, in his early 50s, is China’s Red generation who grew up under Mao and has lived through modern China’s all ups and downs – the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, the opening-up, the rising power, you name it. They are also China’s first migrant workers who are known for being able to “eat bitterness.” The following interview of Wang depicts a very vivid and representing image of what many of China’s Red generation looks like.
New Beijing News: “Do you feel suffocating and damp to live in a manhole for long periods of time?
Wang: “Not if you live down there long enough, like me. But I don’t live down the manhole during the summer because it’s too hot. Instead, I sleep on grass. I only live down there during the winter. It’s not damp at all in winter time.”
New Beijing News: “Do you use candles a lot?”
Wang: “To have the candles always on will get me exposed. I usually only light up candles for a short period after getting down. I cannot even use up 6 candles per month. Candles bought in the summer melt into one. I had a very hard time separating them. They were all deformed, but still good to use.”
New Beijing News: “Without light, what do you do to kill time?”
Wang: “I have a small radio. I take it with me every day for stories, music and news.”
New Beijing News: “In additional to candles, what else are necessities for living down a manhole?”
Wang: “I seldom buy anything besides cigarettes and food. I have a big detergent bottle. It’s cold outside at night and it’s dangerous to climb up and down. So I use the bottle to pee. I don’t feel like to poop at all whenever I am down. My body adapts.”
New Beijing News: “Is it easy to get sick living down a manhole for so long?”
Wang: “I’m pretty healthy.”
New Beijing News: “It’s dangerous to live down there. If one of the heating pipes leaks…”
Wang: “I know it’s dangerous. There is toxic air from below. People’d also throw random things down. But that’s life. Not something I can control.”
New Beijing News: “Do you often chat with your neighbors?”
Wang: “Those who live down manholes are from all over China. They come and go. I don’t understand many of their dialects. We almost never say hi to each other or chat. “
New Beijing News: “Did you feel upset when you first moved down?”
Wang: “No. I washed car here 10 years old. At the time, some 30 people lived in nearby manholes. The harsh winter that year forced me to move down. Compared with the coldness outside, I felt very happy to be in the manhole.”
New Beijing News: “When was the worst time?”
Wang: “The worst time is when it’s the coldest. If I don’t get out, I won’t get any money. If I do, it’s deadly freezing.”
New Beijing News: “Do you feel depressed?”
Wang: “Almost never. I’m used to living down a manhole. My children are growing up, and they are very good kids. I feel very positive and happy.”
New Beijing News: “In all these years, have your kids been giving you the strength to endure this life in a manhole?”
Wang: “Yes, only my 3 kids can give me the power to live on. They all study very well. That’s my biggest motivation.”
New Beijing News: “Do you feel the manhole is your home?”
Wang: “Not really a home, but it does protect me from rains and winds. Who doesn’t want to live in big houses or fancy hotels if rich enough?”
New Beijing News: “Have you ever calculated how much does it save you to live in a manhole?”
Wang: “Of course. It costs an average of 300 yuan per month to rent a place. In the past 10 years, I saved 36,000 yuan by living down the manhole.”
New Bejing News: “Apartments near the manhole now sell for more than 40,000 yuan per square meter. Have you ever thought about owning your own home?”
Wang: “I cannot afford even one square meter with a whole year’s income. It’s impossible for me in this life. There’s no point in thinking about it.”
New Beijing News: “Someone says that those who live in manholes have no dignity.”
Wang: “Dignity? It’s not for everyone. For someone like me who lives like a beggar, dignity means nothing. In 2008, I was washing a car on the roadside. An urban law enforcement official took me away. He released his dog from its cage and put me in. I want to have dignity. But what dignity was left to me at that moment?”
As of now, the manholes have been sealed by local authorizes. But luckily, someone was kind enough to offer Wang a job, with food and shelter included.