Bustling Beijing migrant area turns into ghost town

Beijing (AFP) –


The narrow alleyways of the Beijing migrant neighbourhood were once crammed with men cooking on outdoor stoves, women hanging clothes to dry and young children playing games.

Now dead leaves litter the pavement as a bitterly cold wind blows through empty lanes after authorities swept through the area in a controversial city-wide eviction campaign.

It is one of the myriad migrant neighbourhoods in the capital of 23 million people that have been turned into ghost towns as the government shuts down and demolishes illegal or unsafe structures.

Authorities stepped up the controversial expulsions last month, arguing that they have to clear dangerous buildings after a fire killed 19 people. A blaze in another migrant area killed five people on Wednesday.

The harsh tactics sparked uproar as rural migrants who had been seeking a better life were suddenly given hours to vacate homes in the shivering cold.

When AFP journalists visited Houchang Cun -- "the village behind the factories" -- in the summer, residents in one densely populated section had been warned that evictions were looming.

This is the scene of desolation the reporters found when they recently returned to the single-storey brick homes.

- Taps off -

In August, shirtless men washed vegetables, brushed their teeth or cleaned themselves in the only facility with running water in the urban "village".

Today, litter is strewn around the empty space under its tin roof.

The tables that people used to place their bowls or toiletries on are gone.

Even the silvery spigots have been ripped off the walls.

- Movers moved -

Many of the residents were movers. Zhang Zhanrong, a mother in her early 30s, ran her own moving business.

She lived in a one-room dwelling with her husband and son. Wearing a blue dress, she served dinner on a small table, next to a bed and tall armoire.

The mattress now rests diagonally against the wall while the makeshift stove which she shared with her neighbour outside their brick homes is gone.

- Sealed doors -

As the homes were so small, much of life took place outside in the lanes whose entrances have been closed with concrete and barbed wire.

A large grease stain is left on a brick wall where a woman used to cook meals outside her home.

A poster of Chairman Mao Zedong surrounded by officials that hung on a wooden storage space is gone.

An abandoned sink lies on the pavement in front of a home where a woman once hung shirts while another woman washed clothes in a green plastic bucket.

A nail remains on a wall where a woman used to hang garlic.

Purple and flowery sheets are still draped over some entrances in the deserted alleyway.

A mop still hangs from a window next to where a man held his baby in his arms months ago.

The green and brown doors are all shut and bear an official white seal with different dates of evictions in November.

- 'No use to protest' -

One couple remained behind, spending days sitting on blankets on a corrugated metal rooftop.

"There's no heating where we are so it's warmer out here in the sun," the husband said, declining to give his name, on a below-freezing day.

The man plans to leave Beijing after he receives his last paycheque from his job as a maintenance worker.

Many residents hailed from the same hamlet in Pengshui, a mountainous region in southwestern Chongqing province, and relocated to Beijing to work menial labour jobs or to start small businesses.

Evictees said they received no compensation and feel forced to return to a place where they have no way of making a living.

"There is no use to protest," said a woman surnamed Wang. "It will all be gone sooner or later."