Prosperity and pain

Sun Foreign Staff

Second of two parts

BEIJING -- Just off South Small Street along Full Blossom Lane once stood the red-brick house of the three Gong brothers. They and their families shared its nine small rooms for nearly 40 years, holding fast to the traditions of old Beijing as a modern metropolis rose outside like a forest of concrete and steel.

The brothers grew up playing as boys always had in the neighborhood, shooting marbles in the lane and raising a small menagerie of pigeons, crickets and other pets. Their boyhood and teen-age years, through the 1950s and early 1960s, were the heyday of Chinese socialism, when everyone worked for the state and everyone, the state insisted, was seen as equal.

Faster than anyone on Full Blossom Lane could have foreseen, the Gongs, their home and that world are gone.

The Gong brothers are Wenbiao, 53, who retired from a state-owned factory; Wencong, 51, a successful food wholesaler; and the youngest, Wenju, 43, who drives a cab. This spring, the city of Beijing demolished their house and much of the lane as part of the world's most sweeping urban building program.

Where a dozen members of the extended Gong family once shared a 650-square-foot house, workers plan to lay a sidewalk along a new six-lane road to be lined by high-rise apartments.

After living under one roof, the brothers, their wives, four children, one grandchild and a son-in-law now live apart in radically different styles, facing starkly different prospects. The families' move from Beijing's winding alleys to its jungle of glass and steel mirrors the country's transition from a socialist system to a ruthlessly competitive one.

The story of the Gong brothers is the story of China since 1978, a tale of those who embraced economic change and succeeded and others who resisted and failed. And it is a cautionary story of how a neighborhood's destruction, decreed by an authoritarian government, can alienate three brothers who took different paths away from Full Blossom Lane.

Although Beijing's modernization was necessary and inevitable, the scope and speed of destruction have been devastating, the process strikingly harsh. Demolition of the Gongs' house and tens of thousands like it has led to the breakup of traditional, multigeneration households and irreparably damaged a distinct style of communal living.

Since the early 1990s, the authoritarian government here has razed mile after mile of housing by fiat. Officials negotiate compensation with individual families in secret, sowing distrust among neighbors. Those who challenge the process sometimes face beatings or the forced destruction of their homes.

Unable to afford new housing spacious enough to accommodate large households, some families have had to split up.

Different fates

The last time the three Gong brothers slept under one roof was in early May, the night before Wencong, the middle and most successful brother, loaded his belongings into a truck from the Don't Worry Moving Co. and headed for the suburbs. The last time the brothers saw each other was May 23, when they divided $61,000 in government compensation for the home their father bought for about 4 ounces of gold in the 1940s, before Mao Tse-tung and the Communist Party proclaimed the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Since the family separated, Wencong, a smooth-talking, retired vegetable wholesaler, has fared best. He lives in one of the capital's distant suburbs, in a modern apartment with a wide-screen television and a shower with a nine-nozzle back massage.

Wenbiao, the taciturn eldest brother who is on disability from a state-owned factory, found the move far more difficult. He lives amid stacked suitcases in a relative's cramped house, another building scheduled for demolition. No longer able to afford China's capital, Wenbiao decided last month to move to Inner Mongolia, where he spent the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) growing wheat and potatoes.

He has bought a simple brick house with an outhouse and a garden filled with corn, in a city filled with bankrupt, abandoned factories.

"I'm bitter about this," Wenbiao said of leaving the capital. "People who have good economic circumstances all choose to live in Beijing."

The youngest brother, Wenju, the cab driver, has struggled as well. He had worked for a state-run wool factory until it collapsed. With income of $240 a month, he can't afford mortgage payments, and his wife is ill. These days, he sleeps on a couch in a relative's house on the outskirts of Beijing.

The brothers, once close, now speak only by phone. They reveal little to one another. Until recently, Wencong kept secret his proudest achievement: the purchase of his modern, two-bedroom apartment. Wenbiao, the eldest, won't discuss his housing problems; he fears Wencong will think he wants money.

Why stay silent?

"This is my principle," said Wenbiao, sitting on a folding stool in his temporary home in the alleys just west of the area called Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party's leadership compound.

"He's afraid to be looked down upon by others," said his wife, Qian Lihua, who often speaks for both of them.

In the old days, it was hard for people to look down on one another because most people's livelihoods were pretty much the same. The government provided citizens with low-paying jobs for life. Housing, health care and education were essentially free. Theft was rare, because most people had nothing worth stealing.

In 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the profit motive and jump-started China's economy. In the ensuing years, some 200 million Chinese rose out of absolute poverty, defined by the World Bank as subsistence on less than $1 a day.

At no other time in human history have so many people seen their living conditions improve so quickly.

While many prospered under early economic reforms, millions are now falling behind as the government continues to lay off workers from failing state companies. In two decades, China has gone from being one of the world's most egalitarian societies to one of the most polarized.

Full Blossom Lane and the surviving alleys that surround it are a throwback to the old days, an island of Beijing's rich street culture and socialist-era equality, increasingly at odds with the five-star hotels, luxury department stores and office towers that have sprouted nearby. Most residents are laid-off government workers or retirees on meager pensions from state companies.

Mornings begin amid the ringing of bicycle bells as students in matching blue and white sweat suits ride to school past gray brick walls that line the alley. Grandmothers in black cloth slippers push baby carriages to a street market to pick up their daily cabbage, turnips and tomatoes.

"Sticky rice! Sticky rice!" yells a man in a white baker's hat, hawking the Chinese specialty from the back of his three-wheel, flat-bed bike. Other salesmen ride by at a languid pace, offering to fluff old quilts or take away cardboard boxes.

After school, boys mark out goals with bricks and the narrow lane echoes with the bounce of soccer balls. Residents sip green tea from glass jars, play Chinese chess and gossip. Neighbors lean on one another for help. Youngsters walk elderly people to a nearby hospital or bring pork dishes and bowls of rice to the ill. If a child strays from home, someone is certain to know his whereabouts.

Changing fortunes

The Gong brothers grew up in a warren of tiny rooms just off the lane. When Mao in the mid-1960s launched the Cultural Revolution, a disastrous experiment in social engineering, they followed orders and left home to work as farmers.

By the time of the economic reforms of the 1980s, the Gongs' fortunes began to diverge. The widest gap developed between Wenbiao, the eldest, a creature of Mao's China, and Wencong, a creature of Deng's.

Wencong straddles ancient and modern China as though there were no contradictions. At home, he lounges in a white cotton vest, pajama pants and slippers, looking like an extra in a Qing dynasty period piece. On the street, he prefers a blue polo shirt and blue slacks with a cell phone hanging from his belt.

Reflecting on his life and his city, he sees nothing but progress.

"Tell Americans how much Chinese people's living standards have risen," he said, standing in the parking lot of his new apartment complex, where he insists the temperature is five degrees lower than downtown.

"You should buy a house here," he added, shifting naturally into sales mode. "Get a car. You can drive anywhere."

While Wencong's outlook always seems sunny, Wenbiao's is perpetually overcast.

The eldest of the three brothers always looks as if he has just risen from a sleepless night. Streaked with gray, his hair lies permanently pasted across his forehead over red-rimmed eyes and a day's growth of beard. He putters around the kitchen, shirtless in a pair of white cotton pants with the legs rolled up to the knees to beat the heat.

After the demolition of the family house, Wenbiao held fast to tradition in his temporary home along Helping Each Other alley. Outside his front door sat two hunks of limestone sprouting tufts of moss -- his modest reminder of a classic Chinese garden. Each morning, as was customary in old Beijing, he walked to a park and hung his bird cages from tree branches so his finches could breathe fresh air.

Wenbiao returned from Inner Mongolia in the mid-1980s to find that his brother's lifestyle had surpassed his own. Wenbiao took a low-paying job keeping an eye on fish at a reservoir. Wencong was working as a food company clerk and had already saved enough to buy a television set and a refrigerator -- among the first in the neighborhood.

When Wenbiao's son asked permission to watch television with Wencong's family, his father was too proud to say yes.

As the business district developed near Full Blossom Lane, Wencong's family took jobs there; his wife as an accountant at the Wonton Monkey, a restaurant specializing in wonton soup; his 19-year-old son tending bar at the four-star Novotel Hotel.

Before his retirement, Wencong worked 13-hour days as a wholesale buyer of cucumbers, tomatoes, turnips and potatoes for an outdoor market.

Although Wencong insisted he never engaged in graft, which is rampant throughout Chinese society, he noted that such jobs are gold mines for less scrupulous people. A buyer simply obtains inflated receipts from produce sellers, he explained, and then pockets the extra money he is reimbursed.

Wencong's family eventually saved $22,000, more than enough for the down payment on their new, $34,000 apartment and furnishings.

As China's economy took off, Wenbiao's family stood still. His wife worked as a hotel maid but quit after three years because she found it too tiring. That was in 1993.

Wenbiao retired four years ago from a state-run factory that made meat tenderizer and draws $30 a month in disability for a congenital heart problem. Both he and his wife long for the days when Chinese people were more equal.

"When people are all poor, they are closer," said Qian, Wenbiao's wife. "Nobody cared what we did or if we had jobs or how we made money."

"Everybody had a formal job at a state-owned enterprise," she said. "Now more people are laid off, or more people do jobs of their own choosing. People are farther and farther from each other."

Breaking with the past

Wencong's new home sits on the fourth floor of a midrise apartment complex, just outside the flight path to the capital's international airport and about an hour's drive from downtown. White plastic chairs line the fence around a new tennis court. A deep pit will soon be a swimming pool.

Wencong dotes on the apartment as if it were a favored child. The master bedroom alone is about half the size of his old house. A wooden column destined to support a divider made of pebbled glass stands in the living room. "The designer told me this is the Roman style," said Wencong, the beaming suburbanite.

Nothing, though, captures the journey from Full Blossom Lane to the suburbs better than his new bathroom. On winter nights, Wencong used to put on a heavy jacket and pad across the lane in his slippers to a public toilet where he would squat over a trench. His apartment's bathroom is drenched in white tiles adorned with moons and stars. There is a glass shower stall, a sit-down toilet and more.

On a pair of wall tiles is the color image of a naked Chinese woman, lying on a fluffy white rug. In a fluid economy where people can go from a foul-smelling outhouse one month to a gleaming porcelain commode the next, taste has no boundaries.

"I went to the tile shop and I saw they had some photographs to go with the tiles, so I just got one," Wencong said.

While Wencong furnished his apartment, his brothers continued to tread water.

Wenju, the youngest, spent 12 to 14 hours a day in his little red cab, returning after dark to the home of his wife's uncle on the edge of lettuce fields southeast of the city. Indentured to the cab company by a $6,000 taxi deposit and a $600-a-month rental fee, he cannot afford to buy a new house.

On the west side of town, Wenbiao faced stark choices. He wanted to buy a house in the countryside, but feared developers would eventually knock that down, too. As a last resort, he decided to return to the provinces where he had toiled as a farmer.

Wencong knew his older brother was struggling but attributed Wenbiao's problems to his failure to adapt to a changing China.

"My brother and I are different," said Wencong, a rare touch of sadness in his voice. "He's backward. He doesn't understand the economy. He couldn't adapt his mind."

Of the three brothers, Wencong was the only one who had not returned to see what remains of Full Blossom Lane. He was looking forward, not back.

"The conditions in Full Blossom cannot compare to this," he grinned standing amid piles of sweet-scented sawdust that littered his partly renovated apartment.

"There is nothing to miss."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad